First and 10: Tua's injury could set up most fascinating Playoff debate yet
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Here we go again. Another ankle injury for Tua Tagovailoa, another pause of uncertainty for Alabama.
Only this time, the ramifications run much deeper. The LSU game, the SEC West Division, the College Football Playoff — and all the way to Tagovailoa’s postseason plans.
Tagovailoa will miss this week’s game against Arkansas, but understand this: We’re talking about a high ankle sprain, a significant injury that typically takes multiple weeks to heal.
More disturbing: High ankle sprains never completely heal until extended time off, and are highly susceptible to reinjure.
“These things are unpredictable,” Tide coach Nick Saban said Monday.
Make no mistake, Tagovailoa will be dealing with the injury the rest of the season, just like last year when a high ankle sprain on the other leg in the second half of the season was an injury through January.
That leaves Alabama in a precarious situation with backup quarterback Mac Jones. The obvious: He’s not Tagovailoa. He’s a guy who can manage games but can’t win them, and a quarterback who is limited in the passing game.
This is a problem on multiple fronts because Alabama’s offense is built around the passing game. Shaky blocking for much of the season has prevented the run game from fully developing.
All of that likely means little as long as Tagovailoa only misses this week’s game against Arkansas. If the uncertainty extends to a Nov. 9 game against LSU in Tuscaloosa, that’s a significant problem.
The time frame from the injury to preparation for LSU game week (Monday, Nov. 4) is 15 days to heal a high ankle sprain. Do that math, that’s likely not doable.
That means Tagovailoa would play against LSU – far and away the best team Alabama will have played this season – on an ankle that probably won’t be fully healed. His mobility will be limited and his ability to drive the ball, will, too.
Last year, Jalen Hurts was waiting if needed. This season, after Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, it’s Mac Jones.
So where does Alabama go from here against LSU? It begins with protection. Fewer receivers in routes, and more max protection to prevent Tagovailoa from getting hit and further damaging the ankle.
That, in turn, puts pressure on Alabama’s top 2 or 3 receivers to win consistently on the outside – and the line to produce clean pockets because the ability to scramble and throw on the run accurately (a significant part of Tagovailoa’s game) will be reduced or eliminated depending on how he has healed.
None of that, of course, takes into account the Alabama defense’s ability to slow LSU’s point-a-minute offense. The Alabama defense hasn’t played to the level of previous Saban defenses and hasn’t faced an offense remotely close to what LSU will bring to Tuscaloosa.
Last year in the LSU game, Tagovailoa’s injured ankle wasn’t a factor in the 29-0 win because the LSU offense couldn’t move the ball on Alabama. That won’t be the case this time around.
This time, the ramifications of an injured ankle run much deeper.
2. How did we get here?
Somehow the team that annually recruits better than anyone began a season without a legitimate backup quarterback. How, you ask?
Simple: With Tagovailoa and Hurts on the roster the previous 2 seasons, elite quarterbacks simply weren’t going to sign with the Tide. Saban can recruit elite linemen and skill players to sit behind others, but that’s not how it works with quarterbacks in this era of Play Me Or I Leave.
Alabama does have Taulia Tagovailoa, a former 4-star recruit and Tua’s younger brother. He’s more talented than Jones but doesn’t have the experience or knowledge of the offense that Jones has.
Taulia will get repetitions in practice this week because he has to be ready to run a limited offense in case Jones is injured. If Jones struggles against Arkansas like he did against Tennessee – 72 yards on 6 completions, only 3 completions to receivers and 1 of those a screen pass – don’t be surprised of Taulia plays against the Hogs.
Either way, one of the two – Jones or Taulia – must be ready to play in less than 3 weeks when LSU arrives. There’s no guarantee Tua will be completely healthy (odds are he won’t be but will play), and there’s no guarantee he won’t reinjure the ankle.
