Braking Down The News

College Kickers Are Even Less Reliable Than Usual This Year

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The opening week of the 2022 NFL season was one to forget for kickers: It featured six missed game-winning attempts, including a ham-fisted 64-yard prayer and a spectacular doink, part of the worst clutch kicking week in at least 22 years (according to a report from The Athletic’s Mike Sando). But even a historically dreadful showcase from pro kickers can’t measure up to the ghastly benchmark for errant kicking set on college campuses across the country.

Fans of college football have been treated to hundreds of kick attempts through mid-September, and many wish they hadn’t been. Some tries never got a chance, such as when LSU executed a dramatic 99-yard scoring drive in the final minute of its game against Florida State, only to have the would-be tying extra point blocked with no time remaining. Others have either sliced wide — witness East Carolina’s botched opportunity to upset No. 13 NC State after missing both a game-tying extra point attempt and a 41-yard field goal in the final three minutes — or were hooked into oblivion, like a 20-yard field goal attempt by Texas at the end of the first half against Alabama. (The latter loomed large when the Longhorns lost by a single point to the No. 1 Crimson Tide.) And then there were Baylor and BYU, which combined to miss three field goal attempts under 45 yards in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime of their Sept. 10 game.1

Sure, the kicker is an easy punching bag for college football fans. Lost a close one? Blame it on the kicker. Your program is headed in the wrong direction? A made kick sure would have helped. Someone will always be around to bellow “you had one job!” when a kick goes awry. But this season, the kicking really has been abhorrent — even by college football’s usually reduced standards.2

In the second half and overtime of one-possession games so far this year, Football Bowl Subdivision kickers are just 82-for-122 (67.2 percent), their worst success rate since 2011. Kickers are just 9-for-18 (50 percent) on field goal attempts taken in the final minute of regulation of such games, down significantly from the 66.9 percent average in the playoff era. And kickers have converted just five out of 10 go-ahead attempts in the final minute of regulation so far this season. 

The friendly confines of home have been anything but this season. Home-team kickers are converting on just 73.6 percent of kicks, their second-worst rate through three games in the past five seasons. Fast-forward to the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, and the rate drops to 52.6 (10-of-19) percent — by far the lowest rate through three games of the playoff era, as the success rate was 75 percent from 2014 to 2021.

Perhaps surprisingly, road kickers have actually fared pretty well, making 73.4 percent of kicks through three games, their second-highest rate in any single season since at least 2004 (the first season for which data is available). But it hasn’t been enough to save the overall numbers, particularly on the kicks that have mattered most. 

In turn, that plays into the reputation that the kicking game is particularly unreliable in college — and we can see why that stereotype exists. Consider that, even after that cold Week 1 for NFL kickers, they are still successfully making kicks at a rate nearly 14 percentage points higher than college kickers, despite their average kick coming 3.7 yards further away from the goalposts.

Pro kickers do it better

Average field-goal attempt distance and success rate for kickers in college football and the NFL, 2014-2022

SeasonCollegeNFLCollegeNFL
201435.137.672.1%84.0%
201535.338.273.784.5
201634.937.774.984.2
201735.338.173.084.3
201835.538.573.584.7
201935.738.274.981.6
202036.438.973.384.6
202136.138.675.285.1
202236.139.973.186.4

Through Sept. 19, 2022.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

In fact, pro kickers have converted field goals at a rate at least 6.7 percentage points higher than in the best season for college kickers since 2014.  

The good news for college kickers, however, is that — just like their pro counterparts — their accuracy typically improves as the season develops. So they probably won’t continue to be quite so bad all year long.

Kicking improves with time and practice

Field-goal success rates for college football kickers in their team’s first three games of a season and over the rest of the season, 2014-2022

Season1st 3 GamesRest of SeasonDiff.
201469.6%72.9%+3.3%
201574.473.5-0.9
201673.675.3+1.7
201771.173.6+2.5
201873.373.6+0.3
201974.275.1+0.9
202071.474.3+2.9
202175.575.0-0.5
202273.3
Average72.974.2+1.3

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

But college kicking will never be as dependable as we’re used to seeing in the NFL — even when pro kickers are at their worst. The lower level of skill and performance means you simply see a lot more strange things in the college game: missing the uprights by 20-plus yards; struggling to get a good hold down in crunch time; pulling extra point attempts nearly off the netting. And so far this season, we’ve been subjected to kicking hijinks even stranger than usual, particularly when the moment gets bigger and nerves start to take over.

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