Nick Saban is one of the greatest football coaches ever. His Alabama program has built a greater legacy than any in this era or, arguably, any other. There’s only one scratch on his record, and it’s that his Tide teams have been perpetually awful at field goals. It’s only occasionally mattered, but Tide kickers have missed a lot of big ones over the years.
This season, no kicker has missed more extra points than Alabama’s Joseph Bulovas. The No. 6 kicker in the class of 2017, he’s 54th nationally in field goal percentage. Saban has consistently recruited elite kickers who have become disappointments. That’s led to theories: Does Saban actually like this, because his teams get to appear flawed? Did he make a deal with the devil that required him to trade field goal ability for more touchdowns?
But imagine if Saban made a different deal.
Imagine he traded the ability to score touchdowns for the ability to never miss a field goal after getting inside the red zone. Would 2018 Alabama still be undefeated?
For this exercise, we are going to assume that every time Alabama enters the red zone, the Tide immediately kick a field goal, which — believe it or not — always goes in. If they scored a touchdown in real life, we’ll pretend they were tackled on the 1-yard line and then kicked. All missed field goals from inside the 20 during this regular season are converted to makes.
Meanwhile, Bama’s defense proceeds as it did in reality.
This means that Alabama’s options for scoring in this new season are:
- An automatic field goal make once the offense is inside the 20
- A field goal from farther back, which does whatever it did in the actual game
- A safety scored by Bama’s defense.
Here’s how Bama’s games so far would have gone in our alternate football universe.
Alabama 27, Louisville 14
With Alabama’s offense unable to score touchdowns, the defense and kicker Austin Jones had to pick up the slack. Jones went 9-for-9 on the day, setting the record for the most field goals made and most field goals attempted in a game.
The fans were slightly confused by Saban’s new strategy, as only one of the kicks made occurred on fourth down. Fans felt their team could have scored close to 70 points had Saban actually tried to score touchdowns.
Alabama 30, Arkansas State 7
In a clear mismatch of talent, Alabama blows out Arkansas State despite not scoring a touchdown. After Jones had kicked three field goals, Saban put in Bulovas, a backup kicker, so as not to run up the score. Bulovas then went 7-for-7 on field goals and created a bonafide kicker controversy in Tuscaloosa.
When a reporter asked Saban who would start the next week, the head coach got defensive and said, “I think both guys can help our team, all right? So why do you continually try to get me to say something that doesn’t respect one of ‘em? I’m not going to, so quit asking.”
Alabama 33, Ole Miss 7
Ole Miss scored on its first play from scrimmage. But the Rebels then then faced the wrath of Alabama’s new starting kicker, Bulovas, who went 11-11 on the day and stole both the starting job and the kicking record from Jones.
The fans had embraced the new kicking strategy by this point and let out a huge roar every time Saban sent Bulovas out to kick a field goal on first-and goal from the 1.
Texas A&M 23, Alabama 21
Despite Bulovas going 7-for-7, A&M beat Bama for the first time since the days of Johnny Manziel. Fans had only Saban to blame for the loss, as they started to sour on his all-field-goals methodology. Bulovas remained a fan favorite, but Saban started receiving hate mail for this strategy. Bama fell to 10th in the AP Poll, its lowest ranking since October 2015.
Alabama 30, UL Lafayette 14
ULL ran into Bama at the wrong time and could’t contain Bulovas, who made all 10 of his field goal tries and broke the record for field goals in a season: 35 by just his fourth game.
Bulovas’ name was suddenly all over Heisman watch lists, as he’d gotten up to 35-for-35 on the season and was leading the nation in points per game.
Bama moved up to No. 8 in the AP Poll.
Arkansas 31, Alabama 30
In perhaps the biggest upset in Saban’s tenure, Arkansas squeaked out the win on a go-ahead touchdown with just 14 seconds to play.
Fans were furious with Saban again and thought his arrogance cost the Tide a chance at another title. But at least Bulovas went 10-for-10, getting up to a perfect 45-for-45 on the season and continuing to look like one of the country’s most impressive players.
Bama fell to 25th in the AP Poll, its worst ranking in more than a decade.
Alabama 26, Missouri 10
The Tide got back to their winning ways, but it came at a price. Bulovas had become the main attraction for fans at this point, and he missed a 52-yarder to end his perfect season. He’d made 51 in a row to start, and after this game, he was 53-of-54 on the year.
