ATLANTA — DeVonta Smith heard the playcall come in and knew he had a chance. On second-and-26 in overtime, with Alabama trailing Georgia 23-20, the freshman receiver had just learned he was going to run a go route into the end zone.
He smiled and looked over at his quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa.
“Trust me, bro,” Smith told him.
Tagovailoa, the true freshman who replaced starter Jalen Hurts coming out of halftime, didn’t say a word back. The lefty from Hawaii simply nodded his head, the picture of calm under pressure.
Seconds later, Smith and Tagovailoa connected on a touchdown that now belongs to history — a 41-yard strike that delivered Alabama its fifth national championship under coach Nick Saban.
“Hole shot,” Smith explained, referring to his splitting the coverage to get open.
On the sideline, Hurts saw it all unfold as if in slow motion.
Hurts had been benched, but the sophomore was still engaged, dissecting the coverage on his own. It was instinctual, he explained. He diagnosed a two-high safety shell and thought his backup wouldn’t dare try it.
But Tagovailoa did and, moments later, Hurts was holding him in his arms. No one was happier for the freshman than Hurts.
“I love you,” Hurts said he told Tagovailoa. “This is what you’re made for. You’re built for this.”
As Hurts recounted the whole ordeal, as he revealed how he learned he was benched by Saban (“Ain’t no conversation,” Hurts said. “It was a decision he made. He’s a boss and he made a great decision.”), junior running back Damien Harris was shouting at him.
“We took that s—,” Harris said. “They said we ain’t supposed to be here. And we won the whole thing!”
That they did.
And without Saban’s decision to pull Hurts, who knows?
It took guts. Ask former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard about Saban’s decision, and he would tell you it took another piece of the human body, not one suitable for family programming.
Hurts was struggling, having completed just 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards. But he is still a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year with 61 career touchdowns, and he had taken this team to back-to-back championship games.
“He’s one of the only [coaches] that could do that,” Howard said of Saban’s decision, “because he’s a legend.”
Ask Saban, and there was never a doubt. The offense was struggling, he knew Georgia had prepared all week for a run-heavy game plan and a curveball seemed in order.
“I just didn’t feel we could run the ball well enough,” he said, “and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.”
Ask players, and there was never a doubt, either.
Maybe they didn’t expect the quarterback change, but they expected nothing less from Tagovailoa.
Wideout and fellow freshman Jerry Jeudy asked reporters if they remembered the spectacular touchdown Tagovailoa threw in relief against Vanderbilt. He went back further to the recruiting circuit to explain how it was nothing new to Tagovailoa.
“Even in practice you see that,” he said. “It was his time to shine and he turned up.”
Outside the locker room after the game, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher stood by to wait to pay his respects to his former boss, Saban. Getting a sixth national championship, Fisher said, put Saban in the conversation for the best coach of all time.
Fisher had been through battles with Saban before and understood his thinking, going all the way back to a long forgotten bowl game at LSU when they had to make a change at quarterback from Josh Booty to Rohan Davey.
Saban’s old offensive coordinator might have been the least surprised person in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night when he pulled the trigger at QB. The narrative that Saban is inflexible caused Fisher to shake his head.
“That’s about as polar opposite of what he’s like,” Fisher said. “He’s very flexible.
“He has a feel for the game, the momentum of things. He understands the big picture of the game. He sees the thing in a very wide view. And he’s able to make those calls; he’s not scared to make those calls.”
To do that in that moment with all that on the line? C’mon.
Saban put his faith in a true freshman with eight games of mop-up duty on his résumé. Tagovailoa promptly came in and threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
“I don’t know how Coach Saban found me all the way in Hawaii from Alabama,” Tagovailoa said. “Thank God he found me and we’re here right now.”
What’s next? Well, that’s where things get interesting.
Hurts has been through countless battles, compiling a 25-2 record under Saban. His ability to run the football — and run it with power — is a useful weapon that most teams can’t account for.
But Tagovailoa? He’s the wild card of all wild cards.
Tagovailoa’s talent is obvious. No one has a coming-out party like that. His ability to create plays in the passing game and stretch the field is on another level.
He’s not exactly your typical Saban QB. He’s a gunslinger, Jeudy said.
“He’s got a great arm,” the wide receiver said.
Good enough to permanently unseat Hurts as the starter? We’ll see.
For now, Tagovailoa’s work in the national championship game is the stuff of legend.
And Saban’s decision to hand him the reins will forever be remembered.