EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second story in a series counting down the top five players in University of Alabama football history. Companion series are planned for Georgia (May 11-15) and Tennessee (May 18-22).
This one is admittedly a dilemma.
Ranking Tua Tagovailoa among the top five players in Alabama history certainly has a recent bias feel, and there is the obvious question of whether he even played enough to qualify for such lofty status. Tagovailoa's 32 career games fall short of the 39 compiled by each of the Crimson Tide's two Heisman Trophy running backs, Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015).
Yet what Tagovailoa accomplished in his limited time can't be discounted, as his 96 career touchdowns (87 passing and nine rushing) established a program record, and his career efficiency rating of 199.4 is the highest in college football history. Tagovailoa's efficiency clip shattered the previous Southeastern Conference mark of 170.8 set by Florida's Tim Tebow from 2006-09.
"Tua has probably had as much of an impact on our program here as any player we've ever had," Alabama coach Nick Saban said in January. "He's continued the streak of 11-win seasons to nine. He's won a national championship with his performance, and he's won an SEC championship. I don't think he's ever been in my office one time the whole time he's been here for anything but something that's positive in terms of helping him or helping the rest of our program."
Tagovailoa's freshman year was spent as a backup to Jalen Hurts, who compiled a 26-2 record as the Tide starter, but Tagovailoa replaced Hurts at halftime of the national championship game of the 2017 season. Alabama trailed Georgia 13-0 entering the third quarter, but Tagovailoa completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns in rallying the Tide to a 26-23 overtime triumph.
His 41-yard touchdown strike in overtime on second-and-26 to DeVonta Smith that defeated the Bulldogs is without question the biggest play of the Saban era — Saban's reaction to that win was unlike any other — and may be the biggest play in Alabama history.
As the sophomore starter in 2018, Tagovailoa threw for a dizzying 3,966 yards with 43 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he guided the Tide to a 12-0 regular season with 12 wins by at least three touchdowns. No program in college football history had produced such a stat.
Over his three seasons, Tagovailoa completed 474 of 684 passes for 7,442 yards with 87 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, with his 69.3% accuracy rate setting an SEC career mark as well. Sure there is an unfairness in comparing eras, but Tagovailoa's 87-to-11 ratio dwarfs those Tide quarterbacks who went on to win Super Bowls — Bart Starr (10-to-20 ratio), Joe Namath (24-to-20) and Ken Stabler (18-to-18).
It should be noted that AJ McCarron deserves strong consideration for Alabama top-five status as well, throwing 77 touchdowns against just 15 interceptions and having Alabama in position for its first three-peat of national titles until the stunning "Kick Six" loss at Auburn in 2013.
As great as Tagovailoa was in Tuscaloosa, there always will be a "What if?" element to his career. Knee injuries against Arkansas and Missouri slightly slowed his sophomore season, and then an ankle injury against Georgia a few weeks later in the SEC title game helped prevent him from winning the Heisman Trophy.
Tagovailoa did earn the 2018 Maxwell Award, but a junior season that contained 33 touchdown tosses and three interceptions was slowed by another ankle injury and then halted by hip surgery. His two career losses as the starter wound up being to national champions — Clemson in the 2018 season and LSU this past November.
"I've got to see the spectrums of having a lot of success like winning a national championship but also losing a national championship and going through a lot of adversity, coming back from it and continuing to go through it," Tagovailoa said in January as he announced he was leaving early for the NFL. "It's been a mixture of emotions, but coming to a place like this has helped set me up to be in the best position to become successful later in life."
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