3. A cloudy future
Let’s say LSU beats Alabama in a close game with Tagovailoa playing – but he’s injured and gutting it out. The Tide then wins out, and finishes 11-1 but doesn’t reach the SEC Championship Game.
That leaves the College Football Playoff committee with a perplexing decision.
With a healthy Tagovailoa, Alabama is as good or better than any team in the nation.
With a semi-healthy Tagovailoa, Alabama loses a close game to the No. 1 team in the nation (which LSU will be).
Does the CFP committee take into consideration what Alabama is with a healthy Tagovailoa when picking the 4 teams for the Playoff?
An 11-1 Alabama résumé is better than unbeaten Clemson and Oklahoma – especially if that 1 loss is excused because of the Tagovailoa injury.
Would the committee choose 1-loss Alabama over an unbeaten Power 5 conference champion? Doubtful, but remember the committee chooses the 4 best teams – not the 4 best conference champions.
Another thing to consider: If that scenario plays out and Alabama doesn’t reach the Playoff, Tagovailoa will have an important decision to make. Does he play in a meaningless New Year’s 6 bowl game and risk further injury as the potential No. 1 overall pick? It would be financially reckless if he did.
4. Meanwhile, back at Auburn
Of course the Tua injury affects Auburn – because everything Alabama does impacts Auburn whether Auburn Man likes it or not.
Watch how fast the world changes on The Plains if Auburn goes into LSU this weekend as an 11-point underdog and beats the Tigers. A season that looked shaky at best after the humbling emasculation at Florida then becomes clear and concise: Beat struggling Georgia and beat who knows what Alabama is by the end of November, and find yourself in a rematch with Florida or Georgia in the SEC Championship Game with a chance to win and move on to the CFP.
Auburn is slowly building an identity on offense while its stout defense is keeping it in games. The Tigers made a few tweaks in the bye week before last weekend’s rout of Arkansas, and none was more important than moving WR Anthony Schwartz – the fastest player in college football – from split end to flanker to get him and speedy WR Seth Williams on the field together. Before last week, both played split end and rarely played on the field at the same time.
The idea at Arkansas wasn’t exactly groundbreaking: force defenses to choose which speedy receiver to double cover. If you double both, that leaves 7 defenders vs. Auburn’s downhill run game – odds that are highly in Auburn’s favor.
Williams caught 4 passes for 90 yards and 2 TDs vs. Arkansas, and Schwartz caught 6 for 73 and a 1 TD. And now the LSU defense – which already this season has been exposed by different teams in specific run and pass sets – has more to think about with Auburn.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Mississippi State at Texas A&M (-11.5)
- Auburn at LSU (-11)
- South Carolina (-3.5) at Tennessee
- Arkansas at Alabama (-34)
- Missouri (-9.5) at Kentucky
Last week: 3-2 (.600)
Season: 19-22 (.463)
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down one of the top players in the SEC. This week: South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw.
“He has redefined who he is since he arrived at South Carolina a couple of years ago. He was fat and out of shape and didn’t want to work. Then he dropped half a person and reshaped his body, and now he’s full of potential.
“He’s a leader on the defense, other players look up to him and his work ethic is unquestioned. I’ve watched him chase plays clear across the field – and make the play.
“He’s such a strong and powerful guy that you wouldn’t think he’d be that quick or that twitchy. His big issue is improving fundamentally. He plays too high, and his hands need work. By that, I mean he needs to find different ways to get off blocks other than physically manhandling the guy across from him. Because in our league, every dude is as physically imposing. Maybe not 6-feet-6 like Javon, but certainly brute force.
“He has come a long way – a looong way – since his junior college days. He’s going to light up personal workouts and the Combine, and that will make someone overdraft him. But I really like him. With the right coaching and development, he can be a 10-year guy.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one big thing):
1. LSU: Don’t let LSU’s slow start in Starkville fool you. It was a classic trap game. Watch how quickly they start against Auburn in Death Valley.
