TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — University of Alabama junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can’t be blamed if he has slightly mixed feeling about playing in Atlanta again.
It’s where he threw the overtime touchdown pass to wide receiver DeVonta Smith to win the 2017 national championship, but also where he left the field on a cart last season in the SEC Championship Game.
He’s personally hoping for a better finish during his return trip this weekend.
“We've been there a lot,” Tagovailoa said. “For my class this would probably be our third time playing in Atlanta. It helps because you know where the game clock's gonna be, shot clock, you know where a lot of things are gonna be.
“So I think it helps tremendously.”
When Alabama faces Duke on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, ABC), the Crimson Tide might have an extra advantage in that it’s more familiar territory even though the Blue Devils regularly have Georgia Tech on the schedule.
They’ve never played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Alabama is 3-0 in the stadium, having won both a national and conference championship there even though it’s only a couple of years old,
“I feel like that’s my home field, so I don’t really get too much pre-game jitters when I’m there,” junior linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “I feel like I’ve been there more than Bryant-Denny.”
While the fight song “Yea Alabama” includes the lines, “Go teach the Bulldogs to behave; Send the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave,” Atlanta is also in Alabama’s back yard when it comes to recruiting.
There are six players on the roster who hail from the state of Georgia: Miller Forristall, Giles Amos, King Mwikuta, Kevin Harris II, Justin Eboigbe and Xavier McKinney.
“I like playing in a dome, personally,” McKinney said. “I like playing in an NFL stadium whenever we play in one. I think it helps us as far being at a neutral site. It just helps us for when we’ve got away games because technically it is not really a home game for us. I think that helps for when we do have those away games and it gets me more prepared for those.”
While one has to think that offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is eager to go back and have some success after spending the last two years with the Atlanta Falcons, Tagovailoa is hoping to walk out a spring in his step after suffering two ankle injuries during his last visit.
That’s actually harder to do than on face value.
“It's not normal field turf if you ask me,” he said. It's a little different."
When asked to elaborate, Tagovailoa said he thought it was “rough.The turf is pretty hard. The turf we have in here is, we just renovated our indoor, it’s a lot softer, I guess. It’s bouncy. The turf over there is almost like concrete.”
When Alabama opened the 2017 season against Florida State, a No. 1 vs. No. 3 matchup according to the preseason polls that was hailed as maybe being the best opener ever (until the Crimson Tide rolled to a 24-6 victory), both teams suffered numerous injuries. Among them, Lewis tore an elbow ligament that sidelined him for 10 games.
He played in the national championship, and had a key sack, but this will be his first game since then after missing the 2018 season with a torn ACL.
"I'm ready,” he said.
Overall, the Crimson Tide is 28-7-1 (.792) all-time in domed stadiums, including a 19-2 (.905) mark since 2009, and is 20-4 (.833) during Nick Saban’s tenure.
Alabama is 13-1 in games played in Atlanta under Saban, including 12 straight wins. The lone loss was in the 2008 SEC Championship Game against Tim Tebow and Florida. The Crimson Tide avenged that loss a year later, though, en route to winning the national title.
During that span, the Crimson Tide is 5-0 in Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games, 6-1 in SEC Championship Games, 1-0 in the Peach Bowl and 1-0 in the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
Alabama is also a perfect 12-0 in season openers under Saban. It’s outscored those opponents 486-141, and outgained them 5,231-2,481. On average, it works out to a 40.5-11.8 score and 435.9-206.8 edge in total yards.
The last time Alabama faced Duke was 2010, won by the visiting Crimson Tide 62-13.
The game was also played on the grass at Wallace Wade Stadium. This will be a little different, on the faster artificial turf.
“Better to run on,” junior wide receiver Henry Ruggs III said. “I like it.”