It is late Thursday night, Dec. 6, so late it’s nearly Friday morning. Everyone is tired. But suddenly, the air is electric. College football’s two best players — perhaps the most explosive quarterbacks the game has ever seen — are finally about to occupy the same field at the same time.
On the green synthetic lawn of the College Football Hall of Fame’s indoor playing field in downtown Atlanta, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, still 48 hours from being named winner of the Heisman Trophy, is standing in the shadows of the girders that make up the giant ESPN stage at the back of the cavernous room. He has just won the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top collegiate quarterback. He has to do his umpteenth and final TV interview of the night. But first, he must wait for the man whom he defeated for the O’Brien and will soon defeat for the Heisman, but by whom he was edged out for the Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards, both given to the nation’s best player.
Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa rolls up squeaking, his healthy right leg pulling his left one along, bent, booted and scooted on a cart. He is surrounded by Tide personnel, from sports information directors to team doctors, forming a crimson flying wedge to gently nudge away any would-be stompers of college football’s most precious appendage.
“You bringing your rehab with you?” Murray says with a smile and a nod to Tua’s cart.
“You think they’ll let me roll out there at the Orange Bowl in this?” Tagovailoa replies.
“You’d still be out there balling,” the Sooner says.
Murray’s rocket right hand captures Tua’s thunderous left in a quick handshake. It is a bit of a surprise that when they touch it fails to ignite the entire room with some sort of instant Nicola Tesla-like electrical field. These are the arms that spent 2018 seizing two of the top three single-season spots in the history of collegiate passing. They have both averaged more than 11 yards per pass attempt. They have played in 26 combined games — losing only one — and produced nearly 8,500 yards of offense.
Oh yeah, they’ve both already won conference championships, finished 1-2 in what probably will forever rank among the Heisman Trophy’s most intensely debated voting outcomes … and they managed to stand head and shoulders above what figures to be remembered as one of the most talented and prolific classes of college QBs the sport will ever see. It’s a class that includes prolific record-breakers from the Pacific Northwest (Washington State’s Gardner Minshew) to the Midwest (Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins) to the Appalachians (West Virginia’s Will Grier).
Any other season and those other names would have skated out of New York with a bronzed stiff-armed gentleman stuffed in his carry-on luggage. This season, Murray and Tagovailoa left them all fighting for third.
“We all think we’re pretty good at playing quarterback, and I think we all are,” said Minshew, winner of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award for the nation’s top senior/fourth-year QB, and fifth-place Heisman finisher. “But honestly, I’m glad our [Alamo Bowl] game will be done Friday night, because Saturday I want to be where I can watch those two guys throwing down in the playoff.”
Yeah, so does everyone else. The two will once again be on the same field — a real playing field this time — for Saturday’s prime-time College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). That rarest of college football occasions when the game’s clear 1-2 players face off with nothing less than a shot at a national championship on the line.
Sure, Tagovailoa might be a little hurt (he said Wednesday his ankle was “80-85 percent”). Sure, Murray might be a little, well, little (5-foot-10, 195 pounds compared with Tagovailoa’s 6-foot-1, 218 pounds). But this is Ali vs. Frazier, Kobe vs. LeBron, Jack vs. Arnie, Iron Man vs. Captain America, take your pick. Especially if you’re someone who owns a future NFL draft pick, even if Murray goes on to become a full-time Oakland A’s outfielder and Tagovailoa doesn’t step toward the pros until 2020 or later.
“You watch what’s happening on Sundays now,” ESPN NFL draft expert Todd McShay said. “The NFL is becoming a quick-twitch, getting the ball out while on the move league. That’s who these guys are. Murray isn’t as big as Tua, but Tua isn’t as fast as Murray. Both release the ball with a crazy quick release. Both have the ability to run their way out of trouble, though Murray has to do that more than Tua does. Both make defenses have to respect the run and pass, to wait and react. You can debate who is better all you want. But I think what you need to do is appreciate having both of these guys in the same game. We don’t see this often, if ever.”
