TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No matter how many times the final two plays of the College Football Playoff National Championship have been replayed within the Alabama football offices this offseason, they still don't make sense.
One play, Tua Tagovailoa appears lost, scrambling wildly before committing the cardinal sin of taking a sack and a loss of 16 yards on first down in overtime. Down by three points, backed out of comfortable field goal range at the 41-yard line, it's a complete disaster. But the freshman quarterback does the unthinkable on the next play: Calmly, he takes the shotgun snap, steps up in the pocket and fires a picturesque, game-winning touchdown pass for a 26-23 win.
Confetti falls from the rafters. The trophy is lifted. All is forgiven. But Alabama's coaches can't forget. The 35 seconds from the moment Tagovailoa hit the turf to the moment that fateful touchdown pass left his hand is as concerning as it is inspiring. It's agonizing, really, the wrench thrown into one of the most high-profile and high-stakes quarterback battles in recent memory.
Should head coach Nick Saban ride the momentum and the promise of Tagovailoa, a wild card with zero career starts? Or should he stick with Jalen Hurts, the quarterback who started the title game, who threw only one interception all season and has a 26-2 career record, but also serious questions about his ability to throw the football with consistency?
"I can promise you he's not going to be leveraged by anybody on either side." Source close to Nick Saban
"A great moment doesn't make a great season," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney warned. "It's a different deal when you're the guy. Everything matters."
Everyone seems to have an opinion on what Saban should do. The Tagovailoa and Hurts camps want a decision, and would like one quickly, as they consider their long-term plans. But the 66-year-old Saban isn't in a rush. If anything, he sees the problem he has as a good one.
"It's better to have two quarterbacks than none," he said.
The plan is simple: Ignore the noise, split the first-team reps down the middle when fall camp begins Friday and let their play decide the outcome.
"I can promise you he's not going to be leveraged by anybody on either side," a source close to Saban said. "You're talking about a guy who parted ways with his offensive coordinator [Lane Kiffin] the week before the national championship game, and then the next year, the same guy who benched his starter and turned to a true freshman quarterback who hadn't played a meaningful snap all season in the second half of the national championship game. He's not going to be afraid to make the decision he feels like he needs to make."
How did we get here?
Alabama's quarterback battle didn't begin the moment Saban benched Hurts at halftime of the national championship game. Not really. What happened against Georgia, when Tagovailoa became an overnight sensation, only served to pour lighter fluid on an already simmering situation.
Inside the Alabama coaching offices, Hurts' hold on the starting job had become increasingly unstable over the course of the previous year. Despite winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors as a true freshman in 2016, he hadn't shown significant progress as a passer. The offense had become stagnant and, according to multiple sources, skill players had grown frustrated with Hurts' inability to spread the ball around.
Granted, the offense was still effective in most games with Hurts running the ball, but its one-dimensional nature left the potential for exploitation against higher-quality defenses. Case in point: Alabama's only two losses over the course of the last two seasons came to Auburn and Clemson, two teams loaded with defensive line talent that finished in the top 11 nationally in scoring defense in each of the past two years.
Meanwhile, Tagovailoa captured the attention of coaches in practice with his arm strength and accuracy. It was as if the lefty from Hawaii had eyes on the sides of his head, he had such a good feel for the pass rush.
While Saban sticking with Hurts as the starter wasn't necessarily a surprise because of his experience, the fact that Tagovailoa's role was limited solely to mop-up duty was. Of the seven games during the regular season in which Tagovailoa attempted at least one pass, all were blowouts of 18 points or more.
However, there was confidence among coaches that Tagovailoa was ready for the big stage.
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"Hurts was undefeated before the Auburn game," said one former staffer. "I don't care how tight the other guy's spirals are. You don't pull an undefeated quarterback for an unknown one. But things ramped up with all the free time after the loss to Auburn."
The Tide still made the College Football Playoff despite a 26-14 loss to their rival in the regular-season finale. In the lead-up to their semifinal game against Clemson, Hurts fell ill and was forced to miss several days of practice. Tagovailoa received all of the first-team reps as a result, and the practices were some of the best for the offense all season. As one former coach put it, "I don't think the ball hit the ground."
