Tua Tagovailoa's injury overshadows epic Oklahoma comeback and more in Week 12

ByDavid Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, November 17, 2019

College football, by its nature, is meant to be enjoyed in the moment. Sure, the history and traditions endure, but the sport is inherently fleeting. Today's star is tomorrow's NFL draft pick. A season-defining win can evaporate amid a brutal loss a week later. For all the consistency of Alabama and Clemson, every Saturday manages to offer a new revelation.

The ephemeral nature of the sport was at the forefront Saturday, when college football welcomed Baylor to the big time, then kicked the Bears to the curb an hour later, capsized Minnesota's playoff boat and supplied an absolute gut punch to everyone who has witnessed the brilliance ofTua Tagovailoa, only to watch him scream into a towel as his hip throbbed and blood gushed from his face.

There will be debate in the days to come about whether Tagovailoa should've even been on the field when the injury occurred, what it means for his predicted future in the NFL, how Alabama will rebound, what this moment -- the sight of one of the sport's most recognizable stars writhing in pain -- could do to change the discussion around paying players. All are worthy conversations, but in the moment, let's consider this:

It has been less than two years since Tagovailoa stepped into the spotlight in the second half of the national championship game and delivered one of the most thrilling comebacks in the sport's history. It has been less than a year since he saw his surefire Heisman hopes eclipsed by the ascendant Kyler Murray. It has been just a week since he played through a serious ankle injury, willing his team back into contention against LSU, only to fall short there, too. If this is the last we see of Tagovailoa in an Alabama uniform, it will have been an all-too-brief flirtation but an overwhelmingly memorable one.

It's almost hard to remember that, until Tagovailoa emerged from the tunnel to lead the Tide back to beat Georgia in the national championship game in January 2018, Alabama's recent run had little to do with the men playing quarterback. His predecessors were fine, but Alabama's run was built largely by elite defenses and dominant runners, and the QBs were along for the ride. Remember Jacob Coker? He won a title.

Then Tagovailoa came along and changed everything. Suddenly Alabama, the team that oozed tradition and brute-force swagger, became one of the most explosive offenses in the country. For all the deserved accolades afforded Mike Leach and Chip Kelly and Lincoln Riley, it was Tagovailoa who turned old-school Bama into a new-school juggernaut that truly changed the sport. Once the Tide did it, there was no going back.

Now, it's likely over. Not the change in Bama's approach. There will be other big-name QBs and plenty more points, even if they didn't come in the second half against Mississippi State. The magic of Tagovailoa's tenure, though, will be tough to replicate. Because guys such as Tagovailoa -- quiet and reserved but utterly joyous on the field, a player whose greatness was recognized in real time -- don't come around very often.

In Minnesota, the playoff hopes proved fleeting. The high that followed a stunning win over Penn State lasted just a week, as the Gophers went to Iowa and ran into a buzzsaw. Minnesota's offensive line always made a run through the Big Ten unlikely, and A.J. Epenesa & Co. finally took advantage, utterly smothering the Gophers' ground game and sacking Tanner Morgan six times in a 23-19 win.

But nothing was more fleeting than Baylor's playoff push, which went from an emphatic statement to an utter disaster in the span of a half. Baylor jumped to a 28-3 lead and led by 21 at the half. The Bears have lived on the brink often this season, but Saturday initially looked to be an easy one against Oklahoma. That didn't last.

Baylor didn't score in the second half, Jalen Hurts moved the ball at will and that big lead couldn't hold. Hurts threw for 297 yards, ran for 114 more on a whopping 27 carries and finished with four TDs in a 34-31 win.

That Hurts' playoff hopes remain alive while Tagovailoa's season is over offers yet another reminder of the often merciless, occasionally exhilarating and always dramatic ups and downs this sport provides.

The SEC's Achilles' heels

The SEC currently has three teams in the nation's top five, but that doesn't mean there aren't some serious questions looming at the top of the country's best conference.

The Tagovailoa injury certainly puts Alabama's playoff chances under even more scrutiny. The Tide already needed help, but we've seen the committee give Saban's crew the benefit of the doubt before. Will that same luxury be afforded to Alabama without its star QB if it finishes 11-1? Is 11-1 even possible without Tagovailoa in the Iron Bowl?

It was Georgia that moved into the No. 4 spot last week, edging Alabama. The Dawgs added a huge line to an already strong résumé with a 21-14 win over Auburn. The Georgia D was dominant, stuffing the run and forcing Bo Nix to throw 50 times. Still, the lingering questions about UGA's offense remain. Jake Fromm made the big throws he needed to win, but he was just 13-of-28 passing for the game, and the Auburn D-line made life uncomfortable for him. Auburn finished with seven pass breakups and five QB hurries, and Georgia mustered just 251 yards of offense. It was the fifth time this season that Georgia has failed to crack 400, which, given the offensive fireworks Clemson, LSU and Ohio State are capable of producing, certainly makes for a stark contrast.

