It’s an unsettling sensation, one college football fans have grown numb to over time.
A productive drive just stalled on third down, not far from the opponent’s end zone—perhaps a pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage or a counter was stopped before it ever started.
The offense exits stage left and out trots the kicker.
What follows, regardless of the distance between an anxious young man tasked with kicking a small, oddly-shaped ball and the large yellow uprights in front him, is the game’s ultimate wild card.
For some, it’s become the ultimate heartbreak.
College football’s most glaring on-field Achilles’ heel has origins that date back decades. In recent years, however, the blunders have become more pronounced.
Boise State is well aware of this. The Broncos watched undefeated seasons come undone with missed field goals in back-to-back seasons. Kyle Brotzman’s two missed kicks against Nevada in 2010—both of which came late and from fewer than 30 yards—remain excruciatingly painful even dozens of viewings later.
The following year, Boise's lone loss again came as the result of a missed field goal, this time against TCU. Dan Goodale’s 39-yard miss snapped the Broncos's 35-game win streak at home. Two losses by only a combined four points, all the result of missed kicks.
During that same season, Alabama's much discussed 9-6 loss against LSU in ''The Game of the Century'' was in large part because the Tide made only 2-of-6 field goals.
Nick Saban’s group bounced back, of course, beating LSU in the BCS National Championship. Before things went their way, however, the misses loomed large.
Shortly after Alabama’s kicking woes, Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado watched his potential game-tying kick from 37 yards sail well left against USC as time expired. Ranked No. 4 at the time, the Ducks’ title hopes came crashing down all it once.
And only six weeks later, it was Stanford’s turn.
With a chance to tie Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, freshman Jordan Williamson’s potential game-winning 35-yard field goal sailed wide left. He later missed a field goal in overtime, and Oklahoma State prevailed 41-38.
These are just a handful of the meaningful missed kicks that come to mind, moments that still turn fans’ stomachs. They are memorable because of the stakes, the timing and the outcomes that followed.
More startling than these pressure-packed misses, however, is a seemingly deteriorating craft felt from coast to coast and conference to conference. While Boise State has undoubtedly drawn the most headlines in recent years, this isn’t limited to one team or a handful of late-game heartbreaks.
The kicking in college football is collectively bad. Just channel surf for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon and it becomes quite obvious. At a time when offenses are flourishing, the kicking game is still spurting, one shank or “doink” at a time.
For kickers, the distance and pressure undoubtedly impact these results. But at the college level, there are no chip shots, no distance that generates supreme confidence. .
How many of the 120 FBS teams are hitting 80 percent of their attempted field goals? Not many. In 2010, only 21 percent of FBS teams hit this mark.
Over the past five years, that percentage has remained remarkably consistent, outside of a 2010 surge.
By comparison, 78 percent of NFL teams, 25 of 32, hit 80 percent of their field goals in 2012. There should be a significant difference in these percentages—after all the NFL is the NFL—but the gap is still staggering.
At a time when kicking in the NFL looks almost easy at times, it’s anything but that in the college ranks, even for the nation’s elite.
The majority of the teams that finished in the final AP Top 25 over the past five years did so without an elite kicker. In 2012, 11 of the AP Top 25 also finished in the top 25 in field goal-kicking percentage. This was actually significantly higher than in recent years.
Much like the overall percentages, the presence of good kicking teams among final AP Top 25 teams shows a similar trend over a five-year stretch.
The kicking isn’t necessarily getting worse—at least from a percentage standpoint—despite the growing notion that it is deteriorating. But it certainly hasn’t improved, either.
And while it isn’t a championship necessity, a team never knows when this weakness could come back to haunt it. Recent history certainly highlights this, and it can surface at any moment.
Recent history also shows that NFL teams are passing on college kickers when given the opportunity to select them. Since 2008, only 12 kickers have been taken in the NFL draft.
Much of this is the result of a lack of positional value, a value that kickers themselves have helped create. It’s also indicative of the current pool of talent in the college game, or perhaps more specifically a lack thereof.
There are, of course, exceptions.
Nebraska has acquired the “Kicking U” label, producing successful kicker after successful kicker. Former Cornhusker Alex Henery—a fourth-round pick in 2010 and one of the finest field goal marksman in recent memory—serves as one of the rare game-changing talents in recent years.
Much like the NFL draft, the recruitment of college kickers still has yet to take that next step like so many other positions.
Although powerhouse programs recognize the importance of these players given how little room for error there is in a given season (see: Boise State), this urgency isn’t necessarily where it needs to be. There also isn’t the same interest and eyeballs on high school kickers as there is at other positions.
For those teams that land a top kicking recruit, there are still no guarantees. And therein lies the root of college football’s kicking problem.
It’s easy to forget that 18- to 21-year-olds are being thrown into some of the most tense sporting situations imaginable. For a sport so deeply entrenched in the team mentality, kickers are on an island by themselves.
Not all kicks will come with this unimaginable pressure, with games, conferences championships and millions of dollars potentially on the line, but there is still pressure on every kick.
Given the inconsistency of the position, the youth and the pressure of a whole building wishing for one of two things to happen, it's easy to see how the kicking has dipped to this depth and not recovered.
A handful of talented college kickers will surface in 2013, positive outliers who have become rare in these parts. They will remain drastically outnumbered, a theme that seems destined to continue.