Tua Tagovailoa's injury seemed to have doomed Alabama, but a sliver of hope remains

The image of Tua Tagovailoa getting carted off the field in Starkville, Mississippi, shook the college football world over the weekend. It marked the likely end of Tagovailoa’s collegiate career, as he underwent hip surgery on Monday and his next snap figures to be as an NFL quarterback.

And while Tagovailoa’s injury rattled the Crimson Tide’s fan base to its core, it didn’t impact Alabama in the College Football Playoff rankings. At least for now.

In the race for the No. 4 spot that’s ultimately defined this season’s College Football Playoff race, Alabama remained at No. 5 and still finds itself in solid position heading into the final three weeks of the season.

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It was a night where inertia was king, as none of the top seven teams changed rankings. Minnesota dropping two spots to No. 10 was the most notable move on a sleepy night, as it’s the final of the seven one-loss teams in the top 10. Undefeated LSU, Ohio State and Clemson stayed in the top three slots.

That left Alabama being unchanged as the night’s biggest news. Committee chair Rob Mullens appeared ready to take questions about how Tagovailoa’s injury will impact Alabama’s ranking.

“We spent considerable time talking about it,” Mullens said. “Glad he's on his way to recovering. But Alabama had a convincing win, at the end of the day. Understanding that he went out at the end of the second quarter, but it still was a convincing win, so it didn't impact the rankings this week.”

In a way, this week’s rankings mark a win for an Alabama program that’s needed one. Coming off LSU’s victory in Tuscaloosa two weeks ago, it meant back-to-back dark weeks at college football’s most recognizable program.

The decision to not move Alabama shouldn’t be a surprise, as it stays with the design of the committee to rip up previous rankings and re-rank all the teams each week.

“We do not project, we do not look forward,” Mullens said. “Our charge is to rank the teams based on their body of work through Week 12, and that's what we did.”

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) listens to instructions from head coach Nick Saban during a timeout in their game against Mississippi State. (AP)
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) listens to instructions from head coach Nick Saban during a timeout in their game against Mississippi State. (AP)

Tagovailoa’s injury came late in the second quarter with Alabama up 35-7 on an overmatched Mississippi State team. And if the committee was focused on how Alabama played from that point on, they were the only ones. ESPN’s broadcast was wisely dedicated to updates on Tagovailoa and conversations about whether he should have still been in the game.

The committee didn’t immediately discount the Crimson Tide for the season’s biggest individual personnel loss. Alabama scored just three points after Tagovailoa’s injury, which is a tough spot to gauge them as the game was already essentially over.

Alabama still has no quality wins on the season. They are on track to have the potential to get just one, as they play at No. 15 Auburn late in the season. The best result for Alabama this week would have been Georgia losing at Auburn, but Georgia’s 21-14 victory both solidified the No. 4 Bulldogs’ spot ahead of Alabama and watered down the Tide’s only potentially marquee victory.  

Alabama could likely win against Western Carolina next week with Cookie Monster playing quarterback. But they’ll be much more focused than normal on an afterthought game. Backup QB Mac Jones is starting again – he also started against Arkansas – and that’s ultimately the offensive prism from which Alabama will need to be judged.

The reality for Alabama’s quest to get to No. 4 is that they need to beat Auburn convincingly in two weeks. And then hope for some chaos. In a way, the case for Alabama is winnowing down to a one-game referendum.

If Alabama beats Auburn and misses the SEC title game, could they stay ahead of Oregon if it beats probable opponent Utah in the Pac-12 title game? According to the selection committee’s own website, there are two criteria that “must be considered” when “circumstances at the margins indicate teams are comparable.”

Those are championships won and strength of schedule. Neither of those bode well for Alabama.

Another criteria that does, of course, is comparing common opponents. Oregon squandered a 21-6 lead to Auburn on Aug. 31, losing 27-21. A convincing Alabama victory over Auburn could help keep Alabama ahead of the No. 6 Ducks in the standings. Oregon also lacks quality wins, although USC’s move up to No. 23 helps the Ducks. (The optics of Mullens, the Oregon athletic director, as the chair of the committee continue to be palpably awkward, especially because Oregon will remain in the thicket of the playoff chase to the end. Mullens is recused from the room when Oregon is discussed, but not from the interviews after.)

The case for Alabama still revolves around Georgia losing at some juncture, be it against Texas A&M this week or, perhaps, against LSU in the SEC title game.

A night of no momentum in the standings brought a sliver of good news for Alabama. The CFP committee hasn’t completely written off the Tide in the wake of Tagovailoa’s injury.

Now they have to go about the business of winning without him.

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