The power of Tua Tagovailoa, the megastar redefining Alabama’s dynasty
Tua Tagovailoa hop-stepped out of the tunnel at Neyland Stadium before being ushered toward the brick wall near Tennessee’s checkered end zone. There, a hoard or reporters and camera operators swarmed in and formed a semi-circle that closed so tight around him an Alabama staffer had to intervene.
“Give him space to get in,” he shouted. “Give me space to get out of here, jeez.”
The reporters laughed at the quip while Tagovailoa surveyed the scene. The lights on the cameras brightened and the wind continued to whip around the now-empty stadium. The Alabama quarterback was the show after the show, in which put up 306 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 58-21 blowout against Tennessee. This was a rare opportunity to speak with the best player in college football.
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“Hello, everybody,” he said. The laughter instantly turned to silence.
That is the power of Tua.
There’s nothing else like it in college football right now. It started on Jan. 8 when he engineered the second-half comeback in last year’s College Football Playoff championship game; a 26-23 victory against Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. It has since snowballed through an eight-week stretch this season in which No. 1 Alabama (8-0) outscored opponents 165-31 in the first quarter alone.
Tagovailoa has piled up 2,066 passing yards, 25 touchdown and no interceptions, but he hasn’t let that hype — whether it’s Heisman or greatest-team-ever-talk — distort Alabama’s goals moving into another telling November for the Crimson Tide. That continues with Saturday’s showdown at No. 4 LSU (7-1).
“We didn’t execute as well as we wanted to offensively,” Tagovailoa said after the victory against Tennessee. “I think we had two or three drives where we didn’t give the defense time to regroup or whatnot. This is where we go back to the drawing board and work on what we missed.”
What could this quarterback possibly miss? Alabama leads the FBS with 54.1 points a game and has a chance at tying — or breaking — the FBS record of 56.0 points per game, set by Army in 1944.
The Crimson Tide’s offense is every bit as intimidating now as the Black Knights’ must have been then. Army had two Heisman Trophy winners in Doc Blanchard (Mr. Inside) and Glenn Davis (Mr. Outside). Now, Alabama has a quarterback who exploits every angle in Tagovailoa, who has yet to throw a fourth-quarter pass this season. When he’s on the field, it’s one big play after another, a sequence that unfolds so fast it’s tough to keep track. The Crimson Tide led Tennessee 28-0 with 3:31 still left to play in the first quarter.
The Alabama dynasty under Nick Saban is typically a ground-and-pound python. In 2018, that python transformed into a fire-breathing dragon, spitting flames — one vertical shot at a time — across college football. Tagovailoa is the conductor of an offense that will stay in the greatest-of-all-time-conversation if this trend continues. The Ewa Beach, Hawaii, native fends off what his coach would call “rat poison” in a more casual tone. He instead recycles the phrase “back to the drawing board.”
“I don’t even know if he realizes what they’re doing and why we’re all sitting here saying, ‘Dude, you’re scoring 54 a game and it could be 84 a game,'” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit told Sporting News. “You have to give Nick Saban credit. They’re working hard not to score 100 on people. They could have easily scored 100 points in every game they’ve played to this point.”
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In this process, Tagovailoa has come to embody some of the most noticeable traits from some of college football’s most popular superstars of the millennium — a combination of Heisman winners in Florida’s Tim Tebow, Auburn’s Cam Newton and USC’s Matt Leinart.
Tebow and Newton were the charismatic leaders of national championship teams at the height of the SEC’s power in the Bowl Championship Series. Leinart’s different in that he was the leader of what was considered the dominant college football dynasty at the time. Tagovailoa is the best of both worlds in the College Football Playoff era.
Likability. Stats. Steward of the college football dynasty. He checks all those boxes.
That is the power of Tua.
“There’s a demeanor that is probably different than anybody we’ve ever had,” FOX analyst Charles Davis told SN. “With Tebow, obviously he was a fiery-type leader and one of the best leaders you would ever see. Newton was more of the expressive sort. Leinart wasn’t quite as expressive, but he played in that L.A. atmosphere and loved being part of that scene.
“This kid, it’s like Cushman in ‘Jerry Maguire:’ ‘I just want to play football.’ It’s certainly working out for him.”
It’s fitting Davis references a movie when talking about Tagovailoa, because it’s that championship game where his script begins. Well, maybe a few days before that.
“I went to a lot of bowl practices last year with Alabama, and while Jalen Hurts was the (starting) quarterback I would see Tua in a lot of two-minute drills against the first-unit defense looking like he looks every Saturday now,” Herbstreit said. “When he came in against Georgia, I wasn’t shocked because I’d seen him execute it in practice.”
