❚ QB’s in­fec­tious energy drives Tide,

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Alex By­ing­ton Con­tribut­ing: Ge­orge Schroeder

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Even the of­ten-dour Nick Sa­ban can’t help but smile around him.

Whether it’s the spec­tac­u­lar pass­ing plays that, as se­nior tight end Hale Hent­ges said, makes “you just drop your jaw and say, ‘Wow!’ ” or just his in­fec­tious smile and child­like ra­di­ance around his team­mates, Alabama sopho­more quar­ter­back Tua Tago­v­ailoa has in­fused a level of joy­ful­ness into the Crim­son Tide’s usual busi­nesslike ap­proach.

So much so that it’s even af­fect­ing the team’s no-non­sense head coach.

Af­ter Tago­v­ailoa left the field less than a minute into the fourth quar­ter af­ter toss­ing his fifth touch­down pass, and school-record sixth to­tal score, in a 52-21 win over ri­val Auburn in late Novem­ber, Sa­ban ap­proached his young starter on the side­line for a sub­tle fist bump.

But a fist bump was not enough for the Hawai­ian 2018 Heis­man Tro­phy final­ist, who im­me­di­ately wrapped both of his arms around Sa­ban’s neck and gave his 67-year-old coach a confident hug.

That wasn’t the first time the two have hugged this season. In the clos­ing sec­onds of a 24-0 win at LSU, an elated Tago­v­ailoa play­fully put out both arms as if beg­ging for a hug, to which Sa­ban com­plied, a brief smile emerg­ing amid the em­brace.

Of course, Tago­v­ailoa wanted more, later in­ter­rupt­ing Sa­ban’s postgame in­ter­view with Crim­son Tide Sports Net­work.

“I need one more hug,” Tago­v­ailoa said, ig­nor­ing his coach’s ex­tended hand. “I need a hug. Thank you, coach.”

“Yeah, that was good, huh?” Sa­ban an­swered, lightly pat­ting his quar­ter­back on the back as a wide smile spread across his face.

Tago­v­ailoa has helped guide No. 1 Alabama (13-0, 8-0 SEC) to a fifth con­sec­u­tive Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off ap­pear­ance amid one of the most dom­i­nat­ing sea­sons in col­lege foot­ball history.

Av­er­ag­ing a +33 point differ­en­tial this season, the Crim­son Tide be­came the sec­ond col­lege foot­ball team to outscore every op­po­nent in its first 12 games by more than 21 points, join­ing the 1888 Yale squad that outscored teams 694-0 dur­ing its 13-0 na­tional cham­pi­onship season.

“Be­ing on a team is a lot like be­ing in a fam­ily — some­times things go well in your fam­ily and ev­ery­body is happy, and some­times things hap­pen that aren’t so good and you all have to per­se­vere to­gether,” Sa­ban said. “(And) when some of the best play­ers on your team are re­ally good guys, that al­ways makes for good team chem­istry.”

For Tago­v­ailoa, that hap­pygo-lucky ap­proach is sim­ply a byprod­uct of work­ing along­side such tal­ented team­mates.

“I’m like a kid in a candy shop. It’s awe­some,” Tago­v­ailoa said. “I can go to the right, I can get a Snick­ers bar if I wanted to. I can go to the left, I get some Skit­tles. It’s re­ally fun for me as a quar­ter­back to be be­hind some first-round draft picks.”

In his first season as the starter, Tago­v­ailoa ranks sec­ond in pro­gram history with 3,353 pass­ing yards — 134 shy of record­holder Blake Sims’ 3,487 yards in 2014 — to go with a school-record 37 touch­down passes to just four in­ter­cep­tions. Tago­v­ailoa’s 67.7 per­cent (199 of 294) com­ple­tion per­cent­age this season also ranks sec­ond all time in Tide history be­hind Greg McElroy’s 70.9 mark in 2010.

Tago­v­ailoa, who also holds the sin­gle-season school record with 42 com­bined touch­downs (pass­ing and rush­ing), has spear­headed Alabama’s most pro­lific offense on record, help­ing es­tab­lish new sin­gle-season pro­gram records for points scored (623), to­tal offense (6,859 yards), offen­sive touch­downs (77) and pass­ing yards (4,231).

The quar­ter­back finished sec­ond to Ok­la­homa quar­ter­back Kyler Mur­ray in the Heis­man race. But when it comes to cat­a­lysts for mo­ti­va­tion, finish­ing as the run­ner-up ranks low on his list.

“If I had won it, (Mur­ray’s) guys prob­a­bly would’ve been mad,” Tago­v­ailoa said. “But that’s just how the ball rolled. For me, I don’t try to let any of that affect me. I don’t feel redemp­tion, or try­ing to be mo­ti­vated to beat some­one now be­cause they beat me (for the award), would work.”

The more press­ing topic re­mains Tago­v­ailoa’s left an­kle, which was sur­gi­cally re­paired af­ter he suffered a high sprain dur­ing the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game Dec. 1. He ex­pects to be fully re­cov­ered by kick­off in the Orange Bowl.

MARK J. REBILAS/USA TO­DAY

Af­ter ral­ly­ing Alabama to last year’s ti­tle, Tua Tago­v­ailoa brought more fun to coach Nick Sa­ban’s team.

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