He didn’t have one in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Hurt and not quite himself, the Alabama quarterback was sidelined for the climactic final minutes of the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s comeback, 35-28 win Saturday over No. 6 Georgia in Atlanta.
So Tagovailoa, hampered by a high ankle sprain, didn’t produce a defining play or performance in the biggest game of a season that Alabama has mostly dominated.
To Tagovailoa’s teammates, that shouldn’t matter.
Though obviously somewhat biased, they may be right.
He was among the Heisman finalists announced Monday evening, along with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray and Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
— The Heisman Trophy (@HeismanTrophy) December 3, 2018
“Tua’s the best football player in the country,” Alabama tailback Damien Harris said after the title game. “I don’t think he needs a Heisman moment. That’s some made-up thing, criteria, that people have invented to try to get people an award if they necessarily deserve it or not.
“Tua’s the most deserving of the Heisman and I hope everybody sees it that way because what he’s done for our team, for our university, for our community, for our fans, for everybody, is just irreplaceable. I hope that everybody realizes that.”
Truth is, Tagovailoa started 2018 with a Heisman moment — just in a different season.
The second-half comeback and winning, 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime just happened to come at the end of last season in the national title game.
It gave the sophomore from Hawaii national name recognition and made him the betting favorite for the Heisman even before he started a game. He has lived up to the hype.
Tagovailoa delivered possibly the most dominating season of any quarterback at Alabama, which has never had a Heisman winner at the position. He was named AP’s SEC offensive player of the year on Monday and was a unanimous pick as the first-team quarterback.
Tagovailoa has led the Tide back to the playoffs and a matchup with Murray and Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 29.
It was a season of terrific performances when Alabama was so dominant that Tagovailoa threw only three fourth-quarter passes during the first 12 games. There were plenty of dynamic plays from the left-hander, starting on the season’s opening drive when he threw for a touchdown after spinning away from one Louisville defender and launching an off-balance, midair touchdown pass just before taking a hit.
Tagovailoa has passed for 3,353 yards and a school-record 37 touchdowns against just four interceptions. But two of those picks came near Georgia’s goal line in the SEC title game in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
He came into the game as the nation’s most efficient passer and widely regarded as the Heisman front-runner but rolled his left ankle early and mostly struggled. Tagovailao was helped off the field after his own offensive lineman landed on his right foot in the fourth quarter.
Jalen Hurts, who had started the past two years before Tagovailoa’s emergence, ended up being the game’s hero in a role reversal from the national title game in the same building against the same opponent.
What an incredible moment. pic.twitter.com/bvX80tkrzG
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 2, 2018
Tagovailoa’s day ended with a pedestrian 10-of-25, 164-yard, one-touchdown stat line. It remains to be seen how much it weighed into the decisions of Heisman voters.
It also remains to be seen how swiftly he’ll be able to practice after having the ankle scoped, a process coach Nick Saban perhaps optimistically said could take about two weeks.
Tagovailoa hasn’t talked to reporters since the game, but teammates voiced hopes that their star quarterback would be judged more on the first 12 games.
“I feel like he’s one of the best players in the country,” tight end Irv Smith Jr. said. “He showed it all season long. He went through some adversity (Saturday) night with some injuries and he couldn’t really extend the plays with his legs. But he still did a great job.”
Tagovailoa piled up five 300-yard passing games this season and accounted for a school-record six touchdowns — five passing, one rushing — in the regular season finale against Auburn. Despite all that, Harris calls him “the most humble guy that I know.”
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) December 4, 2018
Even after completing 67.7 percent of his passes, Tagovailoa last week reflected on how many bad passes he’s thrown by his own estimation.
“I’ve thrown a lot. A lot,” Tagovailoa said. “Probably thrown more incompletions than I’ve thrown completions. You want to include practices, summer practices, spring practices?”
“I’d say I’ve thrown some balls that weren’t catchable,” Tagovailoa said, “but the receivers made me look good.”