Alabama beat Mississippi State 38-7 on Saturday, a miniscule, secondary result compared to the grim reality facing the Crimson Tide moving forward in 2019.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's season — perhaps his collegiate career — is over. Alabama said as much after he exited Saturday’s game with a dislocated hip in the Tide’s final drive before halftime. Instead of traveling back to Tuscaloosa, Ala., on the team bus, he left Davis Wade Stadium in an ambulance and was taken via helicopter to Birmingham for further evaluation.
Tagovailoa's injury immediately engendered heated responses across social media. One of the most prevalent reactions — and unfair reactions — was to blame Alabama coach Nick Saban. Fans and objective observers alike said the Alabama coach shouldn't have allowed Tagovailoa to re-enter the game, let alone play in the first place.
It’s true that Alabama didn’t need Tagovailoa to beat Mississippi State. The same could be said of Western Carolina next week, and all but two of the Crimson Tide's regular-season games. Tagovailoa could have sat out against the Bulldogs and Catamounts and got closer to 100 percent for Alabama's Iron Bowl matchup at Auburn on Nov. 30.
But Tagovailoa loves to play college football. He entered this game not quite 100 percent, but clearly felt well enough to play for his team. Knowing he lobbied Saban to enter the game for one final drive is part of what has made him one of college football's best these past few seasons. It also makes his injury that much worse. Three plays into that lobbied final drive, Tagovailoa was injured.
With hindsight, it's obvious Tagovailoa should have stayed on the sidelines. But it’s hard to keep a player who enjoys the game as much as Tagovailoa off the field. Saban told ESPN sideline reporter Molly McGrath at halftime he allowed Tagoailoa to remain in the game to practice a two-minute situation, but it's more likely he obliged to his magnetic star quarterback's request for one last drive on the day.
It's easy to call that a mistake on Saban's part, but those fans blaming him for Tagovailoa’s injury would be better off wishing Tagovailoa well.
Coaches don’t play or withhold their players with injuries in mind; Saban said as much when McGrath asked him about his decision. The fact Saban described Tagovailoa's injury as "a freak thing" in postgame shows it had nothing to do with the high-ankle sprain he suffered before Saturday's game. It was something no one could plan for, or expect.
Those people who blame Saban for Tagovailoa’s injury didn’t seem to harbor the same resentment for him when Raekwon Davis, DJ Dale and receiver Henry Ruggs left with injuries. Because it's unreasonable to expect Saban would know those players would get hurt. It’s the same for Tagovailoa.
That still leaves anger for people saying Tagovailoa shouldn’t have played at all on Saturday. Maybe Saban wanted to keep Tagovailoa's legs fresh under him after watching his early struggles against LSU following a three-week layoff. Maybe Saban wanted to wrack up style points, knowing his team no longer controls its destiny in the College Football Playoff. Or maybe it really was as simple as practicing a two-minute drill, or acquiescing to Tagovailoa's request.
But Tagovailoa wouldn’t have played on Saturday if he, his family, Saban and the Alabama medical staff weren’t all in agreement he was healthy enough to take the field. This will be debated over and over and over again, not just through the end of this season, but anytime Tagovailoa’s injury resurfaces in the future. Every time, someone will recount how Saban decided to let Tagovailoa play against Mississippi State.
If this is indeed the last we’ve seen of Alabama's star quarterback, it's a heartbreaking end for one of college football’s great representatives over the last three seasons. His is an amiable, fun-loving personality who propelled Alabama’s traditional rush-based offense into an exciting aerial attack. In short, Tagovailoa made Alabama — and college football — better simply by playing.
No one knows that better than Saban. Whether you like his decision, it's only piling on to blame him for Tagovailoa's injury.