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Will 2020 be a historic season for special teams?

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(Not the good kind of historic.)

Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

After three proto-Saturdays of the 2020 season, you may have noticed something amiss with the on-field performance of several college football teams. (By “you,” I mean Michael Felder, who’s much smarter than I am.)

Anecdotally, this theory has some grim promise. Florida State blocked two Georgia Tech field goals and one extra point (though the Yellow Jackets still won). Louisiana rode a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return score to a win over Iowa State. Pitt missed two field goals and failed to get the hold down on a third attempt in their victory over Syracuse.

Special teams foibles in individual games aren’t new, though, and I wanted to know if these issues are actually more prevalent in the aggregate. So I compared the early 2020 numbers to 2019’s final totals to look for any major discrepancies.

FBS Special Teams, 2020 vs. 2019

Category 2020 (Through 9/19) 2019
Category 2020 (Through 9/19) 2019
Extra Point Percentage 96.1% 96.9%
Punting Average 40.6 42.0
Kickoff Average 61.6 60.7
Field Goal Percentage 69.0% 74.9%

Hey there, #collegekickers! A five or six percent drop may not sound like much, but if that gap holds up over the course of the season, that’d be close to 100 fewer field goal attempts going through the uprights. The 2020 data’s a limited sample size (113 attempts so far), but if you compare it to last year’s total after every team had played one game (154 attempts), the drop-off still shows up.

In fact, total field goal percentage is remarkably consistent year to year within FBS:

Maybe the sample size suffers from some representative flaw and that explains 2020’s early dip. Let’s examine a few possible explanations there.

1. The Good Kickers haven’t played yet

Nine kickers who a) made at least 85% of their field goals in 2019 and b) have eligibility left in 2020 haven’t appeared in a game yet. Had they collectively gone 15/18 in the first few weeks of the season, we’d be a lot closer to a normal kicking year.

The main problem with this theory: as the SEC and Big Ten (and possibly other conferences) start their seasons, they’ll bring some bad kickers with them, too. Nebraska, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Maryland all missed more than a third of their field goal tries last year, and it’s hard to imagine they just magically got way better over the course of the weirdest offseason in memory.

2. Long attempts are dragging the numbers down

FBS kickers have only made 37.5% of their attempts from 50 yards out or farther, down from 47.7% in 2019. But the bulk of the problem is coming from much trickier parts of the field.

FG Percentage By Distance

Distance 2020 (Through 9/19) 2019 Change
Distance 2020 (Through 9/19) 2019 Change
20-29 81.0% 90.8% -9.8%
30-39 62.1% 77.1% -15.0%
40-49 63.6% 62.9% 0.7%
50+ 37.5% 47.7% -10.2%

The line of scrimmage for a 30-yard field goal is around the 12- or 13-yard line; a 39-yarder is snapped from the 21 or 22. Even for the most terrified coaches, these are not puntable places, and a field goal is supposed to be the safe option.

Nothing is safe in 2020.

On the plus side, if kickers keep missing short field goals, they won’t be sent out for longer ones, which might have the curious effect of bringing the percentages back up. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” sounds inspiring, but it is not how numerators and denominators operate.

3. Kickers are working off the rust

The most compelling theory is also the one that can’t be proven or disproven yet. That so many additional misses have come from makeable distances should be cause for hope. Maybe a few weeks from now kickers start finding their collective rhythm, and missing at the expected #collegekickers rate. Some programs might change who’s kicking field goals altogether.

For now, consider this an early warning signal: We might be watching the rockiest field goal kicking season in recent college football history.