The opening act was unforgettable. Tagovailoa replaced Hurts at halftime and led the Crimson Tide to a comeback victory. Tagovailoa’s signature play in that performance was the game-ending, game-winning 41-yard touchdown strike to DeVonta Smith on second-and-26 in overtime. How do you top that play?
“That game-winning touchdown throw was as fundamentally sound a throw as a quarterback can make,” Davis said. “In the heat of a national championship game, to lock that safety down with your head and eye movement knowing you’re coming to the outside portion of the field, then sticking it on (the receiver) like that?
“Now we’ve seen nothing but that since he’s been a starter. It’s ridiculous.”
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That didn’t seem possible two days before the game. Tagovailoa managed to evade reporters for most of the hour-long session at championship game media day. He was finally cornered that day after posing for promos with the CFP trophy. As part of a spot with KHON-Channel 2 in Honolulu, Tagovailoa was asked about the opportunity Alabama had against Georgia.
“It’s a good opportunity for our offense to go against the best and show the world. …”
Tagovailoa trailed off, perhaps not knowing he’d be the one to take advantage of that opportunity. He was then asked about what he learned from Hurts and gave a quick-hit answer.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “From his freshman year to his sophomore year as far as reads and his progressions, I’ve learned from those plays and mistakes.”
We’re seeing now what Tagovailoa learned then — though it’s hard to spot too many mistakes.
It resembles a season we saw from another SEC quarterback in 2007.
Tim Tebow caught up with Tagovailoa before the College Football Playoff championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The two-time national champion at Florida remains the all-time SEC leader in total touchdowns (145). He left that conversation with a strong impression of Tagovailoa.
“I’m so impressed with Tua,” Tebow told SN. “Just how focused he was and how humble he is. He told me, ‘You know what? I’ll get my shot when it’s the right opportunity. God has a plan, and I’m trusting it.'”
That personal conviction should sound familiar. Tagovailoa, like Tebow, is upfront about his faith and even wears eye-black crosses on his face. Tebow wore eye-black inscribed with the passage “John, 3:16” while at Florida. On the field, Tebow said Tagovailoa’s accuracy — he’s completing 70.4 percent of his passes — stems from an ability to throw a catchable ball. In Tebow’s words, it’s “literally like a loaf of bread.”
“I think Tua has an uncanny ability to feel what’s going on around him,” Tebow said. “I haven’t seen many people that can do it like that, with the ability to feel pressure, step up and throw from all sorts of angles and be extremely deadly accurate like that. It’s almost like he’s playing a ‘Madden’ game and he can see all 22 on the field. A lot of other quarterbacks can just see who they are looking at.”
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Tagovailoa also shares the same contagious leadership qualities on an SEC powerhouse. He mediates with receivers before games, picturing offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s game plan. The result could be seen at Tennessee: Tagovailoa threw touchdown passes to Jaylen Waddle, Jerry Jeudy, Irv Smith Jr. and Henry Ruggs III. The Crimson Tide rushed for 218 yards on top of that against the Volunteers.
“That’s just a result of the playmakers we have at the position, and he knows that,” Ruggs said. “He trusts every one of us from things we do at practice and off the field. Any time the ball can go anywhere, and we know that.”
Tebow sees all that, but he sees the other side, too.
“He’s humble and he’s very kind, but don’t get it twisted,” Tebow said. “In the big moments, you see Tua rise up with something special. He’s got that competitive fire as well, and that mixture is very scary.”
That should sound familiar, too: like another SEC quarterback who put together one of the greatest single seasons of all time.
Cam Newton was asked about Tagovailoa at the Carolina Panthers’ weekly news conference on Oct. 24. The former Auburn quarterback and 2010 national champion found just enough to pay a rival school’s quarterback a compliment.
“I forgot the team he plays for,” Newton joked. “But yeah, I’ve been paying attention to him. He’s a good player. … He’s very fun to watch.”
That’s as far as Newton would go, but the comparisons land here, too. Perhaps no quarterback this decade was more fun to watch than Newton, who enjoyed arguably the greatest single season of all time. He passed for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns, rushed for 1,473 yards and 20 more and added a receiving touchdown for good measure.
Newton also had a flair for the highlight-reel play, such as the 49-yard touchdown run in which he sprinted past LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, or that 26-yard touchdown catch against Ole Miss.
Tagovailoa has second-and-26, but he added another one of those plays against the Volunteers. He dropped back, noticed pressure to his left from Tennessee’s Shy Tuttle, stepped up to avoid the sack and floated a perfectly placed ball to Jaylen Waddle over two Tennessee defenders. Waddle caught it in stride and streaked to a 77-yard touchdown. It’s amazing, no matter how many times you watch it.
