ATLANTA — The unknown is now known. The boy with a name few can spell and even fewer pronounce became a star before a nation’s eyes, the latest wunderkind in a program full of them.
Tua Tagovailoa guided Alabama to a national championship, hitting classmate Devonta Smith for a 41-yard touchdown on the Crimson Tide’s second offensive play in overtime for a 26-23 victory against Georgia.
“We practice throughout the year,” Tagovailoa said. “We go in with the ones sometimes. Us freshmen, we go in with the ones sometimes. We trade reps with the ones. We go in with the twos. And I think preparation leading up to this point has been the key thing with our offensive coaches helping us throughout the process.”
The touchdown to Smith was the third of Tagovailoa’s brilliant night. He completed 14 of 24 second-half passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns, resurrecting a dying Alabama offense.
The heroics surprised no one. Not the man he replaced. Not Najee Harris, the roommate who led the team in rushing. Not his other classmate, to whom he tossed the game-winning score.
“When I saw him get the signal, I looked at Tua and said, ‘Trust me, bro,’” Smith said. “And he nodded his head. And when I saw they were in cover-2 I knew I had a chance.”
“That’s what we see every day with Tua.”
The clamors for the five-star Hawaiian prodigy, which flowed incessantly despite starter Jalen Hurts’ 25 wins in 27 starts, were validated.
Message boards, onlookers, frustrated fans — all of them clamored all season for this switch, once considered blasphemy against Hurts, a team’s stoic leader who’d commanded game-winning drives and led the Tide to the precipice of a national championship in his first collegiate season.
Replacing him with a true freshman with no experience required injury or reason. Desperation yields ample reason.
One year later, Alabama was back in the situation that created the program’s singular motivation for this season— avenging what occurred in south Florida against Clemson last year. Its first 30 minutes mirrored that game, a gassed defense that could not be rested by a sputtering offense.
Five of Alabama’s six first-half third downs were not converted. Three were incompletions by Hurts. The fourth was a puzzling playcall — a zone-read with Josh Jacobs on third-and-15 near midfield in a game Alabama only trailed 6-0.
It yielded five yards and, perhaps, revealed insight into the team’s confidence level in its quarterback.
“We came out slow and made the change and it was probably best for the team,” Hurts said. “We won, we’re national champs, and you can’t wish for anything better than that.”
In stepped Tagovailoa. He had not attempted a pass against a FBS opponent since October.
Monday, he won a national championship, coach Nick Saban’s fifth as the Crimson Tide’s coach and sixth in his illustrious career. Saban tied Paul “Bear” Bryant, the man who established the program Saban guided to unforeseen heights.
To do it required this bold move.
Saban turned to Tagovailoa to begin the second half. He’d last played against an FBS team in October, completing nine passes against the tattered remnants of Butch Jones’ final Tennessee team. Reports swirled before the Sugar Bowl he was “likely” to play.
They were never validated.
The time arrived Monday. For just the third time in Saban’s 11-year Crimson Tide tenure, the team did not score in the first half. It ran 24 plays and gained 94 yards. Thirty-one were on one Hurts run, a sliver of competency the Crimson Tide refused to continue.
“We've had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said. “No disrespect to Jalen, but the real thought was, you know, they came into the game thinking we were going to run the ball and be able to run quarterback runs, which we made a couple of explosive plays on. But with the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays and being able to convert on third down, I just didn't feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.”
On his second drive, Tagovailoa directed a seven-play, 56-yard march, extended when he reversed field on a nine-yard, third-and-seven run and capped when he hit classmate Henry Ruggs III for the Tide’s first touchdown.
He’d later guide consecutive drives of 71, 66 and 48 yards, off which the Tide scored 10 points, clawing back in a game it once trailed 20-7 and allowing its depleted defense to rest.
That defense, one that looked refurbished and rejuvenated against Clemson, defaulted to its November maladies in the first half. It permitted six third-down conversions, allowing Georgia and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to run 47 plays in the first 20 minutes.
Three of Alabama’s final five first-half possessions lasted three plays. One lasted four. The last was a kneeldown, sending the Tide into the locker room trailing 13-0.
Saban delivered a rousing speech, one linebacker Rashaan Evans said was the “turning point.” Sometime before, he pulled the two quarterbacks aside.
“He just said at halftime we’re going to play two quarterbacks,” Hurts said.
“(Tua) got hot and he stayed in and won the game for us.”