Before we go down this road, Tua Tagovailoa wants you to know he’ll be completely healthy Saturday.
Relax, everyone. The ankle that may or may not heal in time isn’t going to stop the greatest quarterback battle of our generation.
Forget about Baker Mayfield vs. Patrick Mahomes. Or Vince Young vs. Matt Leinart. Or Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston.
Kyler Murray vs. Tua Tagovailoa in the College Football Playoff Orange Bowl semifinal beats them all.
“That ought to be fun to defend,” TCU coach Gary Patterson, one of the game’s brightest defensive minds, sarcastically says. The truth is, the defensive staffs at No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Oklahoma, well, have mercy on their souls.
What makes Tua vs. Kyler so special is all that surrounds it.
– Murray’s late surge to steal the Heisman Trophy from Tagovailoa.
– The battle between the SEC and the rest of college football.
– The notion that defense wins championships.
– The matchup of the best coach versus the hottest coach.
That’s just the starting point for arguments sure to burn white-hot in a game full of mine vs. yours.
One NFL scout told Bleacher Report the game will feature “double-digit” future first-round draft picks. And that’s not including Murray, who this summer signed a professional baseball contract with the Oakland Athletics, took nearly $5 million and promised to play only one more season of football.
He still says he’s playing baseball when his Oklahoma career ends after the semifinal or the national championship game. But the more Murray develops—his coach Lincoln Riley (see: hottest coach in football) says he “absolutely” can play in the NFL—the more he becomes an intriguing prospect for a league that doesn’t look highly on 5’9″ quarterbacks.
“He’s the most accurate thrower in college football right now,” one NFL scout told Bleacher Report. “He has great vision. He understands the game and the position, and he runs like no one else. If he were three inches taller, he’d be the first pick in the damn draft. Would someone take him now in the first round? I have no doubt.”
For now, it’s all about the Alabama defense. Because no matter how we look at Murray’s video game of a junior season (4,945 total yards, 51 TDs), there’s an underlying reality heading into the biggest game of his career: He hasn’t played anything remotely close to the Alabama defense.
It’s no secret the Big 12 doesn’t exactly embrace defense. The tackling is suspect, the coverage is shaky, and sacks and pressure arrive, for the most part, with blitz packages. They’re not rushing four and dropping seven in that league like Alabama does.
TCU has the best total defense in the Big 12 (26th in the nation). Meanwhile, you have to scroll all the way to 108th—out of 130 FBS teams—to get to Oklahoma.
Alabama is No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense (14.8 PPG), which is what Oklahoma usually zips through on the first two drives of the game.
“It’s recess; it’s full blast,” Patterson says of the OU offense under Murray. “People say, well, they don’t play good defense and have to outscore everybody. It’s doesn’t make a difference. If you can’t slow them down, you just have to have one side of the ball that’s better than anything else anybody can do.”
Or as another Big 12 coach says: “Oklahoma hasn’t seen a defense like Alabama? Are you kidding me? How about Alabama hasn’t seen an offense like Oklahoma.”
Or a quarterback like Murray, who makes the Sooners offense more dangerous than it has ever been. A 5-star recruit, Murray signed with Texas A&M and it didn’t take. So he transferred to Oklahoma where it did.
Like no one could’ve possibly imagined.
Prior to the season, Baker Mayfield, who just a season earlier did unthinkable things as the OU quarterback, told Bleacher Report that Murray—who had all of 21 throws in the Sooners’ system—would “break all of my records.” It took all of three months for Murray to do just that, becoming the second straight transfer quarterback at OU to win the Heisman.
That’s where this story takes a defining turn. For those first three months of the college football season, Tagovailoa was the game’s brightest star. He seized momentum from his remarkable story of coming off the bench in the national championship game and then supercharged things in his first season as a starter.
The Alabama offense—a product of running the ball, nasty defense and game-managing quarterbacks under uber-successful coach Nick Saban—became “snap the ball and get the hell out of the way.” Here comes Tua.
Records were broken, the defense-first Alabama aura was shattered, and the quarterback in Tuscaloosa was no longer just another cog in the wheel. The offense, led by an honest-to-goodness elite quarterback surrounded by elite skill players, was doing things not seen in the SEC since Steve Spurrier‘s Fun ‘n’ Gun heyday in Gainesville in the mid-’90s.
Only this offense wasn’t built around a brilliant coach and his ability to call plays. This Alabama offense was solely the product of a quarterback with first-round talent (Saban hasn’t had one in his previous 11 years at Alabama) throwing to a talented receiving corps and backed by a bulldozing run game. Yeah, and that defense.
“Didn’t think you’d ever see the day when Nick’s defense took a back seat to anything,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp says.
But it did, week after week. Even when Tagovailoa played through a sprained right knee. Even as the Alabama defense got better and better and put together back-to-back shutouts against ranked teams in November, the Alabama story was Tagovailoa.
Then he suffered a high ankle sprain in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia—the biggest game of the college football season—and everything changed. Alabama trailed. Alabama was vulnerable.
And Jalen Hurts, who lost the starting job to Tagovailoa because of his perceived inability to throw the ball, led a thrilling comeback by doing just that: making big throws.
“You may not like to hear this, but that cost him the Heisman,” one SEC coach told Bleacher Report. “If all of a sudden you see the guy that was benched come in and make big plays and win a championship, what do you think all of those voters are going to think? It’s the system.”
You better believe that Saban, the master of motivation, will use that as fire for a team that plays at peak level when it feels slighted. As long as Tagovailoa is healthy—he says he will be but was only running straight (no cuts) prior to Christmas break—it will all play out against a quarterback and a team that has heard for a month that it can’t do what it did to the Big 12 against the big, bad Alabama defense.
SEC snobs said the same thing last year about Oklahoma against the Georgia defense in the Rose Bowl CFP semifinal. The Sooners scored 48 points and had 531 yards.
If Murray continues to do what Mayfield says he would, nothing would be more impressive than outplaying Tagovailoa and beating Alabama.
“I have a strange feeling it’s going to look a lot more like a Big 12 game than an SEC game,” another Big 12 coach says while laughing.
Wouldn’t expect anything less from the quarterback battle of our generation.