The plan was to play Tagovailoa some against Clemson, sources confirmed, and it was discussed among coaches during the game when might be the best time to put him in. But even with Hurts struggling to get anything going in the passing game, it became apparent that Clemson wasn't going to move the ball against Alabama's defense, and coaches ultimately decided to keep Tagovailoa on the sideline, fearing a change might affect Hurts' psyche for the championship game.
Feeling let down, the Tagovailoa family expressed its frustration with the situation and, internally, came to a decision: If Tagovailoa didn't play against Georgia, he was going to seriously explore transferring.
During the ESPN MegaCast Coaches Film Room broadcast, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said that he couldn't have predicted Saban benching Hurts at halftime, let alone in favor of a true freshman quarterback with no meaningful experience.
"In there, when we weren't on television, we were surprised," Gundy said months later. "Everybody was like, 'Would you do that? I don't know if I'd do that. Would you do it? I don't know.' So we were a little bit shocked."
Since winning the game's Offensive MVP award that night, Tagovailoa has become the toast of Tuscaloosa. He gave a pregame speech to the Alabama women's basketball team and delivered the first serve at an Alabama men's tennis match. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook gave him 10-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy, trailing only Stanford's Bryce Love (5-1) and Wisconsin' Jonathan Taylor (7-1), even though Hurts hadn't yet been technically dethroned as the starter.
But for anyone who didn't think it was an actual competition, all they needed to do was see Tagovailoa return to practice in the spring, only a few days after breaking a finger in his throwing hand. After all, who risks further injury if they're a sure thing? At the spring game, despite being unable to play, Tagovailoa dressed in full pads.
The same morning, in a move that wasn't seen as a coincidence by some, his brother, 2019 quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, verbally committed to Alabama on the steps of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Despite Tagovailoa's absence, however, Hurts failed to capitalize on having the stage to himself, completing 19 of 37 passes for 195 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
It should be said that despite the competition and the whirlwind surrounding them, Hurts and Tagovailoa aren't bitter enemies. They're quite supportive of one another. Tagovailoa never let his chagrin over a lack of playing time during the regular season affect his relationship with Hurts, whom he thanked for showing him the ropes as a true freshman. And when Tagovailoa supplanted Hurts in the title game, no one in the Alabama locker room was happier for Tagovailoa than Hurts, who told reporters that his understudy was "built for this."
Alabama offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher said that if he had a dollar for every time he has been asked about his team's quarterback situation this offseason, he'd have enough money to retire. He never could have ever envisioned this situation a year ago, saying that if he had been told then that Hurts would eventually be battling for his job he would have said, "You're crazy."
"It's a testament to recruiting and just bringing in a lot of talented guys," Pierschbacher explained. "Really, at Alabama, your position is never safe, regardless of who you are."
Can Hurts and Tagovailoa coexist?
Make no mistake: If Hurts were to become available on the transfer market, he would be a hot commodity. A proven winner with 61 touchdowns in two seasons, suitors would be lining up at his door. It's not just that he can run, one head coach said of Hurts, "but he also sees the field and has a great arm."
That's why his father, Averion, wasn't necessarily wrong when he told Bleacher Report this spring that his son would be "the biggest free agent in college football history" if he were to transfer. But while transferring certainly is an option for Hurts, it has never been a threat. Before the article was published, Averion met with Saban one-on-one to tell him that they were content to let the competition play out rather than leave early. If a difficult decision had to be made, then so be it, but that would only happen after a starter was named.
Shortly after the article was released, Averion called to reiterate to Saban that nothing had changed from their previous conversation. What went largely unsaid at that time, though, was that Tagovailoa was in a similar situation. Intimating the possibility of transferring, he told people he didn't want to go through another season as the backup.
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In June, new legislation paved the way for both quarterbacks to coexist: The NCAA would now allow players to compete in up to four games while still retaining the ability to redshirt. So if Saban wanted to carry the competition into the first few games of the season -- as he has done time and time again in the past -- he is now free to do that without either quarterback losing a valuable year of eligibility.
The new rule doesn't solve every problem, of course. Should the competition last two games, for instance, managing the remaining two games for the backup would be paramount. An injury of any kind would create tremendous pressure to burn the redshirt, weighing the quarterback's future versus the needs of the team.