It was 13 years ago, in the Orange Bowl, when Heisman winners met for the first time. Oklahoma’s Jason White threw the first TD pass of the night, but USC’s Matt Leinart answered with five of his own for a record-breaking 55-19 national title victory. Four years later in the same stadium, Florida’s Tim Tebow outlasted Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford in a sloppy 24-14 BCS National Championship affair.
But this semifinal already feels more dynamic than those finals. This feels more like Leinart’s other national title shot, in the Rose Bowl the year after his throttling of Oklahoma, when he shared the backfield with fellow Heisman winner Reggie Bush, but they were defeated by the QB who finished second to Bush in New York, Texas Longhorn Vince Young, in perhaps the greatest college football game ever played.
Peyton Manning vs. Danny Wuerffel in 1996. George Rogers vs. Herschel Walker in ’80. Johnny Rodgers vs. Greg Pruett ’71. Gary Beban vs. O.J. Simpson ’67. Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis vs. Johnny Lujack in 1946. Some of those matchups were bigger in their time than they are in the rearview mirror. Others have grown more prestigious with the benefit of historical perspective.
However, few if any have arrived with as much potential for fun as Tua vs. Kyler.
Go back and watch Tagovailoa’s spinning, stumbling, how-did-he-do-that opening TD pass against Louisville. Or his 79-yard video-game frozen rope to Jerry Jeudy in the early going at Ole Miss, when, oh by the way, he was still competing for the starting job.
Then dig up Murray’s 55-yard water-bug TD dash at West Virginia, the one during which he cuts three times and runs through two different sets of outstretched arms. Or the time he spotted a Texas safety assigned as a Kyler spy, eyeballed him, froze him as if he’d pushed a remote control with a “safety pause” button and then launched a 28-yard TD dart over that safety’s head.
Those plays became business as usual in 2018. Routine. Now imagine them routinely happening in the same game.
“I do run it more than Tua does [108 carries vs. 37 and 9.1 yards per carry vs. 7.8], but when he does, it’s just sick,” Murray observes, recalling a play from the film of the Ole Miss game when Tagovailoa should have been sacked on a deep-drop pass play and instead turned it into a gutsy 10-yard third-down conversion. “I love how he plays. He really loves playing football. But he also plays like he still has to earn the job, even when he’s already done so much.”
Tagovailoa, in turn, says the same of Murray: “He never stops working. He plays like he’s still fighting to be the starter.” he says with a laugh. “And obviously, we all know he’s got the job, right?”
They like what they see in each other because it looks and feels so familiar. They were both in the College Football Playoff semifinals a year ago, too. But Murray was firmly entrenched as the backup to Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and Tagovailoa was on the sideline watching Jalen Hurts lead his Bama to the edge of another national title shot.
That’s not all they have in common, similarities that reach well beyond threat of the run-pass option. Both were the ballyhooed QB recruits out of high school. Both withstood the pressure of “Why isn’t he starting?!” hype. And both know the stresses of becoming overnight sensations while performing on the biggest stages for rabid fan bases with a championship-or-bust mentality.
“I think that we are all learning about this life, being in the spotlight all of the time and what comes with that,” Tagovailoa has said of his rise to national fame, along with that of Murray’s. “But I think there are trades that you make to be the starting quarterbacks at the greatest programs in college football history.”
Murray, reflecting on the awards circuit and getting to know Tagovailoa throughout December, agrees. “There are only a few people in the world who can really understand what this experience and what this life is like. It’s really nice to get to know a guy like Tua, because we share something. We share all of this.”
Now they will share a field, a game and a dream. To what levels of greatness they might carry it all remains to be seen. But both know that there is no ceiling to what they might accomplish together, with a nation intensely watching.
“We’ve been waiting for this, so you gotta get this healed up, man,” Murray says to Tagovailoa in Atlanta, a full three weeks before the game they are discussing.
“I’ll be ready,” Tagovailoa replies. “And I know you will be, too.”