If you can set aside the absurdity of the US government sponsoring football teams, the military academies play entertaining football. Air Force will never get top-flight (heh) athletes because the military will not allow them to play professionally, so in order to compete, the Zoomies take us back to about 1960 every Saturday with their triple-option offense. It allows less-skilled players to assume an advantage over a defense that is, more often than not, bigger, faster, and stronger. And when it works, it really works.
If it’s all blocked correctly, the defense has no answer for it. It’s beautiful.
However, if the Falcons are truly overwhelmed by the opposing team athletically, it starts to break down. The lack of size on the offensive line shows up and their skill players’ inability to beat defenders one-on-one puts the brakes on their chances. This happens when they play opponents from larger conferences. When they played Michigan last season, for example, they only lost by 16 points, but they were completely outclassed in every sense of the word. The relatively close game was a product of the option functioning as a giant game of keep-away.
The MWC, though, has been good to Air Force. There are no big, bad bullies in this conference. Even perennial stalwart Boise State doesn’t physically dominate the Zoomies. They mostly have winning seasons and go to bowl games, even earning a spot in the conference championship game in 2016.
Last season, though, they fell off a bit. They finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since a disastrous 2013 campaign. Will the downward trend continue?
The Zoomies lose 11 total starters, including unfortunately-named running back Tim McVey and most of their offensive line. Most of the skill-position core returns, including play-making QB Arion Worthman. Worthman proved himself a capable triple-option QB last season, and he should take another step forward this season.
Hindering his progress, however, could be an inexperienced offensive line. With four new starters, it’s anyone’s guess how well this group will play. There is enough experience and coaching savvy on offense though. What should worry Cadets and Generals alike is this defense.
Last season, these guys might as well have been cardboard cutouts. They finished 117th in the country against the run. They were small, slow, and green. Like baby sea-turtles.
Air Force’s success this season depends upon this group’s ability to improve. They gave up 40+ points five times last season, and that’s with a ball-control, run-heavy offense limiting possessions and granting them plenty of rest. They can’t possibly get worse, but will they improve enough to bring the academy back to its winning ways?
Troy Calhoun has spent practically his entire adult life in Colorado Springs. He played at Air Force from 1985-1988, spent a couple seasons as a graduate assistant before finishing out his military commitment, and was the offensive coordinator for the JV team for two more seasons before moving on in 1995. Calhoun returned in 2007, replacing the legendary Fisher DeBerry as the head coach and has been there ever since. He won MWC Coach of the Year honors that season after guiding the Zoomies to a bowl game for the first time since 2003.
He’s been remarkably successful. He’s led the team to winning records and bowl games every year but two and has won 55% of his conference games. Under Calhoun, the Falcons have been a tough out for over a decade now. We can forgive him if he looks a little Howdy-Doody-ish.
Calhoun lost Defensive Coordinator Steve Russ in the off-season, who now coaches linebackers with the Carolina Panthers, meaning that the most important part of his job is making sure Luke Kuechly makes it on the bus.
Russ has been replaced by, uh…nobody? Air Force’s official roster does not list a Defensive Coordinator. This is either a novel approach to football or things are very weird in Colorado Springs. That they’ve gone through spring football sans DC is troubling to say the least.
The Schedule (with milquetoast predictions!)
September 1 – vs. Stony Brook – W
I’m not going to pretend to know anything about Stony Brook. I’ll just say that the MWC should beat its FCS opponents. More on this when I preview UNLV.
September 8 – @Florida Atlantic – L
I’d like to thank the Scheduling Gods for giving me a chance to talk about Lane Kiffin and the island of misfit toys he’s assembled in Boca Raton. Kiffin got tired of getting screamed at by notorious verbal abuser Nick Saban at Alabama, so he took a pay-cut to run his own program at FAU. In just one season, he led the Owls to a 10-3 record, conference championship, and bowl victory. He’ll either get a Power-5 job in the next year or two or keep bringing in JuCo kids with D1 talent that no one else will touch and absolutely wrecking Conference USA until the SEC has no choice but to annex them in the next round of conference realignment.
Some pearl-clutching “traditionalists” might say that Kiffin is everything wrong with college football, but those people will be dead soon. Like John Calipari in basketball, Kiffin recognizes the relationship between player and coach for what it is: a transaction. Kiffin wants to make as much money as possible coaching football, and the best way to do that is to win as many games as possible. In order to do that, he offers his players a real chance at the NFL by giving them an opportunity that had heretofore been denied to them because of academic missteps.
While other coaches see them as “risks,” Kiffin knows the truth: football and college should have nothing to do with each other. I’m not accusing him of cheating, but if it comes out that he was helping players fudge their grades or floated them money to pay bills or for food, just know the HE didn’t make amateurism a sham, the NCAA did.
