What if he comes back?

Admit it, the concept had probably not crossed your mind until the Alabama quarterback himself went deep recently on the possibility. In a series of interviews this month following his devastating hip injury, Tua Tagovailoa mentioned more than once that he could return to the Crimson Tide.

"You're certainly not wrong for thinking that," one former Alabama player said in a text message. "I think he is honestly considering [coming back]. Not sure what he will end up doing."

The gravity of the situation for Tagovailoa, his teammates, Alabama fans, Tide coaches, the SEC and college football is not lost. We're talking about a generational talent considering putting his body on the line to not only win one more time at the collegiate level but take back some lost NFL dollars.

Also at stake, the ongoing health of Alabama's dynasty.

"I'm just trying to walk first," Tagovailoa said humbly to ESPN earlier this month.

It will not be long before it gets more complicated. Tagovailoa has not only become the leader of the Tide but particularly the junior class he joined the program with in 2017. The fate of that junior class could decide the short-term fortunes of Alabama.

Redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis has already declared for the draft. Senior defensive back Trevon Diggs has joined Lewis in skipping the Citrus Bowl against Michigan. Both are starters from the class ahead of Tagovailoa.

With the help of Tagovailoa, coach Nick Saban is trying to hold together the core of about a dozen draft-eligible juniors. The list includes linebacker Dylan Moses, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the last week of the preseason. Moses is arguably the nation's best defensive player.

Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy has committed to the Citrus Bowl, though not to a senior season just yet. Throw in WRs Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith, as well as safety Xavier McKinney and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood, and Alabama could challenge Miami's record for most first-round NFL Draft selections, six in 2004.

Saban is known for his ability to guide draft-eligible juniors to the right decision. in an era when 30-40 percent of juniors who declare are left undrafted.

As he is also known to do, Saban seemed to have sent a message to those underclassmen during a late-season press conference.

"I guess the question would be, did they create [NFL] value for themselves by being great competitors?" Saban said. "… I know, in the eight years I was in the [NFL], people always said, 'The warrior mentality. This guy's really tough. He plays hard and things don't bother him. He's not going to be on the sidelines if he gets a little nicked up.' … I'm just saying there is another side to all this."

Consider the pied piper effect Tagovailoa could have by returning. Alabama has gone to extreme lengths to keep him around the team over the last few weeks -- for just that purpose.

The SEC confirmed it was contacted by Alabama with a request for Tagovailoa be on the sideline for the Iron Bowl. Bama was told, for that to happen, Tagovailoa would have to count on the travel roster. (SEC rules limit teams to 70 players for conference road games.) Saban chose to travel one less player in order for his star signal caller to be on the sideline.

Alabama held a players-only meeting after the Iron Bowl during which the "value" of playing in the bowl game was discussed, according to The Athletic. It is largely assumed Tagovailoa will accompany the team to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

This is not the look of a star quarterback with one foot out the door. After such a devastating injury, the default assumption was that Tagovailoa was done with college football. If he was going to be injured -- the thinking went -- he might as well get paid for it in the NFL.

Instead, Tagovailoa continues to impress with something besides his talent. It's his character, his self-awareness, his honesty.

"If I come back, the risk is, what if I get hurt again?" Tagovailoa said in a revealing interview with ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit. "But the reward is maybe I jump back to the top of the [draft] boards. If I leave, the risk is, do I still go in the first round or do I even [get drafted in] the second round?"

His future has basically boiled down to a pair of options.

  1. Declare for the draft and take his chances sliding from what was once projected to be No. 1 overall spot.
  2. Return to Alabama to chase another championship. One source speculated Tagovailoa's game-week participation could be scaled back dramatically to preserve his body.

"I can't imagine a situation where Tua isn't going in the first round if he is cleared [medically] by the summer," said CBS Sports draft analyst Ryan Wilson. "There is some conversation that, even if he has to sit out 2020, he'll still go in the first round."

Tagovailoa has proved himself a wise, once-in-a-generation talent. It appears he will have this thought out well before the Jan. 20 deadline for juniors to declare for the NFL Draft.

Adding to the discourse, Tagovailoa's family did not buy loss of draft value insurance that could have been worth $10 million.

Wherever he plays next season, Tagovailoa is looking at a six-month recovery period -- at least. In a surprising revelation to the local Alabama media,

Tagovailoa said he was told he would lose what he called "some inward rotation."

"I don't think I'd say I'd be the same again," he said.

This is different than Matt Leinart and Peyton Manning coming back for their senior seasons. Sure, they were risking injury, but they weren't coming back a debilitating injury. Their decisions were based in large part on the love of the college game.

It's the same love Tagovailoa feels. We learned in the aftermath of his injury that it was his decision to play against Mississippi State. He wasn't forced to do anything.

"I want to play anytime," Tagovailoa said. "I've played hurt many times over the course [of the time] I've been the starter here."

Without him, for the first time in a decade, we might be talking about Alabama rebuilding rather than reloading. With him, Alabama has a Heisman Trophy finalist and All-American driven to show the NFL what he's worth when healthy.

Tagovailoa is an all-time Alabama great whose future was once unlimited. That charismatic Hawaiian with a bright smile who thrilled and charmed us is currently -- and glaringly -- limited by a devastating injury and a pair of crutches.

For now.