Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
By now, you’ve heard the earth-shattering college football news.
As first reported by The Athletic’s Aaron Suttles, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is done for the season after he suffered a dislocated hip with a posterior wall fracture late in the first half of Saturday’s 38-7 win over Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium.
Alabama later confirmed Tagovailoa will be out for the season and stated he will undergo further testing on the injury, per AL.com’s Matt Zenitz.
I’m no medical professional, so far be it from me to speculate on how long it will take the projected first-round draft pick to recover. It sounds similar to the injury that ended Bo Jackson’s football career in 1991, but hopefully it’s not as severe and the medical advancements of the past three decades will be enough to bring him back to full health soon.
While we await further news on Tagovailoa’s health, life must go on for Alabama football.
Before we look to the future, though, we must address the second-guessing that ran rampant as soon as Tagovailoa went down: Why was he even playing in a 35-7 game?
ESPN’s Molly McGrath asked Alabama head coach Nick Saban about that at halftime and was told the Tide wanted to give him one more series to run the two-minute offense before he turned it over to Mac Jones in the second half.
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
For a healthy quarterback, it’s standard practice to at least let him play until halftime, no matter the margin.
Ohio State’s Justin Fields played until it was 42-0 at the intermission against Maryland last week, and he didn’t come out of this week’s blowout of Rutgers until he staked the Buckeyes to a 42-7 lead early in the third quarter. Similarly, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence was still out there when the Tigers took a 45-3 lead over Wake Forest midway through the third quarter.
Tagovailoa wasn’t healthy, though.
He’s less than a month removed from an ankle surgery that cost him one game and left him at clearly less than full strength by the end of last week’s slugfest against LSU. He was listed as questionable before Saturday’s game against Mississippi State—though, seriously, who thought he wouldn’t play?—and if there was ever a time to play it safe with a quarterback who built a four-touchdown lead before halftime, this was it.
The problem is Alabama’s path to the College Football Playoff was largely predicated on looking dominant with a healthy Tagovailoa.
Based solely on strength of schedule and resume, there would never have been a compelling argument that 11-1 Alabama deserved to get in over a one-loss Big 12 or Pac-12 champion. Aside from the season finale against Auburn, the Crimson Tide will likely end up without a single win over a CFP Top 25 team.
What Alabama needed to do was blow out Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn—just like it blew out the first seven opponents with a healthy Tagovailoa—and then hope the selection committee felt the close call against LSU was a forgivable loss, given the quarterback situation.
I made this argument even before the LSU game, but it was similar to what transpired with Duke basketball last season. Star player Zion Williamson missed a few games late in the season with a knee injury, and Duke lost a couple of the games it played without him, but he came back so strong for the ACC tournament that the selection committee basically ignored what happened while he was hurt and awarded the Blue Devils a No. 1 seed.
Up until the awkward tackle that presumably ended Tagovailoa’s college career, Alabama was following that script perfectly.
He had completed each of his first nine passes and led the Crimson Tide to touchdowns on each of their first five possessions. He threw for 256 yards and a pair of scores while Najee Harris took care of the rest. Tagovailoa looked right as rain as Alabama was beating the snot out of a division rival that was playing at home and desperately trying to stay in the mix for a bowl game.
Perhaps Saban pushed his luck a bit too far, but he knew the stakes. When your argument for the playoff hinges on style points, a 42-point first half looks better than a 35-point one. And in his defense, a fluke injury occurred rather than the ankle trouble they were worried about aggravating. (Although, you could make the case that it’s because his ankle wasn’t quite right that he couldn’t get away from that pressure.)
So, where does Alabama go from here?
For starters, it’s the Mac Jones Show now, and we’ll find out in two weeks’ time whether that’s OK.
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
He was more than competent in Tagovailoa’s stead against Arkansas three weeks ago, completing 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns. However, a home game against Arkansas—and next week’s home game against Western Carolina—can hardly be considered a proper warm-up for the Iron Bowl on the road.
With weapons such as Harris, Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith Jr. and Henry Ruggs III at his disposal, though, Jones doesn’t exactly need to look like a Heisman Trophy candidate to succeed. He could have the type of day that Georgia’s Jake Fromm just had against Auburn (13-of-28, 110 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT), and that could be enough for the win.
But if that’s the kind of performance Jones has against the Tigers, Alabama needs help now in the form of losses by other CFP contenders, because all those Tagovailoa-fueled style points just went out the window.
If 11-1 Georgia beats 12-0 LSU in the SEC championship, Alabama would finish behind both of those teams and almost certainly miss the playoff.
If Saturday night’s Baylor-Oklahoma winner goes on to win its next three games, too, that team will likely leapfrog the Crimson Tide. If Oregon and Utah are both 11-1 in the Pac-12 championship, the winner of that game also possibly moves ahead of Alabama.
Factor in the likelihood that Clemson will finish 13-0 and the possibility of a Big Ten scenario in which Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota all finish 11-1 before the Nittany Lions get revenge over the Golden Gophers in the conference championship, and there’s a legitimate scenario in which Alabama wins out and still finishes No. 8 in the CFP rankings.
Tagovailoa or not, this was always a possibility—an ideal one for anyone hoping for playoff expansion as soon as possible, for what it’s worth. But without the quarterback who was certain to be a Heisman finalist if he had stayed healthy, the argument to include Alabama in spite of its resume just doesn’t pack the same punch.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.