It's finally game week for the highly anticipated matchup between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, and yet the biggest storyline surrounding this game involves a player who might not even take the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.
Tua Tagovailoa's injury — a high-ankle sprain — will be the clear focus leading up to the 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff against the Tigers. Indeed, it has been ever since he left the second quarter of the Crimson Tide's victory over Tennessee on Oct. 19. Backup Mac Jones was serviceable as his replacement against Tennessee and Arkansas, but the offense is several orders of magnitude better with Tagovailoa in the backfield.
The general consensus is that, without Tagovailoa, Alabama won't be able to put up enough points to keep up with LSU's break-neck pace. The Tigers score 46.8 points per game compared to the Crimson Tide's 48.6 (though that comes after LSU's 23-20 win over Auburn). Add to that the fact Alabama hasn't been nearly as good defensively this season, and Alabama may need Tagovailoa to win Saturday's "Game of the Century."
That would be a far cry from the last time these teams met as the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country: No. 1 LSU came away with a 9-6 victory against No. 2 Alabama in 2011. It's likely this game won't be nearly as defense-dominant, but it would certainly be better if Tagovailoa played.
Here's everything you need to know about Tagovailoa's injury, the timeline of his recovery and the likelihood of his return:
Will Tua Tagovailoa play against LSU?
Tagovailoa has been out since the second quarter of the Tennessee game on Oct. 19. By kickoff on Saturday, he will have had three weeks' worth of recovery time, though it's not entirely certain that will be enough.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tagovailoa would be out "a week or two" immediately following the Tennessee game. That same night, linebacker Terrell Lewis told reporters Tagovailoa said he'd be "back for LSU" on Nov. 9. The following day, following tightrope surgery on Tagovailoa's ankle, Saban released the following statement:
“Tua Tagovailoa suffered a high-ankle sprain last night against Tennessee. Our physicians performed a successful tightrope procedure on his right ankle this morning. This is the same injury, but the opposite ankle that Tua injured last season. Tua will miss next week’s game against Arkansas, but we expect a full and speedy recovery.”
That prognosis devolved on Oct. 30 when Saban said Tagovailoa would be a "game-time decision," which he reiterated again on Oct. 28. That, of course, raised the question of whether Tagovailoa would even be 100 percent if he could play vs. LSU.
As of Monday before the game, Saban said Tagovailoa would be on a pitch count at practice, and that he was still a game-time decision. He followed up on Wednesday by saying he Tagovailoa was "moving around well and throwing the ball with confidence" (via ESPN).
Friday before the game, CBS college football commentator Gary Danielson said he watched Tagovailoa in practice on Thursday, saying he "doesnt have that spring in his step, it's not natural."
Saban, on the set of "College GameDay" on Saturday, said Tagovailoa practiced well all week and has been "really, really good" in the short area. Barring an issue in warm-ups, Saban said, Tagovailoa should be expected to start.
What is Tagovailoa's injury?
Tagovailoa suffered a high-ankle sprain to his right ankle, the same injury from the 2018 SEC championship game (though Saban said it's not as severe as last season's). It's worth noting Tagovailoa underwent the same tightrope procedure on his left leg and returned four weeks later for the Crimson Tide's College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma. He completed 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns in that game, rushing five times for 9 yards.
Here is a summation of the procedure, from the Southern California Orthopedic Institute:
"It can be used to repair a high ankle sprain, which damages the soft tissue structures between the tibia and fibula and causes these bones to separate. … The tightrope system anchors the ends of the tibia and fibula together with a braided polyethylene cord, rather than with a rigid surgical screw, to restore the original position of the bones and to allow for proper healing."
Tagovailoa isn't the only Alabama player to have undergone the procedure. Alabama team surgeon Norman Waldrop first performed the procedure on former Crimson Tide tackle Cam Robinson in 2014. The future NFL first-round pick was able to return two weeks after the surgery in time for the Crimson Tide's matchup against LSU. Other Tide players to get the procedure include former quarterback Jalen Hurts, tackle Jonah Williams and center Ross Pierschbacher.
Tua Tagovailoa injury timeline
Tagovailoa suffered the high-ankle sprain on Oct. 19 against Tennessee in "The Third Saturday in October." The play in question occurred with 7:20 remaining in the second quarter and Alabama up 21-10 over Tennessee. Greg Emerson sacked Tagovailoa on the Tide's first play of their fifth drive of the game.
