Seven-Step Drop: Forever Linked, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts Showcase the Highs and Lows of College Football

Former Alabama teammates once again find their paths defined by an injury

Nostalgia is omnipresent in college football on a weekly basis. It's one of the things that make game days extra special whether you're in the stadium or watching your favorite team from home on the big screen. It's there when the players make the walk from the bus to the stadium just like hundreds of their predecessors have done before and it's there when the mascot celebrates the latest touchdown.

 

Late Saturday though, brought a dose of reminiscing that one would rather have not felt due to a devastating injury. It was striking really, as the day began with painful quasi-eulogies at the loss of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and ended with jubilation celebrating Oklahoma's remarkable, Jalen Hurts-led 25-point comeback against Baylor.

 

The two signal-callers will always and forever be linked as a result of their tenure together in Tuscaloosa, as one replaced the other to win a national title and the other came on in a fairly similar situation to save the Tide in last year's SEC Championship Game. They were competitors for the starting job in Tuscaloosa to be sure but they were also incredible supporters of each other on and off the field.

 

Few moments summed it up better than at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in back-to-back seasons. After Tagovailoa led Bama to the national title with an incredible touchdown pass to beat Georgia, Hurts ran onto the field and made a beeline to hug his compatriot and share in the moment amid falling confetti. The favor was returned somewhat in reverse less than a year later as it was the Texan who was the one being celebrated for finishing off the Bulldogs in lieu of the native Hawaiian.

 

Their connection, not just in those moments but over the course of their careers, was real and indicative of the bonds of a locker room in college football. Sadly, the pair on Saturday also signified the highs and the lows of the sport, the thrill of a comeback victory being measured against the agony of a serious injury.

 

 

After it was later confirmed that he would miss the rest of the season with a hip injury, Tagovailoa's journey in Tuscaloosa now appears all but complete in a much crueler fashion than the way Hurts exited this past offseason. The former bookended his college career in the best and worst way possible as a result, from off the bench as conquering title game hero to withering in pain in front of millions on what was otherwise a commonplace day in Starkville, Mississippi.

 

He departs the field as a true revolutionary for the Tide on offense, doubling as the most efficient passer ever in college football history by the career numbers. He broke the single-season pass efficiency record not once, but twice, and will likely join the list alongside those like Deshaun Watson and Vince Young as the best ever to not win the Heisman Trophy after coming painstakingly close last year.

 

It's possible to make the argument that Tagovailoa is also the most important player in the history of the College Football Playoff (which, admittedly is just six years old). He came off the bench to win one, led his team to a title game in another, and now in his third season in Tuscaloosa may have dictated CFP mainstay Alabama sitting at home for the first time. It's hard to be the star of the show once, but the Topic of Tua has overshadowed nearly half of the postseason tournaments that we've seen.

 

All of which makes it a shame to see what happened against Mississippi State on Saturday during an otherwise routine scramble towards the sidelines (not unlike the initial ankle injury too). Tagovailoa made a great throw on a double move to Jaylen Waddle early in the second quarter that perfectly encapsulated his value to Bama and the team's offense in general. Tua not only diagnosed the coverage quickly and efficiently but also drove the ball downfield along the sidelines with perfect anticipation — launching it 35 yards before Waddle had even made his second break. It was a thing of beauty to watch in real-time and unfortunately will quite possibly be the last touchdown pass we will see out of one of the most memorable and personable players to ever come out of Nick Saban's program.

 

If there's one silver lining from the situation, it's that his former teammate at least ended the night on a high and perhaps made things much more interesting in the Heisman chase that Tagovailoa never finished off. Hurts was actually fairly mediocre against Baylor when you compare him to his earlier outings this season, fumbling before crossing the goal line as one of his three turnovers and generally looking a bit flustered at seeing so much pressure from the Bears' front.

 

Slowly but surely though, he just kept grinding away possession by possession. By the time the 17th fourth-quarter point for the Sooners was put on the board, Hurts had accounted for 511 total yards and four scores. He led the team in rushing with tailback Trey Sermon out and made up for the loss of top target CeeDee Lamb by spreading the ball around to 10 different receivers.

 

There may be better true passers than Hurts but in terms of being a quarterback on the big stage in college, he proved in that moment once again that there are precious few that you would take over the senior when the clock is ticking and the pressure keeps amping up. It was a role he filled before with the Tide and a torch he's continued to carry with the Sooners.

 

Sadly, on this day, it just served as the yang to the earlier yin from his old team. There will hopefully be bright days ahead at the next level for Tagovailoa while Hurts can continue to make his old buddy proud by finishing strong at Oklahoma in 2019. You can't tell one of the signal-callers' stories without the other and vice-versa, something that was glaringly obvious for the last time at the college level on Saturday much to everybody's chagrin.

