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DeVonta Smith Is a National Championship Hero and the Greatest College Receiver Ever

Alabama’s undersized wideout turned in a dazzling performance against Ohio State. It did more than just deliver the Crimson Tide another title—it bolstered Smith’s legacy among the game’s all-time greats.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

DeVonta Smith began his career as a college football legend. He finishes it as the greatest college football wide receiver of all time. Smith capped his Alabama tenure by catching 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the national championship game, with all of that production coming in the first half. He left Monday night’s 52-24 win over Ohio State early in the third quarter with a hand injury, but not before putting forth a performance for the ages. It had to be cut short, because perfection can’t last.

What was most mesmerizing about Smith’s outing wasn’t the statistics themselves. It was how he compiled them. Take this play from the start of the second quarter. At first glance, it looks like Ohio State’s defense simply forgets to cover Smith. In reality, it sent two defenders to track him when he circled to the right, but both got lost when Smith stopped on a dime and made a beeline for the left pylon. It’s not that the Buckeyes overlooked Smith; it’s that he outclassed them so thoroughly that it was easy to mistake their helplessness for negligence.

Even when Ohio State did cover Smith, its efforts were for naught. Later in the second quarter, cornerback Shaun Wade shadowed Smith along the sideline. Smith pirouetted to secure a catch few NFL players could make.

And in the closing minutes of the first half, Smith put Ohio State away. You can spot the exact moment when Tuf Borland’s soul leaves his body.

Last week, Smith became the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991. He also won the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award, the Biletnikoff Award, and the Hornung Award—making him the first player to win all five awards in the same season. Entering the national championship, Smith led all FBS players in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641), and receiving touchdowns (20). And then he outdid himself on the sport’s biggest stage.

Smith has become so revered throughout college football that his greatness now feels preordained. That belies what makes him so special. In capping his career as a national championship hero, Smith not only made his case as the college football receiver GOAT. He also brought his unlikely legend full circle.

In January 2018, Alabama trailed Georgia in the second half of the national championship game. Jalen Hurts and the Crimson Tide offense couldn’t get anything going, so head coach Nick Saban turned to a group of freshmen to save the day. Saban subbed in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, running back Najee Harris, and receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and Smith. This was seen as a revolutionary act for a team that was desperate for answers. It worked.

The Tide rallied to send the game into overtime. On their first offensive play of the extra period, Tagovailoa was sacked for a loss of 16 yards. On the second, he dropped back, looked off a defender, and hit Smith in stride for a game-winning 41-yard score.

This was the moment that launched Tua’s meteoric rise. It was the moment that changed Alabama’s program as we know it. What wasn’t clear until recently is that this was also the moment that introduced the world to the greatest wide receiver the college landscape has ever seen.

Saban has had a litany of remarkable receivers at Alabama since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007. From 2008 to 2010, he had Julio Jones, who looked and played like a comic-book superhero. From 2012 to 2014, he had Amari Cooper, who overwhelmed defenses for more than 1,700 receiving yards as a junior. And in the last few seasons he has had an embarrassment of riches at the position: Calvin Ridley was a first-round NFL draft pick in 2018; Ruggs and Jeudy were the top two wideouts off the board last April.

Smith has been better than any of them. And he’s done it with a frame resembling Barack Obama more than any all-world receiver. Smith is listed at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, measurements that seem generous for both height and weight. While Alabama’s other standout receivers have had tremendous strength (Jones, Cooper, Jeudy) or speed (Ruggs), Smith has neither. He simply gets open, time and again. The numbers speak for themselves.

Alabama’s Best Receivers Under Nick Saban

Player Career Yards Career TDs
Player Career Yards Career TDs
DeVonta Smith 3,750 43
Amari Coooper 3,463 31
Calvin Ridley 2,781 19
Jerry Jeudy 2,742 26
Julio Jones 2,653 15
Jaylen Waddle 1,965 17

Even after making that title-winning catch against Georgia, Smith wasn’t regarded as Bama’s top receiving option. Jeudy and Ruggs garnered more hype entering 2018 and 2019; lightning-fast underclassman Jaylen Waddle did too. But Smith repeatedly came through in big games. He led Bama in receiving in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma. He tallied 213 yards and two touchdowns in a November 2019 clash with second-ranked LSU. After Waddle went down with an ankle injury this fall, Smith more than made up for his absence: He had 203 yards with four touchdowns against Mississippi State; 171 yards with two scores against Auburn; 231 yards and three touchdowns against LSU; 184 yards with two touchdowns against Florida. In this season’s semifinal against Notre Dame, he racked up 130 yards with three scores.

Smith finishes his career with the fifth-most receiving touchdowns (46) and the 23rd-most receiving yards (3,965) in FBS history. On the touchdowns list, the only receivers ranked ahead of him played at Rice, Western Michigan, Louisiana Tech, and Marshall, respectively. On the yardage list, only five receivers above him played at power-conference schools.

And while Smith’s place in the GOAT conversation may seem like a case of recency bias … well, who tops him? Randy Moss was more dominant at his apex, but he played only one Division I season for Marshall in 1997. Ryan Broyles had more prolific yardage totals, but he’s less decorated in both individual awards and championships. Howard Twilley made a historic impact at Tulsa, but he played in the 1960s when football was a completely different sport. And while Howard and Tim Brown are the only other receivers to hoist the Heisman, their résumés don’t compare. Even Larry Fitzgerald, whose 2003 campaign at Pitt was transcendent, wasn’t as impactful as Smith has been.

What comes next for Smith will be the subject of much debate. NFL personnel types don’t often go for receivers with such slender frames. There’s a chance he could be reunited with Tagovailoa by going to the Dolphins as high as no. 3 in the draft. There’s also a chance he could slip.

All of that can wait. For now, it’s time to fully appreciate the legacy of a player who defied the odds to become an icon. Smith began his career as a legend and somehow went on to top it. His coda was college football perfection.