Here’s the exact play Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa was injured on against Tennessee.
Tagovailoa scrambled to his left before being brought down hard by Vol’s defensive lineman Greg Emerson. pic.twitter.com/CtDY6keqyb
— Alabama Crimson Tide | AL.com (@aldotcomTide) October 20, 2019
Tagovailoa stayed in the game for one more play, completing a 5-yard pass to Brian Robinson. Alabama called a timeout right after, and Tagovailoa left the game on his own power. He was escorted to the Alabama locker room and was later seen leaving the stadium in an ambulance, though he returned in street clothes.
— Maybe Next Year (@AlexHenderson17) October 20, 2019
Tagovailoa's prognosis was fairly positive after the game, with Saban saying on Oct. 20 that he expected "a speedy recovery" from his star quarterback.
On Oct. 21, Saban reaffirmed the success of the tightrope surgery, but said there was no timetable for Tagovailoa's return and that rehab was "pretty unpredictable."
"There’s no real timetable for his return, but the expectation is he will be non-weight bearing for several days and then he’ll be able to come back as his rehab allows him," Saban said. "We’re hopeful that in a 10-day period he’ll be back being able to do pretty active type rehab and we’ll see how it goes from there. These things are pretty unpredictable at this point.”
On Oct. 29, Saban said Alabama was still monitoring Tagovailoa's recovery, though he would likely return to practice the next day.
“We’ll just have to see what he can do,” Saban said, per AL.com. “Evaluate his mobility and his performance. I can’t really predict any of that. Just have to let it happen and see how it goes.
During the SEC teleconference on Oct. 30, Saban confirmed Tagovailoa would return to practice, but said he would be a game-time decision and that Alabama wouldn't play him if he wasn't able to perform.
"We’re not going to put him in a situation where he can’t perform, aight? If he can perform, he’ll be able to play. If he can’t perform, then he won’t be able to play," Saban said. Local reporters did not see Tagovailoa at said practice during the five-minute window open to media.
Saban on Monday said Tagovailoa practiced two days last week, that he is currently on a snap count in practice, and will still be a game-time decision for Saturday's game.
WATCH: Moments ago, #Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa at practice jogging, planting on wrapped right leg, and making throws. Nick Saban said he will be on snap count at practice and game time decision for Saturday. #RollTide #LSU @CBS_42 pic.twitter.com/OnVinJcff3
— Simone Eli (@SimoneEli_TV) November 4, 2019
AL.com on Tuesday reported that sources within Alabama's program feel good about Tagovailoa's health and that he is expected to play against LSU. Saban on Wednesday did not upgrade Tagovailoa's status beyond "game-time decision," but said he was moving and throwing well.
Saban on Saturday said Tagovailoa should get the start barring an issue in pregame warm-ups.
Tua Tagovailoa injury updates
Nov. 9 — Saban says Tagovailoa will start, barring an issue in pregame warm-ups.
Nov. 6 — Saban says Tagovailoa is moving, throwing well (via ESPN), but doesn't upgrade him beyond a game-time decision.
Nov. 5 — Sources within program say Alabama expects Tagovailoa to play vs. LSU.
Nov. 4 — Saban reiterates Tagovailoa is a game-time decision, says he practiced two days last week (per John Zenor).
Oct. 30 — Tagovailoa returns to practice. Saban calls Tagovailoa a game-time decision.
Oct. 29 — Saban says Alabama is still monitoring Tagovailoa's recovery, says he'll return to practice on Oct. 30.
Oct. 26 — Tagovailoa stands by as Alabama beats Arkansas 48-7. Backup Mac Jones completes 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns. Third-string quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa completes 6 of 8 passes for 45 yards.
Oct. 21 — Saban reaffirms success of surgery, says there is no timetable for return and that rehab from the procedure is "pretty unpredictable."
Oct. 20 — Tagaovailoa undergoes successful tightrope surgery, per a report. Saban said he expects a "speedy recovery" for his quarterback.
Oct. 19 — Tagovailoa suffers a high-ankle sprain on his right ankle against Tennessee. Tagovailoa tells teammates he'll be back in time for LSU; Saban says he expects Tagovailoa to be out "a week or two."