The National Football Foundation on Monday morning announced the 2023 ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame, which includes 80 players from the FBS.
Among those 80 names are the former Utes quarterback and defensive back. Smith (2002-04) and Weddle (2003-06) both appear on the ballot for the first time, having met a series of criteria, which includes being 10 years removed from playing a college football game and being retired from the NFL. Smith retired in 2020, while Weddle came out of retirement to help the Los Angeles Rams win Super Bowl LVI earlier this year.
So what are the chances that either Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, or Weddle, twice the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American in 2006, receive enshrinement on the first shot?
The ballot annually produced by the NFF, which oversees and operates the College Football Hall of Fame, is infamously bloated on an annual basis. That, plus the comparisons between eras and conferences makes it tough to gauge who will gain an entry any given year.
And, frankly, history is not on their side. Since 2015, only 10 FBS players have received first-ballot enshrinement, a list that includes Vince Young, Charles Woodson, Ed Reed, Peyton Manning and Ricky Williams.
Including Smith and Weddle, there are 25 first-time nominees on the ballot. Among those are USC’s Reggie Bush, a two-time All-American who is only being nominated now after the NCAA ended his disassociation from the Trojans last June, and Florida’s Tim Tebow, who led the Gators to two national championships and is the only sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy (2007).
Ryan Leaf is another first-time candidate worth mentioning, having won Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year honors in 1997 while leading Washington State to its first Rose Bowl since 1930. Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter is yet another, his career highlighted by unanimous All-America honors and a runner-up Heisman Trophy finish in 1994 when the Nittany Lions won the Rose Bowl and finished ranked No. 2 in the country.
Smith’s numbers and accolades, to be clear, are gaudy, and deserving of consideration. A first-team All-American in 2004, Smith went 21-1 as the Utes’ starter in running Urban Meyer’s high-octane spread offense. With Smith at the wheel, Utah won the Mountain West in 2003 and 2004, going 12-0 in 2004 to become the first non-BCS team to break through and play in a BCS game, a rout of Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl. In 2004, he finished fourth in voting for the Heisman after throwing for 2,952 yards and 32 touchdowns against just four interceptions.
But will voters hold it against him that he played in the Mountain West?
Matt Cavanaugh quarterbacked Pitt to the 1976 national championship, but his stats were lesser than Smith thanks to the benefit of having Tony Dorsett in his backfield. Ken Dorsey left Miami as the program’s all-time leader in total offense and passing yards, while going to back-to-back BCS national championship game berths, winning it as a junior in 2001. Josh Heupel won the national title and was the Heisman runner-up in 2000, Tim Couch left Kentucky in 1998 with a slew of school, SEC and NCAA records.
For whatever it’s worth, Smith and Weddle may both be near top of mind for voters. Weddle just won a Super Bowl, while Smith is less than two years removed from a 16-year NFL career that included a remarkable, high-profile comeback in 2020 from a gruesome 2018 leg injury that nearly cost him his life.
While there are no minimums or maximums per position within a single College Football Hall of Fame class, Weddle faces stiff competition among the other six defensive backs on the ballot.
The closest thing to a sure thing among the seven appears to be Tennessee’s Eric Berry, a two-time unanimous All-American (2008-09), the 2009 Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top DB, and a three-time All-SEC pick. USC’s Mark Carrier won the Thorpe Award and was a unanimous first-team All-American in 1989, as was Antonio Langham in 1993 for Alabama.
The 2023 class will be announced in January, with the formal induction ceremony scheduled for Dec. 5 at the NFF Annual Awards Dinner in Las Vegas.