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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 23: Air Force

Wouldn’t it be great if Air Force ran the Air Raid offense? You know, throwing the ball into the wide blue yonder, passes climbing high into the sun before falling gently into a receiver’s hands for six. Unfortunately, the Air Force offense is all meat-and-potatoes, no flash or frills, just the running game. Third-to-last in passing in 2010, no higher than 117th in the F.B.S. since 2006, the Falcons adopted this philosophy long before Paul Johnson revamped Navy and decades before Rich Ellerson did the same at Army. If it’s not broke, why fix it? Yeah, the Air Force Academy puts men and women in the skies, but that doesn’t mean the football program needs to do more than run on first down, run on second down, run on third-and-short and then, if need be, run the ball to convert on fourth down. It’s a philosophy the football program has embraced with open arms for decades.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Nickname
Falcons

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 48

2010 record
(9-4, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 27

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    South Dakota
  • Sept. 10
    T.C.U.
  • Sept. 24
    Tennessee St.
  • Oct. 1
    at Navy
  • Oct. 8
    at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 13
    San Diego St.
  • Oct. 22
    at Boise St.
  • Oct. 29
    at New Mexico
  • Nov. 5
    Army
  • Nov. 12
    Wyoming
  • Nov. 19
    U.N.L.V.
  • Nov. 26
    at Colorado St.

Last year’s prediction

Another year, another fourth-place finish in the Mountain West. As if there’s anything wrong with that. The Falcons are in great shape everywhere but the two lines. The defensive line does worry me a bit, yes. The offensive line? Not that much, to be honest. Regardless of who starts — though experience always helps — the Falcons will run the ball, run again, run some more. And do it well, as they always do. The rest of the roster is in terrific shape. The offensive backfield is loaded; the defensive backfield more so. The pieces are very much in place to duplicate last season’s eight-win mark. Unfortunately, the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy still goes through Navy.

2010 recap

In a nutshell When all is said and done, I’m not sure if there was a four-loss team in the F.B.S. with a better resume of losses: Utah, Oklahoma, T.C.U. and San Diego State. It’s a backhanded compliment, yes, but one that does justice to the fact that not all nine-win teams are created equal. If I were to think negatively, I could point out that only two of Air Force’s eight wins were of note: B.Y.U. and Navy. Still, I can’t help but continue to be impressed with the way Troy Calhoun put together at least eight victories for the fourth consecutive season; his predecessor, the great Fisher DeBerry, won a combined 20 games over his last four seasons. The biggest story of 2010, of course, was the fact that the Falcons reclaimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy from Navy for the first time in eight years: the deciding blow came in early October, when Air Force knocked off the Midshipmen at home, 14-6. The best news, on the other hand? That despite interest from a few B.C.S. conference programs — including the in-state Buffaloes — Calhoun opted to remain in Colorado Springs for at least one more season. That’s wonderful news for the Falcons.

High point Wins over Navy and Army. The clean sweep gave Air Force the C.I.C.’s Trophy for the first time since 2002. Navy was more meaningful, but the Army win might have been more important to this team’s bowl hopes: not only did it give the Falcons six wins, but it snapped a three-game losing streak to end October.

Low point Four losses. Three by narrow margins — Oklahoma, Utah and San Diego State — and another, T.C.U., which was never close. It really depends on your point of view: if you feel the close losses hurt worse than the blowouts, take your pick of the above trio. For me, however, that 31-point loss at T.C.U. was the low point of the season.

Tidbit Did you know that no other athletic team, whether college or pro, has visited the White House as often as the Air Force football team since 1982? The Falcons have made 17 trips to see the President thanks to a dominating run in the Commander-in-Chief’s series. The Falcons visited Reagan five times, George H.W. Bush three times, Clinton six times, George W. Bush twice and Obama once. If we go by past success, Air Force and its fans should always vote Democrat: since 1982, the Falcons have taken home the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in seven of the nine years under a Democratic President. That’s compared to in 10 of the 18 years during a Republican administration.

