Tua Tago­v­ailoa (above) re­lies on Jalen Hurts. Now, about the Heis­man?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Brad Zi­manek

AT­LANTA — You can’t make this stuff. You won­der why sports has such a pull on this coun­try and you re­al­ize it’s the ul­ti­mate re­al­ity TV.

You never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen.

In Jan­uary, Tua Tago­v­ailoa came in to re­place Jalen Hurts and ral­lied Alabama to a na­tional cham­pi­onship in a 26-23 over­time vic­tory.

In De­cem­ber, Jalen Hurts came in for in­jured Tago­v­ailoa af­ter he was hurt in the fourth quar­ter and ral­lied Alabama to tie the SEC cham­pi­onship game at 28-28 with a third-down pass and scored the win­ning touch­down on a 15-yard draw with 1:04 re­main­ing in the game for a 35-28 win that se­cured Alabama the top spot in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off.

At half­time last year, Tago­v­ailoa re­placed Hurts, who com­pleted only 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards. At half­time Dec. 1, Tago­v­ailoa — who is still one of the fa­vorites to win the Heis­man Tro­phy de­spite the worst game of his ca­reer — had com­pleted only 3 of 9 passes for 25 yards.

So when Tago­v­ailoa has his an­kle stepped on by tackle Jonah Wil­liams and was un­able to con­tinue, in stepped Hurts.

Alabama had not yet con­verted a third-down at­tempt.

Hurts, who was crit­i­cized for most of his ca­reer for his in­ac­cu­racy throw­ing the ball, con­verted three third-down at­tempts on the ty­ing drive and one on the win­ning drive that ended in his touch­down run.

This is from the guy that had the guts to hang around Tuscaloosa. In the ever-chang­ing col­lege foot­ball free agency ex­as­per­ated by the new red­shirt rules, no one would have blamed Hurts if he left.

“I’ve never been more proud of a player than Jalen,” Alabama coach Nick Sa­ban said. “Here’s a guy who won as many games as he won over a two-year pe­riod and all of sud­den he’s not the quar­ter­back. You have a tremen­dous amount of char­ac­ter and class to han­dle know­ing your sit­u­a­tion is not what it used to be.”

But he stuck around and added come­back closer ti­tle to his Alabama legacy that saved the Crim­son Tide from their worst per­for­mance in years.

Tago­v­ailoa dou­bled his sea­son in­ter­cep­tion to­tal from two to four and nearly had one picked and re­turned for a touch­down down the side­line.

Irv Smith Jr., who has not dropped a pass seem­ingly all sea­son, had one hit his chest and fall to the ground in what could have been an 80-yard touch­down.

When Alabama stopped Ge­or­gia and had a chance to tie the score at half­time by forc­ing a punt, Keaton An­der­son ran into the punter and handed Ge­or­gia first down, where it was able to run out the clock.

Alabama didn’t have an an­swer for the run­ning back duo of D’An­dre Swift and Eli­jah Holyfield. Car­ries that nor­mally would have been short gains were turned into 6- and 7-yard pick­ups on first down.

Quar­ter­back Jake Fromm sliced Alabama apart, with an SEC-record-10 com­ple­tions in a row in the first that broke a record by Alabama’s Blake Sims, while effec­tively work­ing the side­line with pin­point ac­cu­racy.

But be­cause of a few breaks — a missed Ge­or­gia field goal try and Kirby Smart’s ill-con­ceived fake punt at­tempt near midfield late in the game with the score tied — Alabama was able to over­come it be­cause of Hurts.

He sat in the pocket and passed Alabama to an SEC ti­tle, com­plet­ing 7 of 9 at­tempts for 82 yards and a touch­down, while gain­ing 28 rush­ing yards on five at­tempts. Last year, that was some­thing peo­ple thought he couldn’t do.

“He’s al­ways put the team first,” Sa­ban said. “If this came up, he was go­ing to be ready. This is a great ex­am­ple for guys that you don’t need to run off and trans­fer the first chance they get.”

But Hurts will most likely trans­fer. He’s ex­pected to grad­u­ate Dec. 15.

There are plenty of teams that could sure use him, but af­ter the Ge­or­gia game it just won’t seem right see­ing him in an­other uni­form.

Be­cause when Alabama needed him most he so­lid­ified him­self as Crim­son Tide le­gend.

In his final pre-Heis­man tuneup, Ok­la­homa quar­ter­back Kyler Mur­ray an­swered the bell, com­plet­ing 25 of 34 passes for 379 yards and three touch­downs in the Soon­ers’ 39-27 Big 12 cham­pi­onship vic­tory over Texas.

Tago­v­ailoa, a Heis­man Tro­phy final­ist along with Mur­ray and Ohio State quar­ter­back Dwayne Hask­ins, finished the SEC ti­tle game com­plet­ing 10 of 25 passes for 164 yards and a touch­down be­fore leav­ing.

Did he hand the award to Mur­ray? It will cer­tainly add ex­cite­ment to the Dec. 8 un­veil­ing in New York.

USA TO­DAY

JOHN DAVID MERCER/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Alabama quar­ter­back Jalen Hurts (2) re­placed in­jured starter Tua Tago­v­ailoa (13) dur­ing the SEC ti­tle game and led the Tide to a 35-28 win over Ge­or­gia.

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