 

Six other notes from a wild weekend:

 

2. CFP Line dominance rankings

There are so many metrics out there to dissect teams and compare one side against another but I was curious as to how each of the main College Football Playoff contenders was doing relative to expectations each week this season. And no I'm not focusing on the preseason magazine-type expectations but the ones from the folks in the desert.

 

To that end, who's been overly dominant against the closing line this season as a whole? If you're covering regularly over the course of eight or nine games then chances are you're doing alright in 2019. If you're winning close or losing big when you're not expected to, that might be a little more of a warning sign in terms of climbing back into the playoff chase.

 

So we decided to go through the schedule and see how each team did cumulatively against the line. The final line was subtracted from the final score so if you're a touchdown favorite against one team and you won by 10, you'd be +3 and that would be added to the next game's result. If you were a three-TD favorite and won by a point, you'd be at -20 for that week. Simple enough (and spare us the symbol differences between the gambling terminology in this case too).

 

Add it all up and what does it tell us? Well much like the eye test would say the past month or two, Ohio State might be even more dominant than they're getting credit for. The same could be said of a Utah team that is likewise been rolling after a bit of a slow start.

 

Failing to cover big spreads hurt Oklahoma while the same can be said of losing games you should win big (see Georgia-South Carolina). Feel free to take these as a grain of salt or see something that yards per play can't measure but there's been one team that is clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest when it comes to putting the pedal down and leaving no doubt against their opponent:

 

1. Ohio State +143.5

2. Utah +84

3. Penn State +69.5

4. Oregon +65

5. Minnesota +59.5

6. LSU +43

7. Baylor +36

8. Clemson +35

9. Georgia -0.5

10. Alabama -9

11. Oklahoma -31.5

 

3. Pac-12 the big winner over the weekend

It felt once again like the Pac-12 emerged as one of the big winners after Week 12 as it continues to look like the league title game in early December may well turn into a play-in game for football's final four.

 

We won't know until Tuesday just how much the Selection Committee values Tua Tagovailoa's awful injury but as discussed above, it's one of the more impactful injuries we've seen in the playoff era — potentially far more than the J.T. Barrett one of 2014 for Ohio State. The Tide's resume was thin enough to begin with and losing a signal-caller as good as Tagovailoa is bound to have an impact on the perception of the team as much as it can affect them between the lines.

 

Then there's Bama's lone chance to notch a marquee win in the Iron Bowl. That game already appeared to be a tough task with Tagovailoa in the lineup given the nature of the rivalry and the state of Nick Saban's defense. Removing the star QB from the equation makes the margin for error even thinner now and Auburn will be plenty motivated to clamp down on Mac Jones and add further misery to a rather unenjoyable campaign in Tuscaloosa as is.

 

Add in the fact that a pair of unbeatens in Baylor and Minnesota took their first losses of the season (plus Pac-12 contenders Oregon and Utah more than took care of business with convincing wins) and it was actually a good Saturday for Larry Scott and company just a few weeks after the conference was generally placed behind the eight ball in the CFP discussion. There remains a thorny issue of if Georgia upsets LSU in the SEC title game but all the dominoes the Pac-12 needed (or needs) to have fall sure look like they're lining up in the right way for the league.

 

It's been rare to have the ability to say that things are looking up out West but when it comes to the two contenders in the Utes and Ducks, things are lining up much nicer than expected.

 

4. Step back in Year 3 for Texas

If you scroll through press clippings, radio interviews or after-the-fact coaching grades, chances are you would see that the trio of Big 12 coaches hired prior to the 2017 season would have generally been received quite favorably.

 

Lincoln Riley's elevation to fill Bob Stoops' chair was understandable given how much he had energized the program after being named offensive coordinator and the subsequent conference titles and playoff appearances have made any lingering doubts about the youthful first-time coach taking over in Norman all but disappear.

 

Though it wasn't his finest moment this past weekend while playing Riley's Sooners, the job Matt Rhule has done in Waco has also been nothing short of remarkable. He didn't just have a rebuild on his hands in the wake of Art Briles and associated scandals, he took over a true football equivalent of a dumpster fire. The roster was in awful shape, recruiting was barely above what AAC schools in the area were doing and the fan interest aside from Baylor diehards was minimal.

 

But build Rhule did, slowly and surely. The Bears took more than their lumps in 2017 in going 1-11. But playing so many young athletes paid off as they were a tough out in 2018 and finally came into their own this season with a 9-1 mark and regular inclusion in the College Football Playoff discussion. Progress was easy to see from Year 1 to Year 3 and that's been the case in just about every area of the BU operation.

