At half-time of Monday night’s national championship game, I was left with a thought that I hadn’t ever had watching an Alabama football game in Nick Saban’s tenure.
At that point, Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs had bullied the Tide, taking a 13-0 lead into the locker room at the half, and that lead could have been even bigger. Alabama had no answers offensively, as sophomore QB Jalen Hurts had completed just three of his eight pass attempts for only 28 yards with another eight rushes for 47 yards. He had missed a wide open Calvin Ridley in the end zone on the Tide’s first drive, which eventually led to a missed field goal.
It seemed that the injuries, along with the mass exodus of talent that Alabama annually has, had finally caught up to them. Then, coming out of half-time, Saban made a switch at quarterback, taking out Hurts in favor of true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. Saban had won plenty last year with Hurts as a true freshman, but they fell short on the biggest stage. And, even in starting Hurts last season, the Tide were still built upon a foundation of mauling opponents with the running game, and then allowing Hurts to make high percentage, quick throws, nibbling away at the perimeters of the defense until someone made a mistake.
That wasn’t the case Monday night. After a quick three-and-out with the first series under Tagovailoa featured a QB run, quick pass to the flat to a tight end and a sack, Brian Daboll opened up the playbook. The first play of Alabama’s next possession saw Tua fire a deep ball just past the outstretched hands of Calvin Ridley. He then completed four straight passes with a pair of runs mixed in as ‘Bama marched down the field for their first score of the night and the comeback was on.
As expected, Tagovailoa made some freshman mistakes, forcing a ball that turned into an interception, taking a massive sack in overtime that backed the Tide up, out of field goal range, and put them in a 2nd-and-26. Then, he did this.
In the end, Tagovailoa came in and cut loose 24 passes, completing 14 for 161 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t the only freshman to go off. In fact, freshmen led the Tide in passing (Tagovailoa), rushing (Najee Harris), and receiving yards (Devonta Smith) with a fourth being 2nd in catches (Henry Ruggs III). We know Saban always signs top recruiting classes, and freshmen can at times break into the starting line-up and make a big impact. But one like this? On the biggest stage? We haven’t seen that from a Saban team before.
The defense certainly played a big role, shutting down Georgia in the second half, allowing just seven points, which came on an 80-yard touchdown pass from fellow freshman Jake Fromm to wide receiver Mecole Hardiman. But the freshman on offense were the stars of the night, giving life to a team that seemed dead in the water at half.
Nick Saban has won five championships with the Tide, but none of those teams had a QB that was this precocious, this young. If those freshmen develop the way many have within the Tide program, when will the dynasty end? Alabama is loaded, and they may have just found the piece of the puzzle that they’ve never really had, an elite-level quarterback.