Meanwhile, LSU's offense continued to chug along, but that defense provided more fodder for folks looking for a weakness in the Tigers' seemingly stellar facade. Ole Miss racked up 614 yards of offense in a 58-37 loss Saturday, marking the fourth time this season that LSU has allowed 450 or more yards. Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Oregon and Utah have yet to allow 450 yards in a game this season.

Heisman Five

That Tagovailoa won't be part of this conversation down the stretch is heartbreaking, and he'll join a group of elite QBs who never came away with the award, including Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson in recent years. Here's to hoping Tagovailoa's future includes as much success as those guys' have.

1. Joe Burrow, LSU

This game wasn't supposed to require much playing time for Burrow down the stretch, but because Ole Miss kept coming back, Burrow kept throwing. The end result was 489 yards and five touchdowns (though with two picks!), which will help boost Burrow's Heisman stats.

2. Justin Fields, Ohio State

It's a shame that playing Maryland and Rutgers doesn't give Fields much time in the second half to run up his stats. He had to settle for 335 total yards and four touchdowns on Saturday.

3. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

Hurts' second-half effort is everything a Heisman run is made of, and his 27 carries underscored the physicality he showed. Four touchdowns aren't bad, either.

4. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

With another 164 yards and two touchdowns for Hubbard in an easy win over Kansas, what looked like an all-QB affair at the Heisman ceremony seems increasingly likely to include the Cowboys' tailback.

5. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

He finished the first quarter vs. Louisville in Week 8 with three completions on seven attempts and two picks. Since then, Lawrence's stat line: 77.5% completions, 11.4 yards/pass, 16 TD, 0 INT.

Now you see them ...

Indiana did something momentous last week. For the first time in 25 years, the Hoosiers cracked the AP top 25. After a 7-2 start, IU found itself ranked No. 24, marking the first time the Hoosiers made the poll since 1994. Much like grunge, flannel and "House Party" movies, it was all downhill from there for Indiana.

How'd the new ranking treat the team? About the same as the last one. In '94, Indiana climbed to No. 25 on Sept. 25, then promptly lost its next game 25-14 to Minnesota. This season, the one-week stint at No. 24 likely came to a screeching halt with a slightly more competitive but nevertheless fruitless 34-27 loss to Penn State.

Bouncing back at the Big House

Remember when we wrote off Michigan and started scripting Jim Harbaugh's epitaph in Ann Arbor? Well, a funny thing has happened since the Wolverines fell behind 21-0 last month at Penn State. Shea Patterson & Co. came charging back in that one only to fall just short 28-21. Since then, they've been dominant, demolishing Notre Dame, Maryland and rival Michigan State.

Saturday's 44-10 win gave Michigan rights to the Paul Bunyan trophy (not the same as Paul Bunyan's axe trophy because the Big Ten is really into Paul Bunyan-related trophies) and marked the first time since 2013 that the Wolverines posted 38 or more points against three straight Big Ten opponents.

Harbaugh's team will still be a heavy underdog against Ohio State on the final Saturday of the regular season, but that game suddenly has a little more cache than we might've thought a month ago.

Two-hundred and history

Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor posted his 11th career game with at least 200 yards on the ground, going for 204 and two touchdowns in a win over Nebraska on Saturday. Taylor is now tied with Ricky Williams, Marcus Allen and Ron Dayne for the most 200-yard rushing games in college football history.

While Taylor and the Badgers celebrated the moment, Nebraska fell to 4-6 and will need to win its final two games (at Maryland, vs. Iowa) to become bowl-eligible. If the Cornhuskers can't get to six wins, this will be their third straight season without a bowl bid -- something that happened just twice in the previous 48 seasons.