 

All of which brings us to the third season under Tom Herman, which has not shown much of anything at all in 2019 following Saturday's loss to Iowa State that dropped the team to 6-4. While it seemed like the program was on track after coming close to capturing the Big 12 title and knocking off OU at Red River in the head coach's second season, the proclamation QB Sam Ehlinger made after the Sugar Bowl of Texas infamously "being back" was much more than a premature celebration.

 

To be fair, the signal-caller has been one of the redeeming qualities about this year's Longhorns with his play but the flip side is he's covered up plenty of issues in wins. He's also made it obvious that minor issues on display last season are full-on crises during this campaign.

 

Much has been made about how Herman's teams play as underdogs but this resource-rich program shouldn't be in that position often. That means playing as favorites and being the big fish in the small pond that is the Big 12. It's one thing to get upset from time to time (this is college football after all) but the penchant Texas has for playing close games against teams that they should be better than on a regular basis has to be a bit troubling for fans in burnt orange. The head coach knows better than most how fickle this fan base can be but he also knows that things have to improve across the board in order for him to live up to the lofty expectations that were set when he was hired.

 

As a result, Herman will have to double down as only his Mensa-level brain is capable of. A top-to-bottom evaluation of the coaching staff is in store this December among other things, especially on defense even if coordinator Todd Orlando returns. While recruiting has been going well enough, upgrades are still needed on such a thin roster and development needs to be done rapidly for those coming back.

 

Maybe things will get corrected and a promising 2020 awaits. But that's a question for next year. In what increasingly looks like a lost season in 2019 given the record though, Herman's tenure sure looks like it's been two steps forward and one step back so far down in Austin.

 

5. Michigan State's ship keeps sinking

It's pretty easy to go from bad to worse in college football given the nature of ill-defined momentum that 18-24-year-olds playing for free can be subject to, but Michigan State has been the ship that just keeps sinking to a new low as time marches on this year.

 

While it would not have been taken well by those in East Lansing to get thumped by three top-15 teams in a row, at least losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State would be fairly understandable in the grand scheme of things in 2019. But for the Spartans to follow up that brutal stretch of the season with an epic collapse against Illinois and being run out of the Big House by rival Michigan, well, that's adding insult to an already crippling season for the Spartans.

 

It's one thing to lose five in a row, it's another to be so lifeless while doing so on both sides of the ball. There's none of the trademark fight that was hallmarks of MSU teams in the past and head coach Mark Dantonio looks like he's aged a full decade in the past 18 months or so with everything that's gone on both inside and outside of the football building. Much has been made about the rearranging of the offensive coaching staff but, for as obvious a mistake as that was prior to this year's campaign, it's far from the only fatal flaw with the program right now.

 

Those deeper issues with the Spartans, some made glaringly obvious as the Wolverines did what they wanted on Saturday, are what really have to trouble the administration and fan base in general. There will be no quick fix for pulling the offense out of the dark ages. There will be no quick fix for restoring the talent level back to where it was just four or five years ago either. It remains to be seen just how committed Dantonio will be to making the necessary changes (or even sticking around at all) but it's troubling for insiders and outsiders alike when you have absolutely no concrete idea as to what the direction of this program will be going forward.

 

The powers that be at MSU won't push the winningest coach in school history out the door but something has to change and change in a big way after the gap between Sparty and the top of the Big Ten looks as big as it has in ages and the gap between the dregs of the conference has never appeared so small.

 

That is not a good place for anybody to be at, much less at a place that is just four years removed from a playoff semifinal.

 

6. Pac-12 should trial Sky Judge concept

While the Pac-12 earned some kudos above, the conference was not completely unscathed this weekend. To the surprise of nobody at all West of the Rockies either, it was the league's officials who were front and center for a mistake, in particular, that should not have happened.

 

Just days after the home office in San Francisco announced one referee was being suspended for incorrectly calling a penalty on the wrong team in a Cal-Washington State game, the same thing happened during Oregon's win over Arizona on Saturday night.

 

The issue occurred late in the first half after the Ducks had punted the ball away. The head referee appeared to signal an unsportsmanlike penalty on Arizona but didn't say which player it was on, marking the yards off either way and backing up the Wildcats. Kevin Sumlin predictably took issue with things, which replay showed was indeed supposed to be a penalty on Oregon's Brady Breeze for a late hit. The crew in question did huddle together and eventually corrected their mistake before a play was run, which wasn't the case for the Bears and Cougars.

 

Needless to say, this is yet another black mark on the Pac-12 officiating program and it's hard to fathom how something like this happens not once but two weeks in a row. While everybody from Larry Scott on down has promised to improve things on a yearly basis... things simply haven't gotten better. Though the league has become more open about admitting to mistakes this year after recent offseason reviews, it gets to the point where something far more drastic needs to happen.

