ATLANTA — Tua Tagovailoa did the impossible.
He made Nick Saban grin. Not a small one, either. A wide, toothy one that spread from one side of his face to the other.
Oh, Tagovailoa won what has to be the most improbable of Alabama’s 12 national championships, too.
Thrown into the game at halftime, with the Crimson Tide trailing Georgia 13-0 and their offense sputtering and belching smoke like a broken down car on the side of the highway, Tagovailoa threw two touchdown passes and had Alabama in position to win it in regulation.
This game needed a little more drama, however, and a missed field goal sent the game into overtime. Georgia struck first with a field goal, and things looked bleak for Alabama when Tagovailoa was sacked for a 16-yard loss on the first play.
But the freshman got to his feet and, on the next play, uncorked a perfect, 41-yard strike to DeVonta Smith.
Tagovailoa finished 14-for-24 for 166 yards with one interception. He also rushed for 27 yards.
Tagovailoa was one of the top prep quarterbacks in the nation coming out of St. Louis High School in Hawaii. A dual threat, he threw for 3,932 yards and 43 touchdowns as a senior and rushed for 1,727 yards and 27 TDs in his three years as a starter.
From the minute he arrived in Tuscaloosa last January, it was obvious that Jalen Hurts’ days as the Alabama starter were numbered.
It’s not that Hurts is a bad quarterback. Heck, he took the Tide to back-to-back national championship games. But the Alabama offense has been stagnant since the day Lane Kiffin was sent packing, and no one was affected more than Hurts.
Alabama has had no imagination and, worse, no identity all season. The defense was so ferocious that it usually didn’t matter, but all of Alabama’s shortcomings were on display in the first half Monday night.
The Tide managed just 94 yards and four first downs, and Hurts’ longest throw was for nine yards. And it wasn’t as if he was testing the Georgia defense, either.
“Are we going to actually throw the ball downfield once???” Kiffin said on Twitter at halftime.
Saban must have been asking the same thing, because when the Tide took the field, it was Tagovaiola under center.
It was a bold, but risky move. Despite clamors throughout the season to get him playing time, Tagovaiola had been relegated to mop-up duty, attempting 53 passes in seven games. (He appeared in an eighth, but it was as the placeholder for a field goal.)
That the Alabama offense had new life was clear on the first drive.
Facing third-and-7 at his own 47, Tagovailoa had to have felt like he was seeing something out of Game of Thrones as the George defense swarmed through the Tide’s offensive line. The best he could hope for was to throw the ball away, not take a sack.
Instead, Tagovailoa took off, running first to his right. Then, seeing that the entire left side of the field was open, he reversed course. With one of his teammates making sure none of the Bulldogs got close, Tagovailoa picked up the first down.
Tagovaiola would follow with four consecutive completions, the last a 6-yard score to Henry Ruggs.
Oh, he showed some growing pains. When he was picked off by Georgia on the next drive, his receivers were all blocking, clearly unaware of what play was coming.
But you could sense Alabama’s confidence rise with every play Tagovaiola made, and as the Tide rolled down the field at the end of regulation, there was little doubt of who was going to win.
Alabama has itself a quarterback, maybe the best of Saban’s tenure.
Nancy Armour, USA Today