When Alabama took the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8, some Tide insiders believed it would be Tua Tagovailoa’s last appearance in a Bama uniform. He wasn’t yet the guy who would rescue his team from a 13-0 hole with a national championship on the line. At that moment, he was the freshman backup who hadn’t run the ball or thrown a pass in four of the past five games.
At that moment, Tua Tagovailoa was Justin Fields.
No, Tagovailoa hadn’t yet placed his name in the NCAA’s transfer protocol, but that might well have happened had Nick Saban not had the guts to change quarterbacks at halftime against Georgia. Tagovailoa had come from Oahu to Tuscaloosa to compete for the No. 1 job against an entrenched quarterback, and Jalen Hurts had done little to lose his hold. The Tide was 25-2 with him as its starter, and he had two years of eligibility remaining.
As we know, Fields has entered his name in the protocol. It’s believed he’ll leave Georgia after the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State having been identified as his likely destination. For all the reports that Fields is practicing hard and remains committed to helping this Georgia team, his freshman season hasn’t yielded what he hoped. He’s not the No. 1 quarterback, and the only game in which he didn’t play – against Florida – came after the No. 1 quarterback had his worst day as a Bulldog.
That surely told Fields something, which isn’t to say he hadn’t been monitoring events all along. WSB TV has a clip of him exiting the field in Columbia, S.C., and saying to a teammate: “I handed the ball off good … I didn’t do squat.” (Or words to that effect.) That came after a 41-17 Georgia victory, which was Fields’ second game as a collegian. He’d thrown one pass that day, completing it for eight yards. It would be his only pass in a true road game.
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On Oct. 13, the Bulldogs lost 36-16 at LSU. They trailed 16-0 at the half. Unlike his mentor, Kirby Smart didn’t opt to change quarterbacks during the break. Fields worked only five snaps, handing off on four. Due to Georgia’s multiple failures on offense in Baton Rouge, it was assumed that, after a bye week, the Florida game would see him Fields assumed a greater role. He didn’t play at all.
This isn’t to suggest that Smart has mishandled his quarterbacks. His team is 23-4 with Jake Fromm starting, and it’s hard to forge a succession plan when two quarterbacks are a year apart. It’s also hard to know just how good Fields is – he did rush for 100 yards and throw two touchdown passes against UMass – because he hasn’t gotten the break that fell into Tagovailoa’s lap at halftime on Jan. 8.
Any thoughts Tagovailoa had of transferring were washed away with his title-winning throw on second-and-26. He has started every game since, Hurts having been reduced to a ridiculously overqualified understudy. (Though Hurts did lead Bama to its second comeback victory over Georgia in 11 months, this one for the SEC title, after Tua was hurt.) Barring injury, there seems no chance that Fields will ever displace Fromm, who ranks third nationally in passing efficiency – behind Kyler Murray, Heisman winner, and Tagovailoa, Heisman runner-up.
On Sunday, Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was asked about the difficulty in wrangling two gifted quarterbacks. “It’s been tough,” he said. “There’s no question about that.”
Then: “If you look over at the wide receiver spots and you say, ‘Hey, that kid standing by me on the sideline, he has a unique skill set. Let's try to utilize him.’ If you look at the quarterbacks the same way, we kind of tried to do that with Justin a little bit. We don't want to leave our team at a disadvantage because of any particular position. You try to do the best you can by utilizing the skill set of your existing players.”
Then: “You look back on the season ... I don't know. I'll reflect back on it when the season is over. Right now I think we did right.”
Georgia players have admitted lobbying Fields to stay. Might Georgia’s coaches do something more tangible? Might they give him more work against Texas in an attempt to re-recruit him for next year and beyond? Or would that just be kicking the can down the road?
Said Chaney, asked about how the Bulldogs might deploy Fields in the Sugar Bowl: “We haven’t changed anything from what we’ve been doing throughout the season. I’ll say that.”
We say again: There’s no good way to handle two quarterbacks if the No. 2 guy believes he’s good enough to start. Clemson was 16-2 with Kelly Bryant, but he never attended another practice after it was announced the Tigers had elevated freshman Trevor Lawrence to No. 1. (Bryant is headed for Missouri as a graduate transfer.) Tagovailoa might well have landed at USC had the halftime score against Georgia been 13-7. Heck, Fromm himself might be elsewhere if Jacob Eason hadn’t gotten hurt on the third series against Appalachian State.
There’s no wrong in any of this. Fields wants to start. Smart wants to win, and Fromm has proved he’s a collegiate quarterback of the first rank. The lasting memory of Fields’ freshman season, alas, won’t be of anything he did against UMass but of him being swarmed on Smart’s fake punt, a decision largely responsible for Georgia being here, as opposed to gracing the playoff.
There was never going to be a way for Fromm and Fields to be happy, and one of them isn’t. It’s hard to imagine anything happening against Texas to change that. Then again, not many would have predicted that Tua Tagovailoa, who didn’t start a game as a Bama freshman, would now be considered maybe the greatest player in the history of the nation’s greatest program.