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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. 49: Air Force

You can’t control injuries. There’s nothing a staff can do to keep players on the field and off of crutches; try as one might – and I’m sure there’s a detail-obsessed coach out there who has chewed it over – there’s no way to control the flow of injuries. Typically, those teams that dominate the national title conversation remain largely injury-free, outside of the common nicks and bruises that impact every roster. But for most teams, injuries are a constant, never ending source of pain and anguish. For some the pain stings worse: Air Force, for example, is not a football factory, one that spews out five-star recruits like a slot machine, but rather one of those programs that needs all it can get from each and every player on its roster. Put the Falcons among those teams that must stay healthy – and if they don’t, a once-promising season can quickly take a turn for the worse.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Nickname
Falcons

Returning starters
5 (3 offense, 2 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 23

2011 record
(7-6, 3-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 55

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Idaho St.
  • Sept. 8
    at Michigan
  • Sept. 22
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Sept. 29
    Colorado St.
  • Oct. 6
    Navy
  • Oct. 13
    at Wyoming
  • Oct. 20
    New Mexico
  • Oct. 26
    Nevada
  • Nov. 3
    at Army
  • Nov. 10
    at S.D.S.U.
  • Nov. 16
    Hawaii
  • Nov. 24
    at Fresno St.

Last year’s prediction

The more I delve into Air Force the more I like. 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. 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The bottom line — the won-loss record — was disappointing, especially given the amount of experience Air Force brought to the table. Most disappointing of all, however, was the fact that the Falcons didn’t beat a good team all season. This was very unexpected; in August, I thought Air Force had a chance to be one of the top 25 teams in the country. But the defense was an utter failure, allowing a shade less than 40 points per game in the Falcons’ six losses. That the offense was there — scoring 33 points against Notre Dame, 41 against Toledo — makes the defensive liabilities a bit tougher to swallow. As much as any team in the country, Air Force was dealt a cruel blow with injuries.

High point Wins over Navy, 35-34 in overtime, and Army, 24-14. Air Force nearly coughed up a surefire win over the Midshipmen, blowing an 18-point fourth quarter lead, but followed up a blocked Navy extra point with a touchdown in the first overtime.

Low point I thought Air Force had a great shot at a young and rebuilding T.C.U. in the second game of the season, but turnovers doomed the Falcons’ fate in a 35-19 defeat. Later, Air Force would get outscored by Notre Dame, San Diego State and, most memorably, Toledo. Calhoun’s decision to fake the extra point instead of trying a traditional play when down by a point with no time left is still confusing. As is that sentence.

Tidbit Air Force has rushed for at least one touchdown in each of the last 34 games. The streak dates back to Oct. 10, 2009, when the Falcons notched one rushing score in a 20-17 loss to T.C.U., then a conference rival. I’m sure Air Force wishes the streak was just one game longer; one week before, the Falcons dropped a 16-13 decision to Navy. The program’s high for rushing touchdowns in a game under Calhoun is eight, set twice: against San Diego State in 2007 and Nicholls State in 2009.

Tidbit (pass defense edition) Air Force has allowed 300 or more passing yards in a game only eight times since Calhoun was hired prior to the 2007 season. Six of those occurrences came in 2007 and 2008: T.C.U. (320 yards), San Diego State (410) and California (305) in 2007 and Houston (362), B.Y.U. (354) and T.C.U. (321) in 2008. The Falcons have held 35 of their last 36 opponents under 300 yards through the air. Over the last five years, Air Force has allowed an average of 180.2 passing yards per game. Few teams in the country do a better job defending the pass.

Former players in the N.F.L.

2 DT Ben Garland (Denver), WR Chad Hall (Philadelphia).

Arbitrary top five list

Best job replacing a Hall of Fame Coach (since 1990)
1. Mark Richt, Georgia (Jim Donnan).
2. Jim Tressel, Ohio State (John Cooper).
3. Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia (Don Nehlen).
4. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin (Barry Alvarez).
5. Troy Calhoun, Air Force (Fisher DeBerry).

