When Tua Tagovailoa limped off field in the second half of the SEC Championship Game against Georgia three weeks ago, one might have thought the Heisman Trophy finalist was at the end of his gilded season after throwing 37 touchdown passes.
We saw Jalen Hurts replace him and pay the debt he incurred in last season’s national championship game against the Bulldogs. Remember? That’s when Tagovailoa strolled in and led the Crimson Tide to its overtime victory.
There was an even greater sense of dread when Tagovailoa had surgery to repair his high-ankle sprain the morning after the game. You figured not even the advancement of orthopedic surgery would be enough to heal him in time for the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma on Dec. 29.
And then we heard this: “I’ll probably be 100 percent by the time the game comes,” said Tagovailoa earlier this week.
The glass was half-full.
In the weeks since surgery, rumors have been flying about his status. There have been reports indicating he might play, he wouldn’t play and if he did play it would be a struggle.
Speculation is the nature of the nation’s news media. But no one from Alabama’s program had said a word about it, certainly not head coach Nick Saban, the clearing house which distributes everything crimson and white.
Football players have also been known for their incredible pain tolerance. They spit on injuries, wrap them in gauze, find a comfortable cast and take a Tylenol or two. And then they go out and play. Tagovailoa hurt himself in the first quarter of the SEC title game and persevered until the fourth. True grit.
But when Tagovailoa came to New York for the Heisman ceremony, he’d been traveling around campus in walking boot and on a scooter to protect the injury. Instinct indicated he was done and the team would be back in the hands of Hurts.
Still, it’s no surprise Alabama’s ignition switch believes he’ll ready by kickoff of the semifinal, also known as the Orange Bowl, and see if he can help the Tide outscore perhaps then nation’s most prolific offense, led by Heisman winner, Kyler Murray.
Tagovailoa said he should be ready to run through an entire practice by Monday, six days before the game. As of this moment, he’s capable of doing everything but move laterally.
“There’s nothing that’s hindering me too much,” he said.
As you would imagine, the news thrills Saban. Like all football coaches, he loves control, being 10 steps ahead of things. He had great teacher, a guy named Belichick. But the pace of healing is beyond even his purview. It’s way below his pay grade.
“He’s already going 100 percent on the gravity treadmill,” said Saban. “So, he’s been able to practice and he’s made really, really good progress. So, we’re encouraged by that.”
Tagovailoa regrets trying to tough it out against Georgia. It was clear he was struggling. He threw two interceptions and Alabama fell behind. Had Hurts not thrown a TD pass and muscled his way to the game-winning score, the Tide’s perfect season would have washed ashore.
“Jalen got his opportunity and Jalen did an awesome job,” said Tagovailoa.
If you’re looking for a conclusion about it all, it’s not likely to come until Alabama takes the field for its first series. Tagovailoa might aggravate the injury between now and then without anyone knowing it. And you what, it’s even possible Saban might blow smoke to keep Oklahoma guessing.
Just look at what’s happening with the Sooners. Head coach Lincoln Riley hasn’t said much of anything about receiver Marquise Brown, one of his top go-to guys. Brown banged up his ankle in the Big 12 Championship on Dec. 1.
If Brown’s reaction was any indication, it looked like he was seriously hurt. He appeared to be crying, before and while being taken off the field on a cart.
The day after the injury, Riley told ESPN he was hopeful Brown could play against Alabama, a slight downgrade from his earlier prognosis that he would.
“We’ve got a great medical team and we’ll fight hard to try to get him back,” Riley said. “If we can that’s certainly great. He’s a dynamic player. But if he doesn’t, I think we were able to show yesterday that we’ve got guys that are more than capable of stepping in and making the big plays that we’ve come to expect from Marquise.”
Sooner fans are thinking he’d better play. Brown leads the team with 75 receptions for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 18 yards a catch. Oklahoma would be hindered without him.
So, what’s the deal with Brown? Will he play? How effective would he be? Only Riley knows. Or maybe he still doesn’t. But why give Saban the advantage of advance notice. That’s not how the game is played, another credo of Belichick.
A little more than a week before the game, the news Tagovailoa looks ready to play is the best Alabama fans can get. It’s a positive sign, an indication there still is hope. And that’s better than nothing.