Tidbit (Commander-in-Chief’s edition) As noted above, last year’s wins over Army and Navy gave Air Force its record 17 C.I.C.’s Trophy. Navy is second with 12, most coming over the last decade, while Army lags far behind with only six. The Falcons have the highest winning percentage in the series, as you’d expect, taking games against their two service academy rivals at a 65.4 percent clip – 51-27-0. Navy is 40-37-1, Army 25-52-1. Think the Midshipmen own the Cadets? Check out Air Force: only one loss to Army since 1997, only two losses since 1989 and only six losses since 1980.

Former players in the N.F.L.

1 WR Chad Hall (Philadelphia).

Arbitrary top five list

Best movies about aviation
1. “The Right Stuff,” 1983.
2. “Top Gun,” 1986.
3. “Twelve O’Clock High,” 1949.
4. “The Flight of the Phoenix,” 1965.
5. “The Spirit of St. Louis,” 1957.

Coaching

Troy Calhoun (Air Force ‘89), 35-18 after four seasons with the Falcons. After going 9-4 in 2007, Calhoun and the Falcons grabbed matching eight-win finishes in each of the following two seasons before returning to nine wins a year ago. This run has given the program its most wins over a four-year span since winning 36 from 1995-98. These four seasons have also served as a clear indication that this program is back on the map in the Mountain West, and should be considered a yearly participant in bowl play. Only the sixth coach in program history (Air Force’s first team was in 1956), Calhoun inherited the difficult task of replacing Fisher DeBerry, by far Air Force’s finest coach (169-109-1). Calhoun’s first season exceeded expectations: nine wins, tying Ben Martin for the most by a first-year coach in program history, and a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl, the team’s first bowl appearance since 2002. Air Force experienced a five-game improvement over a 4-8 2006 season, the third-largest turnaround in the F.B.S. that fall. In recognition of this progress, Calhoun was honored as the Mountain West coach of the year and was a finalist for national coach of the year. The Academy realizes what it has in Calhoun; it rewarded his tremendous 2007 season with a five-year extension, hoping to keep the 43-year-old Calhoun at his alma mater for the foreseeable future. A former quarterback and assistant with the Falcons (1989-94), Calhoun has also served as an assistant at Ohio (1995-2000) and Wake Forest (2001-2) – both stops under Jim Grobe – and with the Denver Broncos (2003-5) and the Houston Texans (2006). Calhoun was the offensive coordinator with the Texans, helping Houston triple its victory total from 2005.

Players to watch

The Air Force offense didn’t change much in 2010: still run-first, nearly run-always, the Falcons ended the year second in the F.B.S. in rushing, just behind Georgia Tech. When Air Force did pass, however, it did so with great efficiency. This is large part thanks to Tim Jefferson’s rising comfort as a passer, which in turn has made him — and the offense as a whole — a bit more balanced. Ask to do more as a passer in 2010, Jefferson delivered: new personal-bests in completions (82), attempts (152), yards (1.459) and touchdowns (10) while averaging 9.2 yards per pass, which would have ranked fifth in the F.B.S. had Jefferson the requisite attempts.

No, the Falcons probably won’t ask Jefferson do more than that. And they shouldn’t, as he did struggle in the two games, San Diego State and Georgia Tech, when he was asked to lead the way with his arm. But it’s enough, more than enough, and when taken in conjunction with Jefferson’s running ability it makes the senior one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. He’s certainly one of the most experienced. Jefferson has led Air Force to three straight bowl games, becoming the first quarterback in program history to do so, and was finally able to stay relatively healthy last fall after consistent bouts with injuries left Jefferson on the sidelines as a freshman and sophomore.

