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Nick Saban says he plans to continue playing both Tua and Jalen. Why that's important

Basically every major new trend to debut over the past in college football is clashing into one another in Alabama's quarterback room right now, and it's going to be extremely fascinating theater to watch how this plays out.

Faced with a 13-0 halftime deficit in January's CFP title game, Nick Saban replaced Jalen Hurts with Tua Tagovailoa, and the true freshman led the Tide back to a 26-23 overtime win. Any semblance of a quarterback competition heading into the 2018 season was essentially over the moment Tagovailoa's 2nd-and-26 rainbow landed in DeVonta Smith's outstretched hands, handing the Tide a stunning national championship victory.

As we later learned, more than just a simple national championship game hung in the balance when Saban walked into the locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last January. Tagovailoa later told people close to him he was leaving Alabama had Jalen Hurts remained in through the end of that game, even going as far as asking his dad about a potential transfer to USC.

“Even throughout my football season, I wasn’t the starter,” Tagovailoa said, via Hawaii News Now. “I wanted to leave the school. So I told myself if I didn’t play in the last game, which was the national championship game, I would transfer out. If I gave in, I don’t think I would have seen the end blessing of where I am now.”

This, if you'll excuse my hyperbole, would have been bad -- for both parties. Rated as the No. 1 dual threat quarterback in the 2017 class, Tagovailoa added an extra dimension to Alabama's Kiffin-ized spread offense. His ability and willingness to drive the ball all over the field provided even more room for Alabama's top-ranked offensive linemen and top-ranked running backs to churn the belly of overexposed defenses, and his gift for scrambling to pass allows Alabama's top-ranked receivers even more time to break free from coverage. Drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant signing with the Golden State Warriors, Tua was seen as the missing piece to an already completed puzzle.

Though transferring would have been a shortsighted decision for Tagovailoa, it wouldn't have been an uncommon one. According to a 2017 Fox Sports study, fully half -- 100 of 200 -- of the top 50 quarterbacks designated by the 247Sports composite ratings from the 2011 through 2014 classes eventually transferred.

But Tua stuck around and so did the incumbent Jalen Hurts, even though the writing on the wall was written in Sharpie. In August, Hurts -- who started 28 games in his first two seasons, won 26 of them and played a good soldier throughout -- took a unprecedented (for him) step to voice frustration with the way the quarterback derby (or lack thereof) was handled.

“No one came up to me the whole spring, coaches included, no one asked me how I felt,” Hurts said. “No one asked me what was on my mind. No one asked me how I felt about the things that were going on. Nobody asked me what my future held.”

That takes us to Sept. 1. Saban didn't reveal his starter publicly until the Alabama offense took the field for their opening drive against Louisville. It was Tua. (ABC's cameras showed Tagovailoa's parents in the stands at Orlando's Camping World Stadium, and their reaction implied even they didn't know their son would start the game.)

The sophomore from Hawaii was incredible, and has been incredible ever since. Through three games, Tagovailoa hit 36-of-50 passes for 646 passes with eight touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing 14 times for an additional 93 yards and a touchdown. In the rare instance where an opposing defense puts the Crimson Tide in a passing situation on third down, Tagovailoa has been absolutely lethal: 13-of-13 for 298 yards with six touchdowns, good for an insane 444.86 passer rating. At the quarter pole of the season, Tua is the obvious Heisman Trophy leader.

Having a quarterback that good creates problems of its own, though: Garbage time, and lots of it. Alabama won its first three games by scores of 51-14, 57-7 and 62-7. More importantly, the halftime scores of those games: 28-0, 40-0, 49-7.

Saban would be irresponsible bordering on reckless to play Tagovailoa to the end of those blowouts, so in each game he turned to his backup quarterback to get some work in and wind the clock down. Hurts has played in all three games, completing 19-of-28 passes for 248 yards with four touchdowns and one interception while rushing 12 times for 61 yards. Not only has Hurts played, he's seen first half action in each of those games.

Until this year, playing Hurts wouldn't have been a controversial decision. It would have been an obvious one, in fact. But over the winter the NCAA passed a new rule allowing players to appear in up to four games and retain their redshirt. Additionally, Hurts is in line to graduate in December, so there was (and still is, technically) a somewhat realistic possibility Hurts could serve as Alabama's backup through this season, retain his redshirt and compete elsewhere in 2019 with two years of eligibility remaining. Should Hurts go that route, he would also join a growing throng of graduate transfer quarterbacks. According to a study by The Athletic, 57 of the 65 Power 5 programs have either seen a graduate transfer come or go since the rule was instituted in 2006, and there are 24 at the FBS level this season.

While sitting Hurts for the majority of this season so he would not use it would have done the player a solid, that would have been quite a tightrope for Saban to walk throughout the season. But it doesn't appear Saban appears interested in even trying -- and he's not in the wrong.

For all his abilities, Saban cannot see the future. Sure, Alabama could have easily dispatched Louisville, Arkansas State and Ole Miss with third-stringer Mac Jones playing all the garbage time snaps, there's no guaranteeing Tagovailoa's health through January. Heck, Tua could (knocks on every piece of wood in sight) break his foot getting off the bus heading to the Texas A&M game Saturday, requiring Hurts to carry the team through the rest of the season. Nothing is guaranteed, especially in football. Saban's ultimate obligation is to his team, and as such he owes it to the rest of the roster to give Alabama the best possible chance to win another national championship -- which, in his and his staff's view, means giving Hurts regular reps throughout the season.

But, still, it's going to be a slightly bad look for Saban if Tagovailoa sails through all of 2018 healthy and it turns out he wasted one of a good soldier's two remaining seasons for, essentially, nothing.

Saban acknowledged as much to ESPN's Chris Low on Thursday:

"I understand how unique a situation this is," Saban said. "I don't know of any other precedent at any time in college football where a guy started 28 games, won 26 of them and then somebody took his place. That's never happened. So that's hard for Jalen, and it's hard for me. I'm a loyal guy and loyal to the guys who get out there and lay it on the line for you. You want to be fair to all of your players, but you also want to be fair to your team.

"We needed both quarterbacks last year, and we'll need them both again this year."

It's human nature to ascribe Hero and Villain status in every story -- and heaven knows what a compelling villain Saban can be -- but there truly isn't one here. Hurts, should he choose to play elsewhere in 2019, is looking out for his best interest. By playing Hurts, Saban is looking out for his team's best interest.

It just so happens that those competing interests don't align in a way that works best for Hurts.