After the first week of college football’s 2016 season, we are stuck asking the same question we ask at some point every fall:
Why are college kickers so bad?
We’ve grown so accustomed to college football’s otherwise insanely high level of play we aren’t even surprised anymore when someone like Todd Gurley takes the NFL by storm as a rookie.
But the gap between college kickers and those in the NFL remains as big as their difference in pay.
Whereas NFL kickers made a 20-yard extra point so automatic (99.3 percent made in 2014) that the league decided to move the attempt back 13 yards starting last season, a week doesn’t go by in college football without a missed extra point or other chip shot impacting the outcome of a game.
This past Thursday, a missed extra point by Appalachian State kicker Michael Rubino ended up costing the Mountaineers a victory over No. 9 Tennessee in a 20-13 overtime loss; Rubino also missed a 42-yard field goal with 5:24 left in the game that would have won it.
Granted, it’s the Sun Belt Conference, where schools don’t get the top high school kickers in the country.
But this is a problem that has plagued the entire sport, including none other than mighty Alabama, “the NFL’s 33rd team” that has won four national titles in the last seven seasons.
Four missed kicks (three by Cade Foster, one by Jeremy Shelley) in 2011 cost the Crimson Tide “The Game of the Century” vs. LSU. Three more missed field goals (Foster, again) lost them the 2013 Iron Bowl against Auburn, better known as the “Kick Six” contest.
And since then, things haven’t gotten much better. Alabama’s current kicker, senior Adam Griffith, has so far converted a woeful 67 percent of kicks in his career with the Crimson Tide.
On Saturday, it was SEC counterpart Mississippi State that was done in by an epic college kicker miss, as Westin Graves botched a 28-yarder with six seconds left to cost the Bulldogs the game against South Alabama.
And on Sunday, Texas nearly blew a program-defining win over Notre Dame because of a blocked extra point returned for two points. The block was clearly the fault of kicker Trent Dominigue, who had almost zero lift on the attempt and had it swatted away despite minimal penetration by Notre Dame’s defensive line.
And yes, this is the same Texas team that lost to Cal last September because of — you guessed it — a missed extra point.
It boggles the mind how this continues to be such a problem, year after year.
Obviously we don’t expect college kickers to be nearly as good as their NFL brethren.
It’s simple math: There are 128 FBS teams compared to 32 NFL squads and the turnover is minimal because kickers can play in the league for two decades. So as much as they may not seem like it after a miss under pressure, NFL kickers are truly extraordinary at their jobs.
But we aren’t asking college kickers to make 60-yard bombs to win games. We’re just asking them to consistently hit the ones under 30 yards.
That doesn’t seem like too much to ask and yet, somehow, it is.
Hell, the hashtag #CollegeKickers has become entirely dedicated to the art of missed extra points and field goals on fall Saturdays.
So what’s the reason for this ineptitude?
The best explanation I’ve seen came from former UCLA and Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe for Deadspin in 2014:
“Want to know why your team has a sh*tty kicker? Because your team has a sh*tty coach who doesn't know the first thing about the basic fundamentals of kicking and punting, but figures that a soccer castoff will do just fine so long as he gets screamed at loudly enough.
In my five years of college ball, and eight years in the NFL, I did not have a single special teams coach or head coach who had the faintest idea how it is that I did my job, and that is how it is EVERYWHERE.”
Case in point: Alabama’s special teams coach is Burton Burns, a former Nebraska fullback and career running backs coach who just had special teams added on to his normal job this past offseason more casually than coleslaw is tacked on to every meal at a bad diner.
This is because FBS teams are limited to just nine on-field position coaches, so the special teams coach often pulls double duty despite no previous experience coaching the unit even for the country’s best teams.
So until that changes and coaches finally treat kicking like the difference between winning and losing like the position often is, enjoy sweating bullets every time your kicker trots onto the field.
— Rankings by Jim Weber, a veteran college sports journalist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Weber has written for CBS Sports Network, NBCSports.com, ESPN the Magazine and the college sports website he founded and sold, LostLettermen.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JimMWeber.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)