What about as a runner? Like he did as a thrower, Jefferson took a significant step forward in this regard in 2010. Considering all his athletic gifts, it was surprising to see Jefferson play such a paltry role in the running game as a sophomore; injuries were surely part of the problem, but he rushed for only 259 yards on 2.9 yards per carry. Being healthy must have been key, as Jefferson turned it on last fall: 794 yards, 5.2 yards per carry, a team-best 15 touchdowns. Forget about getting better; if Jefferson is just as good as he was in 2010, Air Force is in fine hands. The Falcons have great depth at the position in senior Connor Dietz, who has started in Jefferson’s stead in the past.

How about this? Air Force had the same five linemen start all 13 games in 2010. Lucky? Maybe a bit, as it’s rare that an offense is fortunate enough to not have at least one linemen miss a game or two, let alone suffer the sort of inconsistency that would lead a staff to make alterations up front. Three of those starters are back in 2011: senior right guard A.J. Wallerstein, senior center Michael Hester and junior left tackle Jason Kons. Wallerstein and Kons will remain entrenched — especially Wallerstein — but Hester entered fall camp behind fellow senior Jeffrey Benson in the middle of the line, though Benson has a knee injury to overcome. The answer at left guard is an easy one: junior Jordan Eason was basically a starter in 2010, splitting snaps nearly down the middle with the since-departed Tyler Schonsheck. So in essence, the lone new face up front will be senior right tackle Kevin Whitt. Remember that Air Force broke in five new starters in 2010 and didn’t miss a beat, so an even better performance should be in the cards in 2011.

The increased role of the passing game last fall led to more touches for a pretty talented crop of receivers. The majority of last year’s group is back, led by gifted senior Jonathan Warzeka: 18 receptions for 406 yards, both team highs, 312 yards rushing on a team-best 7.6 yards per carry and terrific results in the return game. He does so much for this offense, in fact, that you’d be hard-pressed to find a skill player more vital to Air Force’s success. There is depth, however. Senior Zack Kauth (16 catches for 274 and 4 touchdowns) is a bigger threat to Warzeka’s shiftiness. Juniors Brandon Hirniese and Drew Coleman will be the first pair of the bench. Like many option-based teams, you can sometimes find an Air Force tight end deep downfield, free by 20 or so yards from another defender. Senior Joshua Freeman made only four receptions last fall, but those four grabs went for 122 yards.

Air Force should utilize the 4-3 in addition to its base 3-4 set more often, as that will help the Falcons improve in two of the categories where the defense struggled in 2010: getting to the quarterback and stopping the run. Size matters, and the Falcons don’t have the beef needed up front to fight off plus-sized blockers from the non-service academy teams on the schedule — in a 3-4, I think. Putting four down linemen on the field in certain situations will help clog up running lanes that were far too often open for business last fall, which will in turn force teams to take more chances against a secondary that consistently ranks among the nation’s best. Even without its top corner, the defensive backfield will continue to put the clamps down in 2011. In all, eight starters are back off last year’s defense.

Three of those starters come in the secondary. The Falcons do need to replace Reggie Rembert, one of the great defensive players in recent program history, but have three cornerbacks with solid experience waiting in the wings. Senior Josh Hall is currently listed as the starter, filling Rembert’s shoes, but fellow senior P.J. Adeji-Paul and sophomore Chris Miller are in the mix. All three bring solid playing time into the fall, Hall and Adeji-Paul more so than Miller. If it’s Hall, he’ll join senior Anthony Wright, Jr. (50 tackles, 2 interceptions) in the starting lineup. There may not be a Rembert here, but there’s depth.

Safety? Locked and ready to roll. Senior Jon Davis (93 tackles, 3 interceptions) is one of the Mountain West’s best, and sophomore Anthony Wooding, Jr. (30 tackles) did a nice job replacing an injured Brian Lindsay midway through last season. Lindsay could reclaim his starting role, but even if he doesn’t he’ll at least serve as Air Force’s nickel back. Davis is ready to claim Rembert’s mantle as team leader — both in terms of vocal leadership and on-field production. Look for Air Force to remain around the top 25 teams in the country in defending the pass.