Big bets and bad beats

  • College kickers haunt the dreams of every bettor, and for good reason, as Minnesota fans found out Saturday. The Gophers were 3-point dogs at Iowa, despite their 9-0 record, and a strong second half was called with a Rodney Smith TD run with 3:27 to play to pull within four, pending the point-after try. Unfortunately, freshman Brock Walker missed the kick, putting the Gophers in position to need a TD for the win and Minnesota backers just a point shy of a push. Neither came away happy, as the Gophers fell for the first time in 2019.
  • Honestly, if you were betting hapless Northwestern on Saturday, you knew you were flirting with danger, so there's no use complaining now. Still, the Wildcats left most of their backers shaking their heads (or their fists) after a woeful first quarter in which UMass's awful defense held Northwestern scoreless, another awful third frame in which they mustered just a field goal, three brutal turnovers and just 76 yards from the passing game. In the end, Northwestern covered the 38.5-point spread -- for anyone who got their bets in just before kickoff. Until four minutes before kickoff, the spread was 39.5, which left most bettors on the wrong end of an ugly game.
  • Clemson doesn't seem to have much trouble covering a big number this season, having put up an impressive 8-1 record against the spread when favored by at least 24 points against FBS competition this season. That trend held Saturday, as the Tigers walloped Wake Forest, but in order to also provide a payday to bettors who had Clemson -21.5 in the first half, the Tigers needed a little luck. Leading 17-3, Clemson got the ball with just 2:15 to play in the half. Trevor Lawrence made quick work of the Wake defense, engineering an 80-yard TD drive in 1:34. Still, Wake was covering -- until Jamie Newman tossed a pick with 20 seconds left, and Lawrence hit Tee Higgins for a 30-yard touchdown pass on the next play -- scoring with just 13 seconds left until the break.
  • Entering Saturday, there were two teams still undefeated against the spread in the first halves of games: Navy and Ohio State. The Midshipmen were +4.5 against Notre Dame, and ... it didn't go well. The Irish trucked Navy, leading 38-3 at the break and winning 52-20. Ohio State at least offered a bit more drama. The Buckeyes were favored by 35 in the first half but failed to cover thanks to two straight stops by Rutgers at the 1-yard line. The Scarlet Knights covered a 52-point spread for the game because not even Rutgers is quite that embarrassing -- this week, anyway.
  • Colorado State was a 10.5-point underdog against rival Air Force, but Mike Bobo's crew got off to a hot start and jumped to a 14-0 lead. Air Force punched its way back after a woeful first half, but with fewer than two minutes remaining, the Rams trailed by just 10 and were knocking on the door of ensuring a cover with a second-and-goal at the Air Force 1-yard line. As many a Georgia fan yelled during Bobo's years as the Bulldogs' offensive coordinator, he should've just run the ball. Instead, a Patrick O'Brien pass was picked off by Zane Lewis and returned for a touchdown, ending any hopes of a win and blowing what should've been an easy cover.

Under-the-radar play of the week

OK, so it wasn't a play, but good luck finding a moment Saturday that was infused with more meaning than Casey O'Brien, a four-time cancer survivor playing for Minnesota, getting a chance to wave to the kids at the Iowa Children's Hospital.

Minnesota's Casey O'Brien is a four-time cancer survivor.

On Saturday, he was part of Iowa's traditional wave to the children's hospital

(via @BigTenNetwork) pic.twitter.com/V9e0NsFJb5

- ESPN (@espn) November 16, 2019

Under-the-radar game of the week

Perhaps you were focused on Minnesota's late drive in hopes of staying undefeated at Iowa. Perhaps you were glued to the Georgia-Auburn game, wondering if the Tigers could come all the way back from down 21-0. Well, shame on you because while neither of those come-from-behind efforts worked out, you were missing a truly epic comeback in the heart of Indiana, where Central Michigan put up 34 second-half points and edged Ball State 45-44.

Ball State led by 16 at the half, was up 41-24 late in the third quarter and had a six-point lead with five minutes to play. It was all for naught, as Central Michigan engineered a 10-play, 72-yard TD drive, then picked off Drew Plitt to seal the win.

Why's all this noteworthy? Well, you might've written off Jim McElwain as the guy who couldn't win enough at Florida and, possibly, as the coach who looks like the guy who took a naked photo with a shark. But that'd be underestimating McElwain, who now has CMU -- a team that went 1-11 last season and had lost 15 of its past 16 FBS contests entering October -- at 7-4, winners of five of its past six and with a chance to win the MAC West.

Give Rice a trophy

Saturday was a huge day for winless teams, as both New Mexico State and Rice managed to pick up win No. 1 of the season.

For New Mexico State, the win was a little less impressive, as it upended FCS Incarnate Word. Still, a win's a win.

At Rice, however, the 31-28 victory over Middle Tennessee has huge ripple effects. Or at least it does if you like playing with the transitive property, as ESPN Stats & Info noted. Rice (1-9 on the season) beat MTSU, which beat Marshall, which beat Ohio, which beat Toledo, which has a win vs. Ball State, which beat BYU. And, of course, BYU has a win over Tennessee, and the Vols have a win over South Carolina, and South Carolina gave Georgia its only loss. So all we need is for the Dawgs to go on to win the national championship, and they'll really be partying in Houston.

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