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Tua Tagovailoa’s Rise Seemed Unlikely, but It Was Part of Nick Saban’s Championship Plan

Like everything else for Alabama, the schedule scrawled on the Crimson Tide’s locker-room wall in Mercedes-Benz Stadium showed signs of precise, meticulous planning. 6:59 p.m., kickers. 7:09, specialists. 7:19, team. 8:17, Kick UGA ASS.

But things don’t always go according to plan. A more accurate schedule would’ve featured Georgia kicking Alabama’s ass for a few hours, and then called for a radical change to Bama’s offensive philosophy at about 10:30. “Score a point” would’ve come slightly after that; perhaps “kick UGA ASS” might have been slotted on the wall for sometime around midnight, when backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa uncorked a national-title-winning 41-yard touchdown pass to fellow true freshman DeVonta Smith. That’s what actually happened in Alabama’s 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia, one of the best and wildest championships in recent memory—and certainly a much more interesting contest than the one predicted on Alabama’s wall.

Normally, things go the way that Tide head coach Nick Saban envisions them—well, everything except for field goals, unless he routinely envisions misses, and I assume he doesn’t. But his initial vision for beating Georgia proved useless, as starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and the offense were held scoreless in the first half. It seemed that Saban’s longtime assistant, second-year Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart, had outsmarted him. (Ugh.)

But then the most Alabama thing of all happened: The Tide revealed an entirely separate plan, one that was clearly thought out, practiced for, and eventually executed to perfection by some of the most talented players in college football. They were guys most people had never seen play.

No team has ever benched a quarterback by design in the middle of a national championship game in the BCS or College Football Playoff eras. Florida played two quarterbacks, Tim Tebow and Chris Leak, in the title game after the 2006 season, but the Gators had rotated between the two for months. Tebow was essentially a Wildcat QB, throwing just one pass for 1 yard in a 41-14 rout of Ohio State. Three years later, Texas went from Colt McCoy to Garrett Gilbert in the first quarter of a 37-21 loss to Alabama, but that happened only because McCoy was forced to exit with an injury. For a team to choose to bring in a second-string quarterback like Tagovailoa is unprecedented.

Like many backup QBs, Tagovailoa had long been the most popular player in the hearts and minds of folks who had only seen him play in blowouts against wildly overmatched opponents. He made one of the most beautiful passes of the season in a 59-0 shutout of Vanderbilt, but that came when Alabama was already leading by 45 points. The idea of a team that won 11 regular-season games and a playoff semifinal switching quarterbacks at halftime of the national championship game is befitting of message-board rumors or the plot of a TV show like Friday Night Lights; it’s not something that would seem to originate from the mind of a historically great and famously stubborn head coach.

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