At first glance, the halftime move seemed bizarre, rushed, perhaps even a rare overthought.
Why, in the middle of the national championship game against Georgia, would Nick Saban bench Jalen Hurts, the quarterback with a 25-2 record who led his fourth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide to two consecutive national championship games, for Tua Tagovailoa — a first-year quarterback with just 53 career passes that mostly came in garbage time?
“We have to do something,” Saban said at halftime after Alabama was stonewalled by Georgia’s defense.
That something turned out to be one of Saban’s smartest decisions, a gutsy call that only Saban could seemingly pull off.
After being shutout in the first half and trailing the entirety of the game by as much as two scores, the Tagovailoa-led Crimson Tide pulled off a comeback for the ages to defeat the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
And Saban’s legacy as one of the best coaches in college football history only continues to grow.
Ever since he left the Miami Dolphins following the 2006 season to become the head football coach at Alabama, Saban has brought the Crimson Tide back to the dynastic role it held in the glory days of Bear Bryant.
In simplest terms: five national championships, five SEC championships, 10 10-win seasons and a 127-20 overall record in 11 years.
Add in his national championship from the 2003 season with LSU, and Saban is now tied with Bryant for the most national titles by a single head coach.
But to Saban, Alabama’s 66-year-old stoic mastermind, the wins and the accolades and the recognition are all secondary. Every game, every moment has a teaching value, Saban says.
“The message to the team tonight after this game was I hope you take something from this game and the resiliency that you showed in this game and it helps you be more successful in life,” Saban said. “It’s not just about winning the championship. … We like winning, and we hate losing, but there’s more to it than that.”
His team learned as much last year, when Alabama lost to Clemson in the national championship on a last-second touchdown.
“Don’t waste a failing,” Saban said. “That’s the lesson we all wanted to learn.”
So, his team built off it. Despite a depleted defense at times during the season, and a couple close calls against Texas A&M and Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide opened the year with 11 consecutive wins before falling 26-14 against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Alabama missed out on a chance to play for an SEC championship and barely snuck into the College Football Playoff as a No. 4 seed despite plenty of criticism.
And this time, the final win came on the back of a freshman in Tagovailoa, who had a minimal role all season and rallied the Crimson Tide from a rare two-touchdown deficit.
In the second half and overtime, Tagovailoa finished the game with 166 passing yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Each touchdown played a pivotal role in the Crimson Tide’s comeback.
First was the 6-yard pass to Henry Ruggs III in the middle of the end zone for Alabama’s first points of the game. Tagovailoa marched Alabama down the field on a seven-play, 56-yard drive on his second series of the game, highlighted by a 9-yard run on third down during which Tagovailoa weaved and bobbed past three Georgia defenders behind the line of scrimmage to move the chains.
Then it was the game-tying touchdown to Calvin Ridley, a Monarch High alumnus, with 3:49 left in regulation.
And finally, it was the 41-yard bomb to DeVonta Smith in overtime that sealed yet another Alabama crown. On that play, Tagovailoa looked the safety off the route and threw a perfect pass to Smith down the left sideline.
“We needed a spark on offense,” Saban said. “Tua certainly gave us that and did a really good job.”
And Tagovailoa was able to create that spark because Saban made a call that most would balk at on that stage — a legacy-defining decision inside a legacy-filled career.