The arm wrestling for the NCAA’s college football playoff spots continues to be hot with Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Clemson ranked in the top four by the Associated Press this week.
With a little more than a month to go in the season, any misstep or malady can swing open the door, maybe even so wide Oklahoma or Penn State can nose their way in once others fail and fall.
That’s what makes the news out of Tuscaloosa somewhat troubling for the Crimson Tide program.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the catalyst of one national champion and one finalist over the last two seasons, is going to be out for the foreseeable future after having ankle surgery on Monday.
Tagovailoa suffered a high-ankle sprain during last weekend’s win over Tennessee and it didn’t take long for the Tide’s medical staff to decide he needed surgery to correct it. He was operated on last Sunday.
The quarterback has been relegated to non-weight bearing activities for at least a week before he can begin rehab. And on Monday, Alabama coach Nick Saban confirmed the worst fear of the fanbase by saying there’s no timetable for Tagovailoa’s return.
“We’re hopeful that in a 10-day period, he’ll be back being able to do active-type rehab, and we’ll see how it goes from there,” said Saban. “But these things are pretty unpredictable at this point.”
Injuries are not new for Tagovailoa, who again will be one of the finalists for the Heisman Trophy. In fact, they heavily impacted the lefthander during the final weeks of the 2018 season.
Tagovailoa had to leave last year’s SEC Championship game against Georgia because of his other ankle, leaving it to veteran Jalen Hurts to rally the team to victory. After the game, Tagovailoa had similar surgery and missed four weeks of practice prior to the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.
Of course, Hurts is no longer at Alabama. He’s off trying to win the national championship with Oklahoma. So Tagovailoa’s replacement will be redshirt sophomore Mac Jones. Jones stood in for Tagovailoa at the end of the Tennessee game and threw for 72 yards.
No one is particularly worried about Saturday’s home game against Arkansas, likely the worst team in the SEC this season. But after a week off, flares are already being lit for the showdown against LSU in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9.
If Alabama has to play that game without their starting quarterback, it could end up seriously hurting their postseason prospects.
“I think with Mac it’s not a matter of arm talent or ability, it’s staying focused and being able to execute on a consistent basis and make good choices and decisions and not think about it too much and just take what the defense gives,” said Saban. “When he’s done that he’s been very, very effective and that’s what we’ve worked with him on throughout the season. And for the most part he’s done a pretty good job of that.”
Ironically, Tagovailoa’s younger brother, Taulia, a true freshman, is now Jones’ backup and it wouldn’t be surprising if Saban calls on him at some point of what should be a rout against the Razorbacks.
There have been reports Tua’s injury is far worse than Saban has let on, which wouldn’t be unusual for a coach with Belichickian tendencies when it comes to disseminating information. If that is the case, you can imagine how narrow is the cliff the Tide now stands on.
After sitting out a month following his surgery last season, Tagovailoa came back strong in the national semifinal game against Oklahoma. He was 24-of-27 for 318 yards and four touchdowns.
But the calendar and circumstances are much different. What if LSU beats Alabama and the Tide fails to qualify for the SEC Championship game? Who knows, it might relegate the team to a New Year’s Day bowl game.
The loss of Tagovailoa means Alabama will be without the quarterback who leads the FBS in quarterback rating (95.6) and had thrown for 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Tagovailoa, who currently leads the FBS in QBR (95.6), has thrown 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He has 2,166 yards passing and is 21-1 as a starter.
Let’s speculate for a moment: Suppose Jones struggles against Arkansas and Alabama’s victory is more hard-fought than anyone anticipates it will be. Would the voters in the AP poll hold that against it if LSU batters Auburn to win its third game against a Top 10 opponent?
Tagovailoa’s injury could lead to Alabama’s first loss to LSU since 2011 and that’s something not even subsequent wins over Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn could make up for.
It’s amazing how much now depends on the rehabilitation of Tagovailoa’s ankle. It can change the entire face of the sport from here to the national championship.