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Can Alabama Still Win The Title? Can Tua Still Win The Heisman?

As Alabama marched to another ho-hum blowout of an overmatched SEC team Saturday, perhaps the most unfortunate moment of the college football season was looming. Crimson Tide star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending hip injury in the second quarter, and those on the scene described a postgame mood in solemn shock. Tributes to Tagovailoa’s college career — almost certainly over, assuming he declares for the NFL after this season — praised Tagovailoa’s 24-game run as Alabama’s starting quarterback and yet lamented what could still have been.

It now looks likely Tagovailoa will be one of the best college quarterbacks in modern history never to win the Heisman, and Alabama one of the best teams never to compete for a national championship. Heisman voters have not been receptive to injured finalists in the past, and with no wins over teams currently in the top 25, Alabama doesn’t have the typical resume of a College Football Playoff team. But it is possible — or at least justifiable, based on the numbers — that we haven’t seen the last of either one yet.

With two weeks left in the regular season, Alabama sits at No. 5 in the playoff rankings despite the lack of a great win on its schedule. There’s a case to put the Crimson Tide higher (they’re third in ESPN’s FPI) and a case to drop them lower (they’re the second-highest-rated one-loss team, and they don’t have a win as good as Penn State’s against Michigan or Oklahoma’s against Baylor). FiveThirtyEight’s model gives them a 13 percent chance of making the playoff. But at least the No. 5 spot gives Alabama a chance.

After the Tide lost to Louisiana State to cede control of the SEC West race, Head Coach Nick Saban said, “We don’t really control our own destiny,” and that’s even truer now. If Ohio State and LSU are virtual locks — see more on Ohio State’s chances below — and Clemson coasts through the ACC championship game, that leaves only the fourth slot. A one-loss Pac-12 champion, whether Oregon or Utah, would likely jump Alabama, so the Tide have to hope for the champion to lose beforehand.1 Oklahoma is another threat and likely also would have to lose again — Baylor almost sent Alabama a gift by making that happen, until former Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts and his Sooners rallied from 28-3 down to win 34-31.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s FPI is 29.9, good enough to make the top four every year since 2005. But the selection committee has made clear it will dock teams for injuries to players who won’t be available for the playoff games. The most important factor for Alabama, then, is to try to prove — with only two more games, one against Western Carolina — that it can contend without Tagovailoa. That might mean running up the score in the Iron Bowl at Auburn, where a blowout of a team that hung with LSU (23-20), Georgia (21-14) and Florida (24-13) could show the Tide can be their usual selves without their star.

The Alabama season now belongs to Mac Jones, a redshirt sophomore who has been a backup to Tagovailoa and Hurts. He has been competent in relief during the many lopsided wins Alabama has piled up this season, completing 45 of 65 passes with four touchdowns and one interception. But he has not played many meaningful snaps, outside of a spot start against Arkansas on Oct. 26. Whatever the prevailing belief may be in Tuscaloosa, any remaining hope for this year’s Alabama team is a longshot.

There is a historical precedent for a late-season switch like this: In 2014, Ohio State lost quarterback J.T. Barrett for the year in the regular-season finale against Michigan. The Buckeyes threw in redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones, who at that point was best known for a tweet. Jones and Ohio State trounced Wisconsin, 59-0, in the Big Ten championship game and made the playoff, when they upset Alabama and Oregon to win the national title. All of that seemed implausible when Barrett went down on Nov. 29. Surely, it seemed, the committee would not see Ohio State as the same team after the injury. But the Buckeyes were so dominant against Wisconsin they jumped from fifth to fourth.

Now here’s the notable difference: That win against Wisconsin was for a conference championship, which the committee says it values. Barring an LSU implosion, Alabama won’t have that, so it remains unlikely that two Power Five leagues will be left out in favor of a second team from the SEC.

As for Tagovailoa, he doesn’t need a Heisman or a national championship to complete a resume that already features one heroic comeback for a national title, a trip to another, an SEC championship and a Heisman runner-up effort. We just haven’t seen many players like him — his 2019 season currently ranks second all-time in passing efficiency.

Tagovailoa likely won’t be striking a Heisman pose this year. LSU’s Joe Burrow is the runaway pick — the Westgate SuperBook had Burrow as a 1-20 favorite this week. But there’s an argument for Tagovailoa to be a finalist. He’ll enter the ceremony on Dec. 14 with nine games played, 2,840 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions. Since 2004, only two quarterbacks — Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in 2015 and Baylor’s Bryce Petty in 2013 — put up those numbers on one-loss Power Five teams and didn’t make the ceremony. Two others — Mayfield in 2017 and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014 — won the trophy.