Bulovas broke the record for kicking points in a season, with 159. (It had been 157.) Bama moved up to 18th in the AP Poll, striving for a New Year’s Six spot.
Alabama’s defense also decided to get on the scoreboard in this game, recording its first safety of the season.
Alabama 26, Tennessee 21
Tennessee nearly took advantage of Bama’s all-field goal strategy. Defensive lineman Kyle Phillips pick-six’d Jalen Hurts on a play that would win him the Piesman Trophy, putting the Vols ahead 21-20 with five minutes left in the third quarter. But Saban got a couple of clutch fourth-quarter field goals from Bulovas to get the win. He moved to 61-of-62 on the year, while the defense added its second safety and the Tide jumped to 17th in the AP.
Alabama 15, LSU 0
Just a regular Alabama-LSU game.
Bulovas’ Heisman case did take a hit, though, as he had his worst game of the year, going 5-for-5 on field goals. By beating the No. 3 team, Bama jumped to No. 8 in the AP Poll.
Alabama 15, Mississippi State 0
A carbon copy of the LSU game. Alabama shut out its opponent and went 5-for-5 on field goals. Bulovas moved to at 71-72 on field goals for the season, and Saban’s hot seat cooled down thanks to another spectacular defensive performance. Bama got up to No. 6 in the AP Poll, though fans were upset about the lack of offensive output.
Alabama 24, The Citadel 17
It looked like the end of the world might come when The Citadel led at halftime, 10-6. But Bama kicked five straight field goals to build a nice lead it would hold. Bulovas went 7-of-7 on the first seven kicks of the game, and Jones came in to hit one late.
Alabama 24, Auburn 21
The Tide trailed at halftime, 14-9, but a spectacular second-half showing by Bulovas won them the game. He hit the game-winning kick with nine minutes left, bumping himself up to 86-for-87 on the year. He finished the regular season fourth in points accounted for, only behind Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins, and D’Eriq King.
The Iron Bowl win brought Bama to 6-2 in the SEC.
Texas A&M and LSU were both 5-2 and playing each in the night game.
Texas A&M had the tiebreaker on Alabama, so an Aggies win would knock the Tide out of conference and Playoff contention. Alabama players and coach watched from the team facility, and when A&M’s Kellen Mond threw a late interception to hand LSU the game, several Tide players gave Saban a Gatorade bath.
However, officials reviewed the play and ruled Mond was down before throwing the interception. A&M went on to win in seven overtimes, prior to a big on-field ruckus.
An angry Saban dried off, and Bama did not make the field. The Tide were instead placed in the Sugar Bowl with old BCS Championship friend Texas.
Saban ended the year squarely on the hot seat, with Bama fans and media wondering whether the game had passed him by schematically.
Had Bama gotten to the SEC Championship, the Tide would have lost 28-18 to Georgia, but presumably the Playoff committee would’ve put the 10-3 Tide in as the No. 4 seed anyway.
Bulovas finished 86-of-87 on field goals and just missed his Heisman.
He finished second behind Kyler Murray after what analysts (and voting results) said was one of the closest races in history. An anonymous Heisman voter said kicking 86 field goals was impressive but that 82 of them coming from inside the red zone sullied it somewhat.
Bulovas still set all these records (with the previous in parentheses):
- Most field goals in a game: 11 (7)
- Most field goals attempted in a game: 11 (9)
- Most points kicking in a game: 33 (24):
- Most field goals in a season- 86 (31)
- Most field goals attempted in a season: 87 (39)
- Most points kicking in a season: 258 (157)
- Highest career field goal percentage, 55 attempts or more: 98.8 (89.5)
- Most consecutive field goals made: 51 (30)
The long story short is that Bama would have been pretty close to making the Playoff even while swearing off offensive TDs entirely.
The Tide would’ve fallen short going off this season’s script, but only slightly.
The actual Playoff four’s final records with these rules would’ve been:
- Alabama: 10-2 (second in SEC West)
- Clemson: 8-3-1 (second in ACC Atlantic)
- Notre Dame: 4-8 (for the second time in three years)
- Oklahoma: 2-10-1 (last in the Big 12)
To get rid of Bama, the sport will need to come up with something more drastic.