MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The most scrutinized ankle in College Football Playoff history bounced around the grass of Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida just fine on Saturday night. It shifted and sprinted and generated more than enough power to carry Alabama past Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl and on to a fourth consecutive national championship appearance, in which the Crimson Tide will face a familiar opponent in the Clemson Tigers.
If Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his much-discussed left ankle weren't 100 percent, that's a scary thought, because he was nothing short of dominant during a 45-34 semifinal win over the Sooners. If you didn't know any better, you might think he was trying to send a message to the Heisman Trophy voters when he completed a nearly picture-perfect 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
This was the virtuoso quarterback everyone had pegged as the Heisman winner for most of the season, not the injured sophomore who struggled during the SEC championship game earlier this month and slipped into second place in the voting behind Oklahoma's Kyler Murray. This was the quarterback who got knocked around all season long and kept coming back stronger to show why he is considered by many to be the most gifted passer in the sport.
Tagovailoa hurt his knee multiple times this season, to the point that he had to leave the field against Missouri, LSU and Mississippi State. But every time, he seemed unfazed. On each occasion, he would sit up, shake it off and with a smile insist everything was going to be just fine.
That unflinching belief he showed publicly was exactly how he was behind the scenes, as well, according to Alabama athletic trainer Jeff Allen. Tagovailoa would say how he thought he owed it to his teammates to be on the gridiron. Even the day after his surgery to repair the high-ankle sprain he suffered against Georgia, Tagovailoa told Allen, "I have to get back to help our team."
"With Tua, what you see is what you get," Allen told ESPN last week. "He's incredibly positive."
Thanks to a relatively new procedure developed for injuries such as the high-ankle sprain Tagovailoa suffered in the SEC title game against Georgia, he had a chance to come back. Screws and metal brackets and an eight-week timeline had been replaced in recent years by something called a "tightrope" device that secured the fibula and tibia and cut the typical recovery timeline in half. A lot of things had to go right to avoid a setback, but there had been two Alabama players in the past who were able to play two weeks after such a surgery.
Which is why, a few days after Tagovailoa's procedure and knowing full well that every minute of rehab would count, Allen took the extraordinary step of accompanying the star quarterback on the awards circuit -- with a trunk full of medical supplies. In hotel rooms in Atlanta and New York City, Allen unloaded an array of equipment: an electric stimulator; an ultrasound instrument; a cryogenic compression machine; and a NormaTec device, which is a bootlike apparatus that pulses to stimulate recovery.
Twelve days after going under the knife -- and maneuvering the awards shows on a medical scooter -- Tagovailoa was back at practice. He moved around in the pocket, stepped into throws and looked very much like he was himself again.
"Great athletes recover quickly," Allen said. "I can't explain it. I don't know what it is about them, but they heal differently than the rest of the population. And there's no doubt he falls into that category."
You saw it against Oklahoma. There is something special about this kid. He looked, for lack of a better word, superhuman. Alabama's Hawaiian prince carved up the Sooners, anticipating windows in the defense before they appeared and putting the ball right on the money time and time again. He even scrambled for a few hard-fought yards with former Miami Dolphins quarterback and Hall of Famer Dan Marino in attendance.
But it wasn't just the play of Tagovailoa that put his second-place Heisman finish into question. The Alabama defense did its part to knock some shine off Murray's bronze trophy, as well, throwing around the undersized, fourth-year junior early as the game quickly got away from Oklahoma.
Murray was good. He just wasn't good enough. He would make a handful of spectacular plays, throwing for 308 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but it was too little, too late.
Alabama made a statement: It had the better quarterback, the better defense and the better team.
Now, the Crimson Tide must turn their sights to a familiar foe in the College Football Playoff National Championship: Clemson. The game, which will be held in Santa Clara, California, on Jan. 7, will be the fourth consecutive time the two programs have met in the playoff.
Last year, Alabama didn't need Tagovailoa to upend Clemson in the semifinals round.
This time, whether it's the play of backup Jalen Hurts or the status of his own left ankle, there doesn't appear to be anything capable of keeping Tagovailoa off the field.