Was Alex Smith the Most Impactful College Football Player Ever?

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

On Monday, former Washington, Chiefs and 49ers quarterback Alex Smith announced his retirement. Most know him as the 2020-21 comeback player of the year or the 2005 first overall draft pick, but what many do not know is that he completely changed the structure of college football and paved the way for teams such as 2010 TCU and 2017 “National Champions” UCF.

Let's take it way back to his high school days. Smith attended Helix High School in La Mesa, California, right outside of San Diego. During his time as the starting quarterback for Helix, Smith led his team to a 25-1 record, earned offensive player of the year in his conference twice as well as first team all-conference and all-county. Despite all of these achievements, Smith was only a two star recruit, the exact opposite of his high school teammate Reggie Bush, who was a five star recruit, committed to play at USC. Smith on the other hand, was rated the number 1300 player in the nation and only held one division one offer, the University of Utah, to play under soon to be legend, Urban Meyer.

In his freshman year at Utah, Smith only threw two passes. To start the 2003 season, Alex’s sophomore campaign, he still was not the starter, but that all changed when quarterback Brett Elliott broke his wrist in the Utes second game of the season, a 28-26 loss to Texas A&M. Smith was thrown into the starting role and thrived to say the least. In his first career start, Smith and the Utes beat Pac-10 opponent CAL and future hall of famer Aaron Rodgers 31-24. Smith was not done yet though. Just under a month later, the Utes would knock off another Pac-10 opponent, this time the 19th ranked Oregon Ducks by a score of 17-13. Smith and Meyer were a duo crafted by God himself as they completely baffled opposing defenses by using a spread- RPO offense, the first of its kind. Back in 2003 no one knew what to think of this new style of play, but now it is probably the most common scheme used. Why? Because of the success Alex Smith and Urban Meyer had with it in 2003 and 2004. The Utes went on to finish 10-2 and were 21st in the final AP Poll. Smith finished the season with 2,247 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, only 3 interceptions and another 5 touchdowns on the ground. Safe to say expectations were high in 2004 as Smith, Meyer and Utah Football had the whole country watching them as there were already talks about them being the first non power conference team to reach a BCS Bowl. Utah did not disappoint. They throttled basically everyone they played in the regular season as their closest result was versus Air Force where they won 49-35. Their non conference schedule was very strong as well, as 3 of their 4 opponents were from power conferences. (Texas A&M, Arizona and North Carolina) Utah beat all of them fairly easily as well as avenging their 2003 loss to Texas A&M, whom they beat 41-21. They finished the regular season with a 52-21 win over rival BYU. What made this win even more special was the fact College Gameday chose it as their game of the week and Kirk Herbstreit predicted a Utah win and for them to earn a bid to the Fiesta Bowl, which would make them the first non power conference team to ever play in a BCS Bowl. Herbstreit got it exactly right. Utah earned a Fiesta Bowl bid and their opponent was Pitt, the Big East Champions who had beaten the likes of Notre Dame and West Virginia to clinch their BCS Bowl berth. In between Utah’s final regular season game and the Fiesta Bowl, coach Urban Meyer took the head coaching job at the University of Florida. However, he decided to coach the Fiesta Bowl before leaving for Gainesville as he knew just how big of a moment this was, not just for the players and the program but for college football as a sport. Utah went on to demolish Pitt 35-7. Smith completed 29 of 37 passes for 328 yards and 4 touchdowns while also rushing for 68 yards making him the clear winner of Fiesta Bowl MVP, while also crowning Utah the first ever non power conference team to not only make a BCS Bowl but to win one as they did it in dominating fashion. Smith finished his junior campaign with 2,952 yards, 32 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Making him a Heisman Trophy finalist along with none other than his old high school teammate Reggie Bush. Making it the first time a high school had two finalists at the same ceremony. Smith then announced he would forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft. He went on to be the first overall draft pick in 2005, sharing that honor with fellow Utah basketball star, Andrew Bogut. Making Utah the first and only college to ever have the first overall draft picks in football and basketball during the same year.

Without the remarkable run that Smith led the Utes to in 2004, college football would possibly not be the sport we know it as today. Say Utah lost to Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl, we may have never seen another non power conference team make a BCS or New Year's Six. We wouldn’t get the Boise State Statue of Liberty play, we wouldn’t be able to see 2008 Utah dominate reigning National Champs Alabama and we also would not have been able to see 2010 TCU take the College Football world by storm or have UCF claim a national title in 2017. Without Alex Smith, Utah and TCU may not have had the chance to join the conferences they are in today and college football would not be the same making it nowhere near as exciting. Alex Smith proved to the college football world that non power conference teams could be just as good as the best programs in the country and helped paved the way for some of the best teams and stories in college football history. Was Alex Smith the best college football player ever? No chance. But the former 1300th ranked player in the country very well could be the most impactful college football player of all time.

Here is coach Urban Meyer explaining the offensive scheme 2004 Utah used and the impact it has on offenses now.

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