For the better part of a year, former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was considered a lock for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Crimson Tide signal-caller burst onto the scene in the 2018 College Football Playoff Championship game, taking over in the second half and leading Alabama back from a 13-0 deficit to beat Georgia with a 41-yard touchdown in overtime. In 2018, Tagovailoa put together one of the most efficient seasons in college football history, completing 245 of 355 passes (69.0 percent) for 3,966 and 43 yards to six interceptions, adding 190 rushing yards and another score.
Entering the 2019 season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Tagovailoa would be the top quarterback taken in the draft, if not the No. 1 overall player. That is, until Joe Burrow — a second-year starter at LSU who formerly was buried on Ohio State’s depth chart — put together one of the single-greatest individual seasons in college football history.
Burrow was inarguably the best player on, inarguably, the nation’s best team. The 2019 Tigers became one of the greatest college teams of all time, going 15-0 and producing some of the best NFL talent in the league today.
In so doing, Burrow jumped the NFL’s “Tank for Tua” campaign to become the No. 1 quarterback and player taken in the draft. Tagovailoa was the No. 2 quarterback, and the No. 5 player, taken in the draft.
With those quarterbacks facing off for the first time as NFL opponents on “Thursday Night Football,” The Sporting News looks back at the 2019 college football season, and how Burrow jumped Tagovailoa as the can’t-miss product of the 2020 NFL Draft:
QBs taken in 2020 NFL Draft
Burrow ultimately was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, regardless of position. Though he was considered a generational talent following his 2019 season at LSU, it helped that the team with the top pick of the draft — the Bengals — were in desperate need of a quarterback.
Moreover, Cincinnati was something of the hometown team for Burrow, who hails from Athens, Ohio and spent several years backing up future NFL quarterbacks at Ohio State. It was perhaps the easiest decision of the draft for the Bengals to select Burrow, and one that has paid off handsomely through two-plus seasons.
Tagovailoa had to wait for three more players’ names to be called — Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and Andrew Thomas — before hearing his own. Each of the teams, Washington, Detroit and the Giants, already had quarterbacks in place in Alex Smith/Dwayne Haskins, Mathew Stafford and Daniel Jones, respectively.
The first team in need of a quarterback following those teams was Miami, which selected Tagovailoa over Oregon product Justin Herbert.
Joe Burrow 2019 stats
It can’t be understated how dominant Burrow’s 2019 season was at LSU. He completed 402 of 527 passes (76.3 percent) for 5,671 passing yards and 60 touchdowns to six interceptions, adding 369 rushing yards and five touchdowns to one of the greatest individual seasons of all time.
Burrow was helped by a team — adjudged by The Sporting News to be the third-best of all time — that produced 14 NFL draft picks in 2020, including first-rounders in K’Lavon Chaisson, Justin Jefferson, Patrick Queen and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. A total of 10 players went within the first three rounds.
That, of course, does not include future first-round selections in Ja’Marr Chase, the 2019 Biletnikoff Winner, or Derek Stingley Jr., arguably the best cornerback in the country in the 2019 college football season. Both went on to be top-five picks of the 2021 and 2022 NFL drafts, respectively.
Regardless, Burrow did not have a single bad game for the Tigers in 2019, routinely dismantling opposing defenses (including those on seven different top-10 teams).
Against Tagovailoa and Alabama in a rare regular-season Game of the Century, Burrow completed 31 of 39 passes for 393 yards and three touchdowns in what ultimately was a 46-41 victory for the Tigers — their first in the series since 2011.
Here is his passing game log from that season, which included only one game with one passing touchdown, one game with less than 70 percent completion and a 22-0 touchdown-interception ratio in the last five games:
|vs. Georgia Southern||23-27 (85.2)||278||5-0|
|at No. 9 Texas||31-39 (79.5)||471||4-1|
|vs. Northwestern State||21-24 (87.5)||373||2-1|
|at Vanderbilt||25-34 (73.5)||398||6-0|
|vs. Utah State||27-38 (71.1)||344||5-1|
|vs. No. 7 Florida||21-24 (87.5)||293||3-0|
|at Mississippi State||25-32 (78.1)||327||4-0|
|vs. No. 9 Auburn||32-42 (76.2)||321||1-1|
|at No. 2 Alabama||31-39 (79.5)||393||3-0|
|at Ole Miss||32-42 (76.2)||489||5-2|
|vs. Arkansas||23-28 (82.1)||327||3-0|
|vs. Texas A&M||32-29 (71.9)||352||3-0|
|vs. No. 4 Georgia||28-37 (73.7)||349||4-0|
|vs. No. 4 Oklahoma||29-38 (74.4)||493||7-0|
|vs. No. 3 Clemson||31-49 (63.3)||433||5-0|
Tua Tagovailoa 2019 stats
Tagovailoa didn’t have the campaign that Burrow had in 2019, but was no slouch — even without a full season. He completed 180 of 252 passes (71.4 percent) for 2,840 yards and 33 touchdowns to three interceptions. He also had two rushing touchdowns.
Like Burrow, Tagovailoa had some of the greatest offensive talent available to throw to, including DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, not to mention running back Najee Harris.
Here is his passing game log for 2019, which did not include an interception until the Crimson Tide’s sixth game and was cut short just nine games into the 2019 campaign:
|vs. Duke||26-31 (83.9)||336||4-0|
|vs. New Mexico State||16-24 (66.7)||227||3-0|
|at South Carolina||28-36 (77.8)||444||5-0|
|vs. Southern Miss||17-21 (81.0)||293||5-0|
|vs. Ole Miss||26-36 (72.2)||418||6-0|
|at No. 24 Texas A&M||21-34 (61.8)||293||4-1|
|vs. Tennessee||11-12 (91.7)||155||0-1|
|vs. No. 1 LSU||21-40 (52.5)||418||4-1|
|at Mississippi State||14-18 (77.8)||256||2-0|
Tua Tagovailoa injury history
Burrow earned his status as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 draft, but Tagovailoa’s case certainly wasn’t helped by a notable injury history at Alabama — including a devastating hip injury that ended his college career.
- Broken left index finger (March 2018)
- Left knee sprain (October 2018)
- Left quad injury (November 2018)
- Right ankle injury (December 2018)
- Right ankle sprain (October 2019)
- Dislocated hip, posterior wall fracture (November 2019)
Prior to his right ankle sprain in 2019, Tagovailoa had never missed time from an injury — apart from the remainder of the game, on occasion. Following that injury, Tagovailoa missed one week of action (and a bye week) before returning to play LSU.
In the next game, Tagovailoa suffered a devastating dislocated hip/posterior wall fracture against Mississippi State, the latter of which is more in line with a car crash than a football injury. That created a significant timeline for Tagovailoa to recover, which has extended even into his NFL career.
That injury also removed any doubt that Burrow would be the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. That, and the Tiger signal-callers’ incredible final season at LSU.