Already strong, the Air Force linebacker corps could be outstanding in the middle should the Falcons land a healthy senior Ken Lamendola. Keep your fingers crossed, but after injuries derailed each of his last two seasons Lamendola seems as healthy as he’s ever going to get. If he’s near 100 percent, there’s no way the Falcons can’t get him on the field; in 2008, Lamendola led the team with 118 tackles. But it’ll be a push for playing time, as seniors Jordan Waiwaiole (team-best 96 tackles) and Brady Amack (82 tackles) are pretty ensconced. If nothing else, having a healthy Lamendola gives Air Force three top-notch inside linebackers. Patrick Hennessey (60 tackles, 10 for loss) is back at one outside spot, with junior Alex Means and sophomore Jamil Cooks battling it out to join him in the starting lineup. I would think that Waiwaiole could move back outside if need be, which would make Lamendola a starter and move Cooks and Means back to reserve roles.

The line lacks size, which is an issue. Bigger teams will always have success running the ball on Air Force, and that’s not going to change in 2011. That’s why I feel like the Falcons should use more of the 4-3: that would play away from the team’s depth at linebacker, but it would also give the Falcons four linemen to help against the run. It’ll always be the 3-4 more often than not, however, and the anchor of the whole deal is senior nose guard Ryan Gardner (29 tackles). No surprise there, as the 3-4 interior lineman is vital, but the Falcons need more from Gardner now that the defense must replace productive end Rick Ricketts. Senior Zach Payne (55 tackles, 6.5 for loss) is back at end, as is senior Ben Kopacka from injury. That’ll help, but depth needs to be developed along the entire defensive front. More than anything, Air Force needs to continue offsetting its thin defensive line with solid play from the back seven. I have no doubt that’s a trend that will continue in 2011.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running backs Fullback, more specifically. The Falcons are set at running back with senior Asher Clark, who last fall became the program’s 13th 1,000-yard back. Like the offense as a whole, the second-team all-Mountain West pick was a beacon of consistency for much of the season, rushing for at least 53 yards in every game but two. Air Force also brings back Cody Getz and Darius Jones, two juniors who combined for more than 200 yards last fall. So things are set and ready to go at running back. Jared Tew’s graduation opens up a hole at fullback, however. Air Force would love to still have Jared Hassin, a former Falcon who transferred to Army and had a dynamic impact on the Cadets’ offense last fall. Unlike Army and Navy, Air Force relies on its fullbacks for tough yardage but not to carry the running game at large; this was the case in 2010, at least. Clark does much of the heavy lifting, and Jefferson gets the call in the red zone and on must-have conversions. Still, it’s imperative that the Falcons get a Tew-like impact at fullback in 2011. There are two leading candidates, both juniors, at the position, barring an August position change. One is Wes Cobb, who earned a few touches in 2010 after switching to the position midway through the year. The second is Mike DeWitt, who missed all of last season due to injury. Neither are extremely big — Cobb, atop the depth chart, weighs less than 200 pounds — but neither was Tew, and that worked out fine. Cobb or DeWitt will produce, as the offense ensures that any running back will put up fine numbers. But whether either can be as efficient as Tew won’t be known until September.

