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Air Force Football Preview: the Falcons Look to take down Hawaii on island time

Coming off of a win, Air Force looks primed to keep it rolling.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for what some would call the most pessimistic Air Force preview on the internet!

Of course, I’m not really a pessimist. I don’t go into these games and search for any excuse to point to a loss. It’s all a matter of relativity and subjective opinions. FBS college football is so strange in that its fans start out the season fully prepared to treat a consolation prize bowl game like it’s the pinnacle of achievement. I understand though, because in a way, you have to do that to maintain a semblance of sanity thanks to what recruiting has become. The 5-star recruits out of high school matriculate to the top 10 schools every year, creating a massive disparity between those teams and the rest of college football. Not to speak in absolutes and say that a five star recruit makes a team bulletproof, but history shows that it kind of does, both in record and CFP selection.

In virtually every other sport, there’s always a gleam of hope that there’s a clear road to the national championship. In NCAA basketball, it’s the March Madness tournament, and in the NHL, MLB, and NFL, all of the playoffs are democratic - win games, end up in the playoffs. It’s just not that simple in FBS football.

This conversations perhaps isn’t pertinent in a preview for Air Force vs. Hawaii, but it shows where I’m coming from. Every year, lower tier teams with superior records cry “bias” when it comes time for the playoff committee to make its decisions, but for a team like Air Force, fans are forced to create realistic goals to consider the season a success.

Personally, I think a successful season means winning the Commander in Chief’s trophy first. Second is making a legitimate run at the MW championship. At this point, the CiC is completely out of the question. While a MW championship isn’t totally out of the question, it requires in perfect season from here on out with two more very difficult wins against Hawaii and Utah State, three wins in what can be called conference trap games, and at least one Boise State loss against opponents that will likely not give them much of a challenge.

It’s frustrating to see an Air Force team with so much talent in this position with six games left on the schedule. Yes, the Falcons are 4-2, but it’s not about the record, it’s about winning the right games.

Hawaii Overview

I highly doubt the Falcons have the same mentality as I do. Call my thoughts doom and gloom if you’d like, but I think the team is extremely confident in their defense, which is overall one of the best Air Force has ever had - as well as the offense with tremendous leadership from Donald Hammond and a ridiculously talented stable of running backs and even more depth than expected in pre-season from the wide receivers. Even Jake Koehnke, has emerged as a high caliber, reliable kicker.

Hawaii, on the other hand, doesn’t care about Air Force’s talent that is unprecedented for their program. The first half of Hawaii’s schedule looks like they’ve joined the Pac-12 part-time, and they’ve done pretty well. They have wins against Arizona and Oregon State, plus they took care of business against Central Arkansas and Nevada. Their two losses came against #23 Washington and #14 Boise State, so I can’t imagine they see Air Force as much of an intimidating threat. The spread is -3 for Air Force, but ESPN’s FPI predictor gives Hawaii a 58.4% chance of winning. Now, the FPI is likely skewed because the game will be played in Hawaii and travel distance is a part of the analytics, but I concede traveling 4 time zones away cannot be ignored. The start time is 9 PM local to Colorado Springs, so it will be at 5:00 PM in Hawaii. Air Force is no stranger to late start times due to broadcasting deals, so I don’t see this making as big of an impact as the FPI would indicate.

Rainbow Warrior Threats

Looking at Hawaii’s record, I’m not totally against putting an asterisk next to their two power 5 wins. Oregon State is 2-4, and while Arizona is 4-2, Hawaii’s win was in a season opener and the rest of their opponents have been pretty weak. Those margins of victory were also much closer than the margins of loss against Washington (52-20) and Boise State (59-37). Of course, this type of analysis will drive a person insane going down rabbit holes, and at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter once Air Force and Hawaii kick off.

Hawaii’s success starts squarely with Cole McDonald. The California native has thrown for 1,880 yards on the season with 20 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 155 yards, averaging 4 yards per keep. While McDonald has a clear favorite target in Cedric Byrd II (46 rec - 572 yds - 9 td), he spreads the ball around nicely to guys like Jojo Ward (28 rec - 418 yds - 6 td), Jared Smart (32 rec - 377 yds - 1 td), and Jason-Matthew Sharsh (31 rec - 330 yds - 1 td).

Hawaii really under-utilizes their run game. Miles Reed takes the majority of their carries, 54 on the season, for 237 yds, averaging 4.4 yards per run, and a total of 3 touchdowns.

The Hawaii offense will challenge what has oddly been an achilles heel of Air Force’s defense, that is fast-paced passing. For some reason, Air Force has gotten shredded when teams run a no huddle passing series, even against decidedly bad teams like Fresno State and San Jose State. Navy, who isn’t bad by any means, but isn’t known for their passing game, had no problem challenging the Air Force DBs. It’s very odd considering how talented the Air Force defense is, and I suspect it comes down to the defensive coordinator’s schemes. If this does seem like a problem early, I would hope that adjustments are made immediately instead of waiting until half time.

Hawaii’s defense has been pretty unimpressive this season. There aren’t really any standout players and they’ve allowed 32.7 points per game, opposed to Air Force’s average, 23.7. They also allowed 412.8 yards per game of total offense to Air Force’s 310.5, but this perhaps speaks more to the difference in quality of opponents than anything.

Keys for Air Force

The offense needs to roll. The Falcons have done a nice job of controlling the clock, but it’s clear that there’s incredible depth in the running back position and Jake Koehnke has shown that he has ice-water in his veins on special teams. There are ways to put points on the board and Donald Hammond’s arm has come out cold at times this season, so they need to be sure to not rely on passing to the detriment of the scoreboard. Variance in designed run-plays and purposeful play-calling will be critical - I’d like to see the option a little more than full back and tailback dives.

The defense needs to make adjustments, if necessary. Cole McDonald is a magician and the top players need to step up. He’s probably the fastest quarterback Air Force has faced, so he will be able to convert in clutch situations. Allowing themselves to get shredded with no answer would be very bad and hopefully Calhoun and Rudzinski will see that.

Prediction

This will be a really fun game. Here on the mainland, a post-primetime matchup gives us all something to look forward to all day and something in my brain loves seeing daytime football when it’s dark where I’m watching it. I have to mention that Air Force is breaking out the Air Power Legacy Series uniforms this week, so you’ll see a matte grey and black colorway with bright tail flashes where the name tape usually goes on the back of the jersey. Hopefully the birds can harness the spirit of Air Mobility Command with the C-17 uniforms.

With a spread of -3 Air Force and a O/U of 66.5, I’ll say Air Force 35, Hawaii 28. I expect a hot start from Hawaii, adjustments from Air Force and slowing down the pace of play on offense.