Tua is special.
It’s literally impossible to throw a football better than this. pic.twitter.com/pR6Jiwj37X
It’s even more amazing when you hear Tagovailoa say that wasn’t the first option.
“That was a shot play and Waddle came across,” Tagovailoa said, moving his eyes as if he was re-reading the progression. “Their safety poached, but he kind of poached too far over and they left Waddle open. That play was more for Jerry Jeudy but Waddle was open. So, it ended up being to him for a touchdown.”
He says a “touchdown” in a matter-of-fact tone. Like Newton, any Tagovailoa play can go the distance, and chances are that play will end up on a highlight reel.
That’s why Alabama is in position to win yet another national championship. That, of course, is reminiscent of yet another quarterback who reveled in the challenge of leading a dynasty.
Matt Leinart was the quarterback through the height of the Pete Carroll era at USC from 2003-05. The Trojans ran off a 34-game win streak that included back-to-back national championships in 2003-04 before a loss to Texas in an all-time great Rose Bowl in 2006. USC had an aura of invincibility under coach Carroll by the time Leinart was a senior — and there’s a similar dynamic in Tuscaloosa now.
Imagine the pressure of playing for Saban — a coach who has won five of his six national championships at Alabama and has a chance to break the tie with legendary coach Bear Bryant on the next one. With Tagovailoa, the talk about this being the Crimson Tide’s best team yet was already real. Herbstreit remembers what he said when the quarterback battle with Hurts and Tagovailoa unfolded in fall camp.
“When Tua won the job, I made the comment that the next two years will be the best Alabama teams that Nick Saban has ever had with Tua at quarterback,” Herbstreit said. “What I’m seeing, I hate to say I’m not surprised, but I’m really not surprised.”
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That odd dynamic between Saban and Tagovailoa, which was first visible in the aftermath of last year’s championship game, continues to grow each week. They have also managed to create a sizable role for Hurts, who gets plenty of reps and continues to thrive in a backup role.
Tennessee was simply the next victim. And while there are still questions — Alabama will face its stiffest test against LSU and Tagovailoa’s knee will be watched every time he’s hit — Saban sees a player who continues to immerse himself in “The Process.”
“Tua is a really positive guy,” Saban said after the Tennessee game. “He’s driven to be a really good player, so he’s trying to do all the things that he can to improve and get better. He doesn’t get satisfied very easily, and I think that’s key to being able to overcome adversity when you have it. I think he’s done a good job with that.”
Now, the challenge for Tagovailoa is to handle that hype both on and off the field for the rest of his career. The leadership, statistics and burden of leading the No. 1 team in the nation are every-week referendums at Alabama, and it won’t stop once his college playing days are over. Tebow and Leinart managed to win multiple national championships, but neither emerged as a franchise quarterback in the NFL. Newton went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and was named NFL MVP while leading the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance in 2015.
Tebow believes Tagovailoa will be able to handle that at every level.
“I’m just like, ‘Man, this kid has an amazing head on his shoulders,'” Tebow said. “He’s handled it with grace and humility, and his teammates know that.”
That is the key: That is the place the sophomore quarterback continues to point whenever he is cornered. That is where the challenge of accomplishing those goals starts. That is where those first-quarter explosions are born. As simple as it sounds, that is the place where Tagovailoa says the power comes from.
“It’s more so what we do in practice. That’s how you gain respect within our guys. It’s what you can show them within practice, “Tagovailoa said. “I don’t do as much talking with them. Just being able to go out there, executing and them understanding this is what I have, this is what I’ve got to do. If we all work together to do it, it’s going to work for the benefit of us.”
Tagovailoa went on to compliment LSU’s defense and answer a few more questions before being asked to quantify one more time what it’s like being at the controls of the most entertaining and prolific offense in college football.
“I’m very confident,” Tagovailoa said. “It makes it more fun. Things are so much more fun when you don’t have one person to throw to. When you have guys at running back that can make plays for you as well, I mean this is — this is … “
He trailed off one more time before finishing that sentence.
“This is just fun out here.”
A few minutes later, that interview wrapped up and the semi-circle opened for the quarterback. Tagovailoa thanked the reporters, exiting through the crease and disappearing into the tunnel with the cameras, wind and everything else behind. He leaves everyone wanting more. There is at least a season-and-a-third more of this, and we’re still waiting for his first full show.
That is the power of Tua. Enjoy every second while it’s still here.
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