2. Alabama: After the Tennessee game, we know this: The defense is what it is – which is to say, not anything like previous Alabama defenses.
3. Georgia: There’s just no fire in the belly of this team. If they can’t get juiced with a week off, and a game against bitter rival Florida in 2 weeks, a season of championship hopes is lost.
4. Florida: It’s late October and the Gators have split SEC West games and will be playing a game of significance in the World’s Largest Cocktail Party. Basically, right on schedule.
5. Auburn: The game plan is simple: Run the ball, keep the LSU offense off the field. Yeah, well, Florida tried that, too.
6. Missouri: At the end of the season – no matter what happens – Missouri will look back on an ugly loss to Vanderbilt as worse than the season-opening stink bomb at Wyoming. Two inexplicable (and unforgivable) losses with so much on the line.
7. Texas A&M: This team looks like it’s resigned to going through the motions. Not a good sign in mid-October.
8. South Carolina: Forget about officials. If QB Ryan Hilinski continues to struggle with accuracy, Will Muschamp will lose to Tennessee for the 1st time as a head coach (7-0 vs. Vols at Florida and South Carolina).
9. Ole Miss: Three 1-possession losses already this season, and last week vs. Texas A&M might have been the worst – because it will have prevented the Rebels from playing in the postseason and earning 15 extra practices.
10. Tennessee: The Vols lost to their 2 biggest rivals (Florida and Alabama) by a combined 69-16 – and the Gators and Tide played backup quarterbacks for a combined 6 ½ of the 8 quarters.
11. Mississippi State: Much like last season, Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead has figured out the quarterback spot. And like last year, it’s too late to make a difference.
12. Kentucky: UK is 1-4 since QB Terry Wilson was lost for the season with a knee injury, and the only win is vs. a truly terrible Arkansas team. In those 5 games, UK has scored 65 points.
13. Vanderbilt: Derek Mason made one huge mistake in an otherwise sparkling post-game rant: No, “everyone” doesn’t want the Vanderbilt job.
14. Arkansas: Imagine a world where Mac Jones doesn’t take care of the ball and a couple of interceptions and a couple of strip sacks lead to a wild 4th quarter game in Tuscaloosa.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Please tell me my Gators aren’t going to break my heart in Jacksonville. I don’t want to make that long drive and have to deal with that on the long drive back Sunday.
Peter: There’s something different about this team, and it has everything to do with QB Kyle Trask. The Gators have taken to Trask’s personality, and haven’t gotten too high or too low. Last year, they were all over the board while taking cues from QB Feleipe Franks and his inconsistencies.
One NFL scout told me Trask, “looks like he’s taking a final exam out there. Everything he does is measured. He knows how one play will impact the next, and so on. Franks was one of those guys who thought, ‘OK, I can change everything with this one play, this perfect throw.’ No, you can’t. Every single play matters at that position.”
Long story short: Trask gives this Gators team the ability to beat anyone. And by anyone, I mean LSU or Alabama or Georgia. Or any other team outside the SEC, for that matter.
As long as the defense is completely healthy, Trask can be the difference in just about any game.
9. Numbers game
4. Even after the mess that coach Jeremy Pruitt has wrought, every remaining game on the schedule is winnable for Tennessee. Win 4 of the 5 – vs. South Carolina, vs. UAB, at Kentucky, at Missouri, vs. Vanderbilt – and reach the postseason to gain those valuable extra practices for young players (see: QB Brian Maurer). Win all 5 and find yourself in a nice bowl game with a ton of momentum for 2020.
Now, the problem: All 5 games are also losable. Considering the dysfunction we’ve seen from Tennessee this fall, odds are the Vols won’t reach 6 wins. In fact, it’s more likely that this team doesn’t reach last year’s win total (5).
10. Quote to note
Georgia TB D’Andre Swift to Jeff Schultz of The Athletic: “We’re going to do what we need to do to win the games, and if people don’t like what we’re doing, then they shouldn’t come to the games.”