Coaching

Troy Calhoun (Air Force ‘89), 42-26 after five 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 in 2010. This run gave the program its most wins over a four-year span since winning 36 from 1995-98. Even if the Falcons splipped to seven wins last fall, Calhoun’s successful turn at his alma mater has served as a clear indication that this program is back on the map in the Mountain West. 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

It could be worse: Air Force’s offense could have to replace nine starters, as on defense, instead of just eight starters. Then again, it’s probably fair to make one point in regards to the Falcons’ overwhelming lack of experience heading into September: Air Force is not like other programs in the country. Elsewhere, you see five returning starters and point towards a downturn; Air Force, like its fellow service academies, deals with roster overturn every season – perhaps not to this degree, but without redshirt seasons and with most teams very senior-heavy, this sort of retooling is not new to Calhoun and this staff.

As for this offense, it will help to have three experienced contributors in the backfield. One is senior Connor Dietz, who steps in at quarterback after spending the last three years backing up Tim Jefferson. Dietz has earned extensive action since 2009, even going toe-to-toe with Jefferson that fall for the starting role; while Jefferson won the competition, starting in each of the next three years, Dietz is no neophyte – he knows this offense as well as any player on this roster.

He’s even a better runner than Jefferson. He rushed for 369 yards in 2009; he added another 252 yards last fall, averaging 6.6 yards per carry – the most of any player on the team with at least 30 carries. There’s little doubt that Dietz will bring another dimension to the running game as the Falcons’ quarterback. However, the Air Force passing game is going to take a step back. While Dietz has developed as a passer since his first season, he’s not going to match the production Jefferson brought to the table as a senior.

Wisely, Calhoun switched senior Wes Cobb (425 yards) from fullback back to tailback, where he started his career. While Cobb was a big part of the offense last fall, the position change accomplishes three feats: one, it makes Cobb the centerpiece of the running game; two, it give Air Force a seasoned back to replace Asher Clark, one of the finest tailbacks in school history; and three, it allows the Falcons to get both Cobb and senior fullback Mike DeWitt (567 yards, team-best 12 scores) on the field at the same time.

Cobb, Dietz and DeWitt form a solid three-headed monster in the backfield, even if replacing Jefferson and Clark will be a daunting task for this offense. Air Force also has a few underclassmen pushing for snaps. Sophomore Jon Lee (122 yards, 11.1 yards per carry) runs behind Cobb at tailback; Lee may be the most gifted skill player on the roster, even if he’s not the starter, so look for him to earn at least 75 carries in his first season of extensive game action. At fullback, Air Force will spell DeWitt with sophomore Broam Hart. A third sophomore, Kale Pearson, edged out senior Tucker Tipton to be Dietz’s primary backup.

First and foremost, receivers in this offense must be effective blockers both in the box and down field. But receivers will be asked to do more, of course – just see the years put forth last fall by Jonathan Warzeka and Zack Kauth, two seniors who combined for 61 grabs for 1,062 yards and 9 scores. With both gone, Air Force is going to need senior Mikel Hunter (14 catches for 244 yards) to occupy the void left atop the depth chart. He’ll get some help from junior Ty MacArthur, a big-play threat in limited duty last fall, and seniors Drew Coleman and Brandon Hirneise. While the Falcons lost some serious weapons at receiver – Warzeka was also a valuable option on the ground and the team’s top return man – it’s not an overwhelming concern; there won’t be as much of an emphasis on the passing game, for one, and Hunter is one player who can be explosive when used as a runner.

The next time I worry about the Falcons’ offensive line will be the first time. And whenever I do feel some pangs of concern I simply recall 2010, when Air Force replaced all five starters up front and didn’t miss a beat. It’s not nearly as bad this fall: Air Force brings back left tackle Jason Kons, left guard Jordan Eason and more than a few reserves pegged for future starting roles as early as last summer – not to mention offensive line coach Clay Hendrix, who always gets the most out of this group. Center’s spoken for, with junior Michael Husar stepping in for Jeff Benson, but the Falcons do need to settle on starters at right guard and tackle.

