The Alabama-LSU matchup, thanks in part to its potential impact and in part to an off-week, has been examined from every possible psychological and physical angle.
From the statistics, to the strength of schedule, to decoding Ed Orgeron (who has seemed to have a lot more to say than Nick Saban over the past several days) to measuring the impact on Louisiana culture if the Tigers win or they don’t — and the state of Louisiana, except for a few blocks in New Orleans at the Uptown end of St. Charles Avenue, is a fairly solid LSU bloc. All those factors have been analyzed, the history of the series (primarily crimson-colored) wrung out for each drop of relevance.
However, I’m not sure that ever, in Alabama’s long history, the stage has been set for a single player the way it will be set for Tua Tagovailoa on Saturday night.
For the past 50 years, Alabama, for several reasons, has not had a quarterback like its current sophomore sensation. For a fair part of that time, the Crimson Tide ran a wishbone offense and while that attack requires a skilled engineer, the quarterback often needs more skill as a runner and decision-maker as a passer. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been fine quarterbacks in the past 50 years — Walter Lewis, Mike Shula, Jay Barker, Brodie Croyle, Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron and Jalen Hurts have all been All-SEC choices or, at least, popular Tuscaloosa favorites.
You would have to go back to Ken Stabler and, especially, Joe Namath, to approach anything like Tua-mania, though. Bart Starr was injured and played during a bad stretch. Harry Gilmer and Dixie Howell were superstars in their day — Hootie Ingram recalls when youngsters would have Gilmer’s Number 52 sewn onto their football sweaters long before Nike took over that marketing niche. But that day has passed from memory for all but a few.
Tagovailoa is now. For all the championships of the past 40 years, the missing ingredient for many Alabama fans has been a transcendent quarterback. And for all the stories about the seething emotions of frustrated LSU fans, and the voodoo that they wish on the hated Crimson Tide, it’s difficult to explain the way Alabama fans currently feel about “Tua,” already a one-name superstar like LeBron (or Elvis, if you want to take Tua’s ukulele skills into account). Orgeron has already called Tagovailoa “the best player in America” in the run-up to the game. For many Alabama fans, that sounds somehow insufficient.
So, in a way, Saturday seems to set up as the great test, the one that could answer all the remaining questions. Yes, Tagovailoa has already been the hero of a national championship game — but the critics will point out that it was “just a half.” His numbers are unparalleled so far this year, but there is mumbling about “quality of opposition.”
This time, there is none of that. This is the No. 3-ranked team in America on its home turf. This is an opponent with great athletes on defense, an extra week to prepare, a cacophonous home crowd that will be deeply in its cups by kickoff. This is everything the critics have been waiting for and more.
Saban would gladly step out from behind his podium and give a basilisk stare from close distance to anyone who suggested this game was on one player, not every player. He’d be right. The offense that surrounds Tagovailoa, the defense that must stop LSU — all of that matters.
But the spotlight is on one player — and what if, once again, he shines? What questions will remain?
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.