 

This column last week advocated for the Pac-12 to push a more national, centralized officiating model in conjunction with their Power 5 peers but that would be an avenue that would likely take years to implement and agree upon the necessary parameters so everybody is comfortable with ceding control of a key aspect of the game. While they should absolutely still pursue such an idea, they could also test out something in parallel too.

 

Namely, why not take the discussion being had in a few NFL circles for a so-called 'Sky Judge' and make it a reality for a conference game or two? A veteran rules officials (that is not simply a replay review person) could have direct communication with the crew on the field, helping them avoid situations like the two aforementioned ones and could also help spot things that those in the heat of the moment miss. It could clean up a lot of little mistakes and perhaps even speed the game up in certain cases.

 

One thing is for sure, something has to change or one of the Pac-12's biggest issues will continue to be one of the thorniest to deal with each and every week of the season.

 

7. You play to win the game

Herm Edwards is the head coach at Arizona State right now but he one soundbite that always follows him around came from his NFL days in which he famously said, "You play to win the game."

 

Well, ol' Herm did just that against Oregon State... and things did not go as hoped for the Sun Devils.

 

To set the scene, ASU wideout Brandon Aiyuk had powered his way into the end zone of a fun back-and-forth game with 1:40 remaining to cut OSU's lead to 35-34. While just about everybody would have played for the tie, that's not what the Sun Devils coaching staff opted to do despite their defense holding their opponents to just 98 yards and a single score in the second half. Instead, they didn't even send on the kicking unit and called one of the more unconventional two-point conversions of recent memory by running a toss to Eno Benjamin.

 

The play went nowhere and the tailback eventually heaved the ball into the end zone as a last-ditch two-yard Hail Mary. OSU recovered the ensuing onside kick, picked up a first down and took a knee to ice the game away.

 

While you have to give credit to Edwards for living up to his most famous motto in a key situation, the end result only further added to the misery that Arizona State has been dealing with this season. Following a big win over Michigan State in East Lansing in mid-September, the team's once-promising start has given way to a 2-5 slide, including four losses in a row. A home date against No. 6 Oregon is on deck and they'll likely have to beat their Territorial Cup rival at the end of the year if they want to make it to a bowl game this season thanks in part to that decision to go for it in Corvallis.

 

All of which is to say, you have to actually win the games if you want to keep playing ‘em.

 

Tweet of the Week

 

 

Play of the Week

 

 

Stat of the Week

 

 

Superlatives of the Week

 

Best player: A.J. Epenesa, Iowa

Team of the Week: Oklahoma

Goat of the Week: Matt Rhule, Baylor

Heisman Five: 1. Joe Burrow (LSU), 2. Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma), 3. Justin Fields (Ohio State), 4. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), 5. Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State)

Projected Playoff: 1. LSU, 2. Ohio State, 3. Clemson, 4. Oregon

Projected New Year's Six: Rose Bowl — Minnesota vs. Utah, Sugar Bowl — Oklahoma vs. Georgia, Orange Bowl — Virginia Tech vs. Alabama, Cotton Bowl — Florida vs. Memphis

 

Super 16

 

Here's my latest ballot in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll:

 

1. Ohio State

2. LSU

3. Clemson

4. Oregon

5. Oklahoma

6. Utah

7. Georgia

8. Alabama

9. Florida

10. Penn State

11. Baylor

12. Michigan

13. Minnesota

14. Wisconsin

15. Memphis

16. Iowa State

 

Best of the rest: Notre Dame, Iowa, Auburn, Boise State, Cincinnati, SMU, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, Indiana

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

Penn State at Ohio State

The Nittany Lions look like the only Big Ten team capable of stopping this runaway Buckeyes train from a talent standpoint and while they haven't looked great the past two weeks, make no mistake that this is a very good football team. The question is if they can keep up offensively and limit turnovers, especially if OSU takes away big-play threat K.J. Hamler with that terrific secondary. This feels like a close one until Ryan Day's group breaks it open in the second half. The Pick: Penn State +19.5

 

Texas at Baylor

When was the last time the Longhorns were underdogs against Iowa State and Baylor in back-to-back weeks? Tom Herman probably won't like that answer and especially so in this series, which has been very competitive no matter how each side is doing. It's in Waco which helps the Bears but UT is going to be extremely motivated to get back on track and there might be a little hangover factor for Matt Rhule's squad after blowing it to Oklahoma. The Pick: UT +5.5

 

SMU at Navy

The Midshipmen got housed by Notre Dame in South Bend and will have no time to rest up with a critical AAC matchup at home. SMU has seemingly flown under the radar since their loss to Memphis but they still can grab the Group of 5 bid with a little help and remain very much in the running to win the division and conference overall. There's not a ton of confidence in this one but the Mustangs have a big opportunity ahead of them and all the, uh, horses to get a big win in Annapolis. The Pick: SMU +3

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

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