Alex ScarboroughESPN Staff Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The jig is up.
Even Nick Saban couldn’t hide from what the world saw on Saturday night in Orlando. From the moment Tua Tagovailoa took the field as Alabama’s starting quarterback against Louisville, it was all too obvious: the arm strength, the accuracy, the field vision, the moxie. Not only had he not lost a step from his star-turn performance during the national championship against Georgia in January, he built upon it. He threw two touchdowns, ran for another and vaulted straight to the top of the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Oh, and by the way, he also wrestled the position away from Jalen Hurts in the process. There was no denying that anymore. Not even Saban bothered to participate in that months-long song and dance when he took to the podium on Monday after rewatching game film and seeing Tagovailoa and Hurts side-by-side.
Second-and-26 trumped 26-2. Finally.
“Everyone knows that Tua is going to start and we’re going to use Jalen’s skill set in the future,” Saban said.
And with that — as Saban half-sarcastically told reporters of the decision, “So now we know and you know” — the floodgates opened.
There will be a lot of questions to ask about the latter part of that statement. How much will Hurts play? Will he be used primarily as a running threat? And what about the possibility of playing in four games or less, redshirting and maintaining the year of eligibility?
As we wait on those answers, the focus has to be on what Alabama will become with Tagovailoa at the helm. More dynamic, certainly. But to what degree? Hanging 51 points on Louisville can’t be the norm, can it? Senior center Ross Pierschbacher was asked after the game about Tagovailoa’s performance and said matter-of-factly, “That’s just Tua, we’ve seen it before.”
Alabama has tended to use a more conservative, complementary passing game under Saban. Tagovailoa is not that, though. You can retire the old Saban slur of “game manager.” Tagovailoa is the guy who will spin out of pressure, scan the field and not think twice before trying to make something happen.
Don’t believe it? Go watch his first touchdown pass against Louisville again. Most quarterbacks would have thrown that ball away. Instead, Tagovailoa found Jerry Jeudy in the end zone for six. It was borderline absurd.
Jeudy was an afterthought last season, overshadowed by the lunar eclipse that was Calvin Ridley and the running game. But now, with Tagovailoa capable of spreading the ball around beyond his primary target, Jeudy and the rest of a forgotten receiver corps look like a problem for opposing defenses. DeVonta Smith made a couple nice plays against Louisville and Henry Ruggs III has shown flashes. True freshman Jaylen Waddle has the look of a playmaker as well.
“We’ve got a lot of different, young, explosive players, a lot of different weapons, so we can do a lot of things on offense,” Pierschbacher said. “And I think (offensive coordinator Mike Locksley) recognizes that, tries to utilize that and get the ball to all the playmakers he has and use that to our advantage — fast and let’s roll.”
With a strong running game that features 1,000-yard rusher Damien Harris and goes four-deep with the likes of Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson, what is a defensive coordinator to do? Hide? Let’s not forget that Tagovailoa can tuck the ball and run it in a pinch, too.
There’s obviously a lot still left for Tagovailoa to prove. No one should be calling him the next Dan Marino or Steve Young at this point. He hasn’t even played a true road game yet, for instance. But after what we saw in the national championship game and then again on Saturday, there’s enough evidence there to project what Alabama’s offense could be with him at quarterback full-time.
Remember, it was enough for Saban to unseat a quarterback who won SEC Offensive Player of the Year, led his team to two national championship games and started 28 consecutive games overall, which is no small task. There was no reason for Saban to rush the decision, and the fact that he named Tagovailoa the starter after only one-and-a-half games says a lot.
Barring something extraordinary, the Jalen Hurts Era at Alabama has ended. It’s Tua’s time now.