When former East Carolina quarterback Gardner Minshew flipped his commitment from Alabama to Washington State in the spring, it removed what would have been a valuable safety net in terms of depth at the position. While Mac Jones has shown improvement, he's still a redshirt freshman with no experience. The only other scholarship quarterback on the roster is Layne Hatcher, an unranked prospect previously committed to Arkansas State.
Heading into fall camp, the momentum to win the job is squarely with Tagovailoa. But Hurts hasn't been counted out yet. After Saban said at SEC media days that he had "no idea" whether Hurts would be part of the roster to start the season, Hurts met with him to say he wasn't leaving and that his plan, regardless of his playing situation, would be to stay and graduate in December.
"I think Jalen will rise in this competition," said a former Alabama staffer, "and maybe it's given him even new life."
Another former Alabama staffer said that he thinks first-year offensive coordinator Mike Locksley could be good for Hurts and would actually call a game that's better suited for his skill set.
"The players know Tua is a better passer, but they also trust Jalen," the former staffer said. "It's a good problem to have, one a lot of coaches would love to have, and that's what has separated Alabama under Saban, his ability to create competition at every position and the players buying into that competition."
What will Saban do?
As for Saban, what he hoped would be a private matter has become far too public for comfort.
Averion's comments caused a stir, of course, but the attention paid to Tagovailoa wasn't ideal, either. In May, Tagovailoa's hometown in Hawaii threw him what was billed as a four-hour "Hometown Hero Parade." And even though media rarely are granted contact with Crimson Tide players outside of practice, two local outlets made the trip and secured one-on-one interviews with Tagovailoa and his family during the week of celebration.
Prior to the start of camp, Saban attempted to stymie any more unwanted headlines.
"The one thing I've talked to both kids about is that they can't go into this ... with the attitude, 'If I don't win the job, then I'm going to transfer,'" Saban said. "If that's the case, then you're not totally committed to what you're supposed to do. You're ready to cut and run as a competitor before you ever start? That ain't good. Now, neither kid has said that, but you've got other people saying it."
Saban said he has relayed a similar message to the families of both players as well.
"The one thing I've talked to both kids about is that they can't go into this ... with the attitude, 'If I don't win the job, then I'm going to transfer.' If that's the case, then you're not totally committed to what you're supposed to do. You're ready to cut and run as a competitor before you ever start? That ain't good. Now, neither kid has said that, but you've got other people saying it."Nick Saban
"You are ruining your son's ability to be the leader of the team when you make any kind of these statements because the other kids see it as self-promotion," he told the parents. "The guy who's going to be our quarterback is the guy who wins the team. It's the way it's always been. We're going to let it play out on the practice field."
But perhaps more intriguing than Saban's management of the narrative surrounding the competition is the internal predicament he faces as a coach. The position battle, arguably the most important of his career, isn't just a question of experience and talent. It's also a matter of style that could rewrite his M.O. as a head coach of more than 20 years.
Saban, who has won five national championships at Alabama and one at LSU, has long valued a quarterback with experience that he can trust to take care of the offense -- a "game manager," as he has often said. And in Hurts, there's no question he has just that. Hurts rarely turns the ball over, and his leadership has been evident from the moment he started as a true freshman.
The allure of Tagovailoa, on the other hand, is undeniable. He's perhaps the most talented thrower Saban has ever had. Despite his lack of experience, despite his sometimes reckless choices with the football, he has the potential to unlock the Alabama offense, incorporating more pass-catchers and opening up a downfield attack that has been missing.
"I told them both, 'The more that you can do in your performance, your leadership, how you affect other people, the relationships you have on the team and the confidence that you develop in other players in your ability to distribute the ball, because that's what the quarterback is -- the distribution center of the ball -- then that's the guy who's going to have the best opportunity to win the team," Saban said.
While some in and around the program have already pinned Tagovailoa as the favorite to win the job, Saban hasn't made up his mind. He has seen too many things go sideways during his career -- too many fluke injuries, too many momentum swings -- to predict the future.
He need only to look back to the championship game to remember how quickly things can change.