The line’s springtime competitions at both spots will help out this offense in the long run. It’s very likely that the losers of the position battles will remain very valuable reserves, perhaps swinging between both tackle spots or all along the interior. For now – and we won’t know until August – it’s too early to pick a winner: juniors Jerry Henry and Alex Huskisson are neck-and-neck at right tackle, and likewise with junior Drew Kerber and senior Nathan Badger at right guard.

The Falcons have a new defensive coordinator – sort of. Matt Wallerstedt, who left for the linebackers coach position under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, will be replaced by Charlton Warren, the program’s former co-defensive coordinator and the architect of the team’s outstanding pass defense over the last four years. Warren won’t change much, if anything at all, but that’s great for Air Force; even if the defense took a nosedive last fall, that Warren brings a familiarity with this roster and the program to his new position will help the Falcons bridge the gap to an almost brand-new starting cast.

Warren’s biggest task will be finding answers up front, a job he’ll share with co-defensive coordinator Steve Russ and defensive line coach Ron Burton. One of the positive aspects to the injuries that ravaged the Falcons’ defense last fall was that it handed playing time to a few younger linemen – though it was clear that most weren’t yet ready to take on a meaty role. A year later, the hope is that sophomores Nick Fitzgerald (24 tackles) and Joseph Champaign and senior Nick DeJulio (17 tackles) are better prepared for the challenge.

This will be your starting three, with sophomore James Rushing and senior Cody Miller the top reserves. The only question for Warren and this staff will be how to best utilize their top threesome. While Fitzgerald played end last fall, he’s the best fit in the middle of Air Force’s 3-4 base set, replacing Ryan Gardner. If the Falcons go that route, Fitzgerald will be flanked by Champaign – probably the team’s best overall talent up front – and DeJulio at end. Fitzgerald and Champaign are young, so they’ll take some more lumps early, but there’s no doubting the fact that both will be vastly improved after playing as true freshmen.

The secondary lacks a stopper. But the Falcons do return a solid amount of experience, especially at safety: junior Anthony Wooding (57 tackles) and senior Brian Lindsay (42 tackles) return after splitting time at strong safety last fall. Warren will separate the two this fall, putting both in the starting lineup – Wooding moves to free safety – which does give this defense some strength along its back end. The Falcons also have some past starting experience at cornerback in junior Chris Miller (23 tackles), who opened last season in the starting lineup before moving back into a secondary role over the year’s second half.

The starting quartet in the secondary – barring any changes in August, which seems unlikely – will have Wooding and Lindsay at safety and Miller and junior Steffon Batts at cornerback. While not an overly experienced group, Wooding, Lindsay and Miller have started in the past, and Batts was the team’s fourth cornerback last fall. And as with the offensive line, this secondary has played so well over the last four years that there’s no reason to expect otherwise come September; while it’s too early to know if this gr0up will do a better job forcing turnovers, I don’t think that Air Force is going to suffer a major decline against the pass.

Finding an answer on kick returns is a slight concern, if only because Hunter’s sample size on special teams is a bit too small to make any large assumptions about his ability to fill Warzeka’s shoes. But he’s certainly athletic, someone who can make things happen with the ball in his hands. Air Force is locked in at kicker, where senior Parker Herrington is in the mix for all-American honors. The Falcons also return junior punter David Baska, though Colton Reid’s graduation leaves a hole at long snapper.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker As up front and in the secondary, Air Force’s linebacker corps was decimated by graduation. In addition, Warren has indicated that his linebackers will attack the run in a slightly different way under his direction, which could help the Falcons amend some of the difficulties they had getting stops between the tackles over the course of last season. What Warren would like to see is more pressure on the line of scrimmage and less passivity; instead of waiting for a play to develop, perhaps waiting for linemen up front to occupy blockers, he wants the Falcons’ linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage.

What this tweaked mentality does is place tremendous pressure on the team’s two inside linebackers. The Falcons break in new starters at both spots: seniors James Chambers and Austin Niklas (35 tackles, 4.0 for loss). Niklas is ready to take on a big role after spending last season behind Brady Amack, the team’s leading tackler. Chambers has participated primarily on special teams thus far in his career, but he moved ahead of senior Josh Kusan to grab a starting role during the spring.