Game(s) to watch

Navy and Army first and foremost. Regardless of the final record, a season is a success if it comes with a Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. In terms of wins and losses, the year comes down to how the Falcons fare in the games against marquee opposition: T.C.U., Navy, Notre Dame, San Diego State and Boise State. If Air Force can go 3-2 in that five it’s easy to see a 10-2 regular season.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The more I delve into Air Force the more I like. It would be very simple to sit back and place the Falcons far lower, citing the fact that the defensive line is always an issue, the offense always has to replace key starters, there’s rarely ample proven depth — the list continues. You can always say that, actually. And you know what? Every year under Troy Calhoun, Air Force manages to do the following: plays steady, consistent football; never commits the sort of mistakes that lose games; controls the ball and clock; hurts teams through the air when given the opportunity; and offsets a thin defensive front with an always-strong back seven, especially in the secondary. In short, anything less than eight or nine wins is not in the cards. Why I think the Falcons deserves the higher ranking is in part thanks to a schedule that presents ample opportunities to show their worth: T.C.U., Navy, Notre Dame, San Diego State and Boise State are terrific teams, and I think Air Force can take three of those games. If not four, as only Boise State seems like a definite loss. What about the roster? Senior leadership abounds, at quarterback, up front, receiver, running back, linebacker and in the secondary. This seems to me like the best team of the Calhoun era, one that has the sort of talent and experience to really make noise on a national level in 2011. Again, Boise State seems like the only team Air Force cannot beat; they play the games for a reason, on the other hand. Is 11-1 in the cards? No. But is 10-2 in reach? Without a doubt. I think this will be the program’s best team in nearly 15 years.

Dream season Beat Navy and Army. Beat Notre Dame. Lose to Boise State, but beat San Diego State and everyone else. The Falcons finish the regular season 11-1.

Nightmare season Lose to the five really good teams on the schedule, win six of seven against the rest. The Falcons go 6-6.

In case you were wondering

Where do Air Force fans congregate? Not many options. The best message board chatter can be found at AFAFalcons. Additional coverage can be found at Frank Schwab’s blog for The Colorado Springs Gazette.

Word Count

Through 98 teams 303,640.

Up Next

Who is No. 22? A former student at tomorrow’s university was part of the first group of criminals to be moved to federal prison via airplane.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    No clue lol. Very difficult clue. I’ll guess Texas.

  2. Andrew Griffith says:

    I think it’s Mississippi State. The prisoner being Machine Gun Kelly.

  3. Charlie says:

    Well, you stumped me. I’ll guess BYU, if only because this seems like a logical place for them to be outed.

  4. Adam Nettina says:

    A good writeup Paul, but the question I have for you is whether or not Calhoun and the AFA can meet the expectations of this season. It strikes me as all very 2010 Navy-esque, right down to the dynamic quarterback who some whisper as a Heisman darkhorse. Yes, 8 or 9 wins has become the status quo, but behind closed doors, this is a team that I think might be whispering MWC title. If things start out rough – which could happen because of the schedule – how does this team respond. How does Calhoun respond.

    Question dos: do you see Calhoun at AFA for the long haul?

  5. Misthaufen says:

    Calhoun has rebuilt AFA and it is a solid program. Another 9 win season should be coming.

    But rather than a cakewalk, I see the Boise State having issues with AFA — playing such an unusual offense without years of past experience is not easy. Plus AFA’s defense, especially pass defense, is very capable and opportunistic.

  6. MStateDawg says:

    Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State Bulldogs are tomorrow.

  7. Bob says:

    “Wings” and “Hell’s Angels” surely belong on a short list of best movies about aviation.

  8. roo says:

    speaking of mississippi state, i think that’s the one team off the top of my head i can say has a better 4-loss compilation than air force

  9. gbu31 says:

    Calhoun will be at AFA for some time. He turned down offers from Tennessee, Colorado, and emphatically denied he was interested in the Denver Broncos Job…and recently donated $100,000 to AFA for a new practice facility. I don’t think he’s going anywhere for awhile.

  10. Jim Dotter says:

    “Twelve O’clock High” should be well above “Top Gun”, and this from a Navy guy.

    CIC back to Mother B.

  11. subsntubs says:

    I, too, denied interest in the Denver job when they never contacted me. guess i need a better PR guy

  12. Scooter says:

    Top Gun? Seriously? Off the top of my head, Battle of Britain, Only Angels Have Wings, The War Lover, Dark Blue World, The Hunters, and Strategic Air Command are all vastly better movies.

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