TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama will move on next season without its star quarterback and leader, Tua Tagovailoa, who announced on Monday that he will skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
A generational talent with a flair for the dramatic, he leaves behind an unrivaled legacy that began in the most unimaginable way: the lefty from Hawaii coming off the bench as a true freshman and leading his team to a come-from-behind win over Georgia for the national championship two seasons ago. That game-winning touchdown in overtime set off a career of jaw-dropping moments.
And while there’s no doubt this farewell stings for Crimson Tide fans, it’s not one that is either sudden or unexpected. Even considering the long recovery from major hip surgery that awaits him, Tagovailoa is projected to be a top-10 pick.
Moving on won’t be easy for Alabama, but it’s a process that began the moment Tagovailoa fell to the turf at Mississippi State seven weeks ago. Redshirt sophomore Mac Jones took the reins at quarterback that afternoon, and everything changed.
Losing the Iron Bowl to Auburn and missing out on the playoff hurt, but the team didn’t fold.
If you tuned in on New Year’s Day, you saw that.
The Vrbo Citrus Bowl in Orlando last week was meant to be a statement game for Alabama, but not necessarily a statement directed at Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who has been something of a pain in the side of Nick Saban ever since he returned to college football five years ago.
OK, so maybe that last-second touchdown by Najee Harris, running up the score rather than running out the clock, felt a little personal. But don’t get too hung up on that right now. In the greater context of the season and the future of the program, it meant absolutely nothing.
Rather, go back and watch a video Alabama’s social-media team shared just before kickoff. The clip showed Thomas Fletcher on the field, encircled by teammates, including Jones. The veteran long-snapper is calm and resolute as he tells everyone to play for one another one last time and, “Prove to everybody we ain’t supposed to be here.”
“We ain’t never going to be here again,” Fletcher said. “Prove that to ’em right now.”
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) January 1, 2020
This was a game about re-establishing a culture that had slipped in losses to Auburn and LSU, Saban told reporters afterward. While a lot of people might think going 10-2 during the regular season was an accomplishment, Saban said, “That’s not necessarily our standard.”
Instead, the Alabama standard is about making the playoff and competing for a national championship, as it had for five straight seasons until now. And by beating Michigan 35-16 and dominating both sides of the ball during the second half, there was the sense leaving Orlando that the program had just taken a step back in that direction.
“How they finish the season … that culture carries over into next season,” Saban said.
But which players would be around to carry it?
Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and offensive lineman Jedrick Wills Jr. have already announced they will not return for their senior seasons. And like Tagovailoa, those decisions weren’t altogether unexpected.
What was unexpected is that Alex Leatherwood wouldn’t be joining them, as the All-SEC first-team offensive tackle and projected top-25 draft pick announced he would be coming back to school. Another surprise: middle linebacker and former Butkus Award finalist Dylan Moses said he was in for one more year, too.
Moses’ return solidifies a defense and specifically a linebacker corps that was in desperate need of his talent and leadership this past season as he was out recovering from knee surgery.
“Next season isn’t about draft stock or money,” Moses wrote in his draft announcement, “it’s about grinding with my brothers and winning another national title.
“We have unfinished business to take care of,” Leatherwood wrote.
Those words must have been music to the ears of Jones, who replaced the injured Tagovailoa at quarterback, starting four games. The redshirt sophomore whom many had forgotten played well when thrust into action, going 3-1 and throwing a combined 13 touchdowns and two interceptions.
He’s no Tua Tagovailoa, but come on. Who is?
Jones won’t have to be Superman next season if he indeed retains the starting job. And there are other options if he fails, whether that’s Tagovailoa’s younger bother, Taulia, or incoming freshman Bryce Young, who is the No. 1-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 Class. Maybe the transfer portal comes into play.
Whoever is at quarterback, he’ll have some experience on the offensive line thanks to Leatherwood’s return, at least one running back coming back with experience in Brian Robinson, and he’ll have an older, wiser Jaylen Waddle to throw the ball to.
Waddle didn’t get the hype of Jeudy for most of the past two seasons, but he’s every bit as electric with the ball in his hands. His performance (four touchdowns) against Auburn is a scary sign of things to come for the SEC next season.
Shortly after Tagovailoa’s announcement, wide receiver DeVonta Smith posted a video on social media saying he would be returning. It was another huge win for Alabama as Smith caught a team-high 14 touchdowns this season. Fellow star WR Henry Ruggs III had yet to make an announcement.
Helping the passing game will be the likely return of quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who led the team to the No. 2 scoring offense in the country at 47.2 points per game.
In fact, the lack of turnover on the coaching staff compared to the past two seasons can’t help but be a positive for the program.
Each of the last two offseasons Alabama has had to replace its offensive and defensive coordinators, along with a number of assistants. And you started to see that wear on Saban. In a documentary by HBO, he lamented to Bill Belichick the way his former assistants have gone on to become head coaches at places like Tennessee and Georgia only to then turn around and hire guys from his staff.
“When they get those jobs — and in most cases you helped them — that they have a hard time understanding why they can’t take your people,” he said. “I’m going to help you get a job so you can take what I’ve tried to build here and destroy the continuity of what I have. And it’s amazing how some of the assistants don’t understand why that’s not a good thing.”
Even with former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin coming back to the SEC as the head coach at Ole Miss, there hasn’t been a mass exodus from Tuscaloosa.
Whether that continues, time will tell.
For now, though, the dynasty Saban has built and maintained over the past decade is still standing.
Losing Tagovailoa hurts, but he leaves behind a roster that’s still talented and eager for more. It’s a team that, despite its faults, clearly feels it has something to prove.