The group’s lone returning starter is senior Alex Means (77 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 6.0 sacks), the undisputed star of this defense. Means is very, very good: he’s an easy all-conference pick, not to mention one of the leading contenders for conference player of the year. What makes Means invaluable to this defense isn’t merely his ability to work in space, where he’s a menace, but also his ability to work at the point of attack, whether against the run or as an edge rusher. Joining Means outside is junior Jamil Cooks (50 tackles, 8.5 for loss), a six-game starter last fall.

Game(s) to watch

The Falcons get Navy at home and Army on the road. Those are the two biggest non-conference games, obviously. Air Force also heads to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan, sandwiching that game with a pair of wins against U.N.L.V. and Idaho State. The Falcons also miss Boise State altogether and get Nevada at home, which does help the team’s chances at a high finish in the Mountain West. I see three clear wins right off the bat in Idaho State, the Rebels and New Mexico; in addition, I really can’t see Air Force losing at home to Colorado State nor to Army, even if the Cadets will be improved. But while the schedule is friendly, the Falcons do end the year with a bang: at San Diego State, home for Hawaii and at Fresno State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Even at Air Force, a school that undergoes significant personnel changes every odd year, the lack of experience is a little troubling. The Falcons return only five full-time starters, three on offense and two defense – and as you might expect, this team is rebuilding at every position on both sides of the ball. So Air Force is a bit of an unknown when it comes to its two-deep; new faces have already emerged, with more stepping up in August and throughout the season, and it will be interesting to see how these former reserves gel as a starting unit. The reason why the lack of experience won’t cripple the Falcons’ bowl chances – or even their shot at a second-place finish in the Mountain West – is very simple: Air Force has a system, one with proven results, and as long as the team remains injury-free there’s no reason to think it can’t win at least seven games during the regular season.

The Falcons cobbled together seven wins in 2011 despite suffering some significant injuries. I’m not sure if this year’s team could do the same if several key starters go down for an extended amount of time, due to the lack of proven depth. But if all goes according to plan – if the injury bug doesn’t grab the Falcons once again – there’s enough talent to keep the bowl streak alive. I don’t buy into the concerns over the offensive line and secondary; the Falcons are always strong up front and against the pass. While the passing game will step back, Dietz will team with Cobb and DeWitt to form the backbone of another strong running game. There’s promise up front on defense and pair of very good outside linebackers. Can Air Force win the Mountain West? I don’t think so – I also think that Nevada is a step ahead of this team heading into fall camp. But thanks to a fairly easy schedule and the projected progression from last year’s reserves, the Falcons should win seven or eight games before making a program-record sixth straight bowl appearance.

Dream season Air Force loses to Michigan, as expected, and drops a late-season road game to San Diego State. Every other game is a win, including a pair over Navy and Army by a combined 42 points.

Nightmare season The Falcons’ first half is muddied by losses to Navy, Colorado State and Wyoming, leaving them at 2-4 heading into the second half. Over its last six games, Air Force loses to Nevada, San Diego State, Army and Fresno State to finish 4-8 – the program’s worst record since 2006.

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.

Air Force’s all-name nominee K Briceton Cannada.

Word Count

Through 76 teams 297,813.

Up Next

Who is No. 48? The head coach at tomorrow’s program will lead his team against his alma mater in the season opener, marking the second time that he’s faced this team over his tenure with the program.

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Comments

  1. Steve says:

    Coming up next: Virginia

    - Mike London (Richmond ’82)
    - UVA plays Richmond on Sept. 1
    - UVA beat Richmond in 2010 in London’s first game as coach of the Cavaliers

  2. John says:

    Utah State?

  3. Parker says:

    Utah State was already previewed at #67.

  4. Parker says:

    UVa coach Mike London went to Richmond. UVa opens with Richmond. This is the second time London has played Richmond as UVa coach. The first time was in 2010.

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