Two comparisons come to mind for Tagovailoa’s case: Oregon’s Dennis Dixon and Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson. Dixon in 2007 had 29 total touchdowns and just four interceptions for then-No. 3 Oregon when he tore his ACL in the team’s 10th game. He finished fifth in Heisman voting. Peterson broke his collarbone in just his sixth game of 2006 and didn’t get a look for the Heisman despite rushing for 935 yards (5.6 per carry) and 10 touchdowns. Tagovailoa was better by some measures last season (3,353 yards, 37 touchdowns, four interceptions) than he was this year, and a sprained ankle in the SEC championship game bumped him behind Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray for the Heisman.

Is this the end of good fortune for Tagovailoa or Alabama? Not even close. Tagovailoa still has a bright future in the NFL, and Saban will have plenty of talent back next year, especially on a young defense. But it remains odd to think about a Heisman ceremony without Tagovailoa and a national championship without Alabama after both spent so much of the past two seasons as favorites. If this is the last we see of Tagovailoa in the college game, he was a program-changer.

Looking ahead: Week 13

Game of the Week: Ohio State (64 percent playoff odds) vs. Penn State (12 percent), noon ET Saturday

How Ohio State vs. Penn State swings the playoff picture

Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability based on the outcome of the Nov. 23 Ohio State-Penn State game, for teams whose playoff odds changed by at least 0.5 points

Change in odds if Ohio State…
Team Current Playoff Odds Wins Loses Weighted Diff.*
Ohio State 64.4% +14.3 -54.3 +/-22.6
Penn State 11.9 -11.9 +45.3 18.9
Minnesota 6.2 -1.0 +3.8 1.6
Alabama 12.9 -0.7 +2.5 1.1
Oklahoma 30.4 +0.5 -1.9 0.8
Clemson 89.9 -0.4 +1.4 0.6
LSU 68.2 -0.3 +1.2 0.5
Total† 47.6

*Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.

†Total swing includes every team in the country — not just those listed here.

By a wide margin, the best game of Week 13 pits Ohio State against Big Ten rival Penn State. The Nittany Lions saw their playoff hopes severely damaged by a loss at Minnesota two weeks ago, but they have a major chance to play spoiler here. The Buckeyes currently sit at No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and our model gives them a 64 percent chance to make the playoff — controlling their destiny as long as they keep winning. But Penn State is no easy obstacle on the playoff path: ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the Lions as the sixth-best team in the nation, with the No. 7 overall offense and No. 2 special teams. So the upset potential is real, mitigated perhaps only by OSU’s sheer talent (they easily rank first in FPI) and the game being played in Columbus. As long as Buckeyes QB Justin Fields, a Heisman contender, is healthy (after suffering a scare against Rutgers), Ohio State is more likely to be fine than not — we give it a 79 percent chance of winning this one. But if not, it could shake up the playoff race dramatically. The Buckeyes would lose a staggering 54 points of playoff probability with a loss, possibly opening the door for the winners of the Pac-12 or Big 12, plus Alabama or even Penn State itself to swoop in and grab a playoff spot.

The most important games of Week 13

Week 13 college football games, measured by how much the outcome projects to swing the playoff odds of every team in the country

Game playoff odds at stake Other Team Most Affected… …and Who They Want to Win
1 Ohio State-Penn State +/-47.6 Minnesota Penn State
2 Oregon-Arizona State 19.8 Oklahoma Arizona State
3 Georgia-Texas A&M 16.5 Utah Texas A&M
4 Oklahoma-TCU 16.1 Oregon TCU
5 Utah-Arizona 11.7 Oklahoma Arizona
6 Baylor-Texas 9.6 Georgia Texas
7 Minnesota-Northwestern 4.9 Utah Northwestern
8 Washington St.-Oregon St. 4.7 Oregon Oregon St.
9 UCF-Tulane 3.9 Utah UCF
10 Michigan-Indiana 3.8 Oklahoma Indiana

Playoff odds at stake is the total percentage point change in playoff odds for all college football teams in the country combined, weighted by likely game outcomes.

Source: ESPN

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Oregon still has regular-season games against Arizona State and Oregon State, while Utah finishes with Arizona and Colorado.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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