The biggest name in college football heading into this season was Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and for good reason: It’s not every day that a true freshman quarterback is throw into the national title game at halftime and wins the dang thing on a walk-off touchdown throw. Sure, Tagovailoa made some mistakes during the game — the play before he found DeVonta Smith for the game winner, he was sacked for a loss of 15 yards — but he played well on the whole, and again, came in as a sub and won a national title in overtime.
However, anyone saying Tagovailoa was the Heisman favorite or a frontrunner or anything like that before the year started was a bit premature. This is because it presupposed two things:
1. Tagovailoa was going to be as good now that there is tape on what he’d do against defenses with NFL-caliber talent, and …
2. Nick Saban was going to let Tagovailoa start and be Tua Tagovailoa.
The first thing is kind of easy to understand — any element of surprise to Tagovailoa’s game is now out the window, although that takes away from the fact that he was still really good in the title game. Plus, you know, he plays quarterback for Alabama, so he is surrounded by a collection of the best talent the sport has to offer. He is throwing to four- and five-star players, and is getting blocked by four- and five-star players, because the Crimson Tide are the college football manifestation of death, and there is nothing any mortal can do to stave off the inevitability that is death Alabama winning.
The thing with quarterbacks and Alabama, though, is that Saban has never really had someone like Tagovailoa. Sure, he’s had plenty of guys who could throw and run, but the thing with Saban is he understands that the Crimson Tide are inherently better than everyone else. It has led to him embracing conservatism from his quarterbacks — Alabama has always preferred smart quarterback play over everything else, someone who can give the ball to running backs and make high-percentage throws and ride that wave to winning games.
Tagovailoa represents a departure from that, as he has shown a willingness to take those risks. He’ll dance around and extend plays, looking for the home run ball over the pass to a tight end that goes for seven yards on second-and-six. He’ll try to make guys miss when he tucks and runs instead of sliding once he gets past the sticks. He’ll do this.