Air Force has no chance in this one.
September 22 – @Utah State – L
Conference play starts for Air Force with a trip to Logan. These two teams finished last season with a thrilling 38-35 Air Force victory. AFA devotees felt it was a solid omen for this season, but Utah State – more on them later this summer – should be improved on defense. The Falcons drop this one too.
September 29 – vs. Nevada – L
Now Air Force fans are going to get mad at me. Nevada has been nothing short of dreadful in recent years. The Wolf Pack, however, are also destined to improve this season and will again prove an intractable challenge for Air Force’s defense. The Zoomies defeated Nevada in another shootout (45-42) last season, but expecting them to consistently win that way with their run-heavy offense is unrealistic.
October 6 – vs. Navy – L
Navy has long carried the torch for the service academies in football, consistently punching above their weight class. They run a similar option attack to Air Force, of which head coach Ken Niumatalolo is a true master. Navy won this game last season in yet another shootout (48-45 ), and I’d expect a wider margin this time. If both offenses are clicking, fans of old-school football will find this one entertaining.
October 12 – @San Diego State – L
The Aztecs have been something of a bully the last three years, with two conference titles led by two NFL-caliber running backs. No one can be positive that they’ll fill the gaping void left by Rashaad Penny, but they’ll be good enough to beat a down Air Force squad. The Zoomies lost a close one to SDSU last season and many observers saw that as a positive sign. But it was early in the season, and the Aztecs are always terrible in September. More on this later. They should be rolling by mid-October.
October 19 – @UNLV – L
I am loathe to predict yet another loss to yet another historically inferior opponent, but here goes: UNLV has been showing steady signs of improvement under Tony Sanchez, and this is the year that those improvements finally show up in the Win/Loss column. The Rebels are in prime position to make their football program nationally relevant. This started in 2015 when they hired Sanchez – the architect of local high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman – in a widely-mocked move, and it continues with the promise of sharing a state-of-the-art stadium with the NFL’s Raiders. More on this later in the summer.
An improved UNLV squad deals the Zoomies another blow. Air Force won this game a year ago in another close, high-scoring game. I just don’t think Armani Rogers is going to let that happen again.
October 27 – Boise State – L
Even the most optimistic homer would have to admit that Boise is a juggernaut with whom Air Force – and pretty much any other MWC school – simply cannot compete. This game was a blowout in Boise’s favor last season, and I’d expect a similar result here. I look for Boise to run through the MWC with little resistance and make the case for a New Year’s 6 bowl. More on the Broncos later.
November 3 – @Army – L
For years, Army was the ugly stepchild of the service academies. They lost to Navy 14 times in a row from 2002-2015. However, two years ago, they turned it around, and they haven’t looked back. At least for the coming season, Air Force takes their place as the third wheel. Army blanked Air Force last season 21-0, and with the Black Knights on the way up, look for another defeat.
November 10 – New Mexico – W
Finally, a conference game Air Force can win. New Mexico has felt like a program on the brink of unraveling for awhile now. They should be bad enough to finally, mercifully, get Bob Davie fired. More on them later in the summer. Last season, New Mexico embarrassingly dropped 56 points on Air Force’s suspect defense. The overall talent level is down in Albuquerque though, and with the game in Colorado Springs, expect Zoomie pride to carry the day.
November 17 – @Wyoming – L
Wyoming couldn’t beat anyone without Josh Allen – who once ate the Bible while water-skiing – last season. Allen is gone, drafted by the Buffalo Bills, but the Pokes should be good enough to finish in their requisite middle-of-the-pack status. More to come on them. Even without Allen for a chunk of the game last season, Wyoming was able to keep Air Force at arm’s length. Expect the Cowboy defense to play lights out against the option.
November 22 – Colorado State – W
Colorado State feels like they’re on the verge of getting their coach fired, too, but this has more to do with the quick turnaround and which team is best equipped to handle it. In a game where both defenses are likely to wear down early, if Air Force can consistently gain yards on the ground, they’ll finish a low season on a high note for the second year in a row. Air Force probably played their best game of the season last year against the Rams, and even in a down year, don’t expect the Falcons to lay down against an in-state rival on Thanksgiving Day.
Total: 3-9 (2-6)
Last Word: The Air Force is Weak with This One
Things look bleak for the academy in 2018. If Troy Calhoun can’t find a way to revamp his defense, he’s in for a very long season, and his job – despite his success over the last decade-plus – could be in jeopardy.
Boise State! The maulers from the mountain look to reload after another strong campaign in 2017.