The cards have been dealt for Nick Saban, or soon will be.
There is still some recovery time left for his quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, before Alabama’s showdown with LSU in two weeks. Tua looked relaxed on the sideline through a no-sweat win over Arkansas. Mac Jones, Tagovailoa’s replacement, played into the third quarter and it’s hard to imagine what he could have done better with the opportunity.
But LSU isn’t Arkansas, not by the longest shot. NASA has launched satellites that haven’t travelled as far a distance as you’d have to go for Chad Morris’ team to pull even with Ed Orgeron’s Tigers. So does Saban simply come out and say he expects Tagovailoa to play, as the growing consensus seems to be? (Caveat: setbacks are always possible in any recovery.)
Does he take the path of most coaches and say nothing about starting? If nothing else, Jones played quite well. He wasn’t a disaster, and calmed nerves that were shaken when he didn’t immediately come off the bench and look like Patrick Mahomes against Tennessee. So Saban won’t have to bluff with an obviously bad hand, if he is bluffing at all. But the postgame comments about the elder Tagovailoa brother (Taulia, the younger, saw action in the game) were all positive.
“Tua is doing really, really well,” Saban said. “He’s on the (treadmill) already. We expect him to return to practice this week, by the middle of the week.”
So it sounds like the Tua Tagovailoa vs. Joe Burrow battle may be on.
The hype for Alabama-LSU started in Baton Rouge as soon as the Tigers survived against visiting Auburn, and kicked in a few hours later in Tuscaloosa. There are similarities to the 2011 Game of The Century — same teams, same venue — and there are also marked differences. That game was been two defensive juggernauts, laden with NFL talent at every spot. The quarterbacks —sophomore AJ McCarron for Alabama, Jordan Jefferson for LSU — were more geared to not making mistakes than making big plays. Jefferson threw for 67 yards in the game, which included an overtime. Both Tagovailoa and Burrow might have 67 yards on one pass in this year’s game.
Along with that, while the game is portentous — the loser is going to have a tough time getting to Atlanta to play for the SEC title — it doesn’t have quite the same elimination-game feel that 2011, when there was a two-team BCS game for the national championship. (The joke turned out to be on LSU in that case.) The SEC isn’t guaranteed two teams in the playoff, but Oklahoma’s loss at Kansas State on Saturday means there is more of an opening. Also, that was a clear-cut No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. This year, Ohio State clearly has a claim and Clemson hasn’t exactly disappeared.
Saban, though, seemed proudest of his team’s romp over Arkansas because they kept the distractions to a minimum — “didn’t take the rat poison,” said the man who probably needs to add D-Con to his sponsor list alongside the AFLAC duck. This week, the challenge will be different, stopping the team from peaking emotionally 10 or 12 days before the game is played. I thought LSU fell into that trap last season.
For fans, though, it will be hard to contain the excitement, since this game, even more than 2011, has the potential to be an honest-to-goodness shootout, with every arsenal fully stocked.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt