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Tua Tagovailoa wins national title for Alabama, but Jalen Hurts remains a winner, too

Relief quarterback Tua Tagovailoa rallied the University of Alabama to victory in the football national championship game on Jan. 8, in Atlanta. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)
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ATLANTA — Because this is the heart of SEC country, where the two athletic seasons are "football" and "spring football," it is the one place in the nation where, a half hour after the national championship game, it might be wholly appropriate to ask the winning coach about, say, his depth chart at quarterback when spring ball opens.

Come on, Nick Saban. You started a quarterback in Monday night's College Football Playoff title game whose career record was 26-2, and you benched him at halftime. So this is the direction of the program, right? Tua Tagovailoa is the star now, and the 41-yard missile he threw to freshman wide receiver DeVonta Smith — take a picture of it, frame it and hang it on the wall, because it was perfect — won Alabama another national title, a 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia that will take some time to digest. Like, months.

Jalen Hurts? Well, Coach, if you were being honest — and you read the message boards, where such matters are discussed in detail — Hurts would have been benched long before halftime against the Dawgs.

University of Alabama fans erupted with joy when their team beat the University of Georgia to clinch the College Football Playoff National Championship Jan. 8. (Video: Reuters)

So you think, coming out of this epic at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, that the main question in the SEC would be: Isn't Hurts going to transfer?

And then you listen to Hurts, and you consider what Saban has built in Tuscaloosa.

"It was important for me to stay true to myself and be the person I am, and be the leader I am, regardless of the circumstance," Hurts said early Tuesday morning, standing in front of his stall in a delirious Alabama locker room. "It's my duty to do things like that, and do all those things genuinely."

When Saban boldly but confidently pulled Hurts at halftime — and really, it seems so logical, what with the Crimson Tide trailing 13-0 and Hurts having thrown for just 21 yards — you could almost hear the director from the ESPN truck making sure he had at least two cameras on Hurts at all times, lest he display some displeasure with his coach's decision.

A cocked eyebrow. An aside to a teammate. Complete disengagement from the proceedings. Anything.

"As a competitor, of course you want to stay in there," Hurts said. "But as a team player, and as a leader, you've got to do what's best for the team. If that was best for the team, then I support it completely."

It was, indeed, best for the team. The Tide managed four first downs in the first half. It recorded 16 in the second half. The Tide gained 94 yards before halftime, 277 afterward. Hurts completed 3 of his 8 passes and led zero scoring drives, Tagovailoa 14 of his 24 and led five possessions that ended in points — which even discounts the drive that resulted in Andy Pappanastos's missed field goal on the last play of regulation. (Lost in all this: Who in this entire nation was more relieved than Pappanastos on Tuesday morning?)

These are the statistics that should be cited, and they're all true and relevant. But more important, really, was how Tagovailoa's presence transformed not just what the Tide did, but how it did it.

"With the absence of a passing game," Saban said, coldly and honestly assessing the situation in public just as he did in private, ". . . I just didn't feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark."

To be clear, not every coach would be able to make this decision. It would be easy — easier, really — to lean back and think about reasons to keep Hurts in the game. The Tide wouldn't have made it this far without him. Tagovailoa had thrown all of 53 passes in his career — never more than 12 in a single game — and hadn't appeared when Alabama held something less than a double-digit lead.

But Saban, we know, is not every coach, and there will be a continuance of the discussion about where he fits on college football's Rushmore. Part of all that is X's and O's, is leading a staff, is turning into a salesman when he has to and a hard-ass when that's more appropriate.

Yet the move from Hurts to Tagovailoa also reveals the pillars of Saban's program in Tuscaloosa. He has found a way to simultaneously foster competition in practice yet camaraderie in the locker room. Can an environment be equal parts cutthroat and kumbaya?

"We spend a lot of time talking to guys about: What are your goals? What are your aspirations? What do you want to accomplish? And what do you want to do?" Saban said. ". . . So every time they don't do what they're supposed to do, when they're not accountable — whether it's in school, as a person, or as a player — I can just ask, 'How is this behavior going to help you get where you want to go?'"

That makes each move, each decision, about individual responsibility and personal growth. But what's apparent, too, is that fits into the group dynamic — dozens of times over.

"It's also having respect for the principles and values of the team," Saban said, "and trusting in and respecting those as well as their teammates and not putting those goals and aspirations ahead of what's best for the team."

And so it was, at halftime, with a decidedly partisan Georgia crowd sensing what was possible. The Alabama coaching staff didn't make a big announcement about the quarterback change. They told the players involved.

"It was an executive decision," Hurts said.

But before Tagovailoa stepped on a game field for the first time since Nov. 18 — when the opponent was not Georgia, but Mercer — Hurts had a message for him.

"I told him to play your game," Hurts said. "Do your thing. . . . Just ball."

So Tagovailoa balled. There was the play where he turned a certain sack on third down into a nine-yard gain. There was the freshman stuff, where he missed a signal and the 10 other guys executed a run play while he chose to pass — and heaved an immature interception. There was the six-yard scoring pass he threw to Henry Ruggs to get Alabama on the board, and the seven-yard scoring pass he tossed to Calvin Ridley to tie the game up with under four minutes remaining, and the 125 yards he had thrown for before overtime.

And then, trailing 23-20 in overtime, he was sacked on the Tide's first play. And you know what he did? Moved onto the next one.

"When they called the play," said Smith, the receiver, also a fellow freshman, "I was like, 'Trust me, bro.' And he gave me a little nod."

The play that resulted, a 41-yard masterpiece down the left sideline, will be shown in Tuscaloosa and Tuscumbia and all over Alabama ad infinitum. And there will be time to ask Saban about who his quarterback will be in 2018, and what will happen to the one who isn't chosen.

But on the night Nick Saban made the choice other coaches might have passed on, on the night he inserted a true freshman to win a national title, let's use it as an opportunity to appreciate what he has built at Alabama, because that one move encapsulates so much of what goes into it.

"We're national champs," Hurts said. "You can't say anything about that. We're national champs."

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