It truly feels like we are crawling to the finish line of the 2019 college football pre-season. 2018 was a year where Air Force was underwhelming at best and each game left a weird taste in our mouths that would lead you to think “that’s not the best we could have played.” Every win that should have been easy seemed to take a big toll on the team and every loss felt like there was a lot more that could have been done.
If you’re looking for wild, unfounded predictions like some of my colleagues have made, I want to apologize because you won’t find them here. Anyone can say that Army will go 13-0 and beat Michigan and anyone can say that Navy will go undefeated and have historic CiC wins, but there is simply nowhere to look on the rosters, past performance, or updated strategies that would indicate that those claims are even in the realm of possibility. It would not be prudent to make any lofty predictions given the fact that Air Force has had two losing seasons in a row, which was seemingly not due to player talent. Game clock mis-management, a lack of preparedness in must-score situations, and an unwillingness to commit to players was a rampant problem in 2018, but with a wealth of experience on the coaching staff, it’s unclear where these problems derived from. With the new season a mere four days away, the time for conjecture, manufactured narratives, and guessing is done. It’s time to step up and see how the season unfolds.
The Mountain West
I have no problem saying it, at this moment, I do not believe Air Force will win the Mountain West with the same gameplan as last year. The deck is stacked against Air Force, but I think that reality check is a good thing. Instead of going into each game with the utmost confidence that they will win, the Falcons can be mentally prepared for every possible scenario and find a way to win tough games. The question that needs to be answered is if they have found the offensive players who they are confident giving the ball to in must-score scenarios. With the naming of Donald Hammond III as the starter, Kade Remsberg at running back, and Geraud Sanders with a wealth of experience as a receiver, the Falcons are in a great position to come away with wins against high-powered teams in the Mountain West.
The first conference matchup is the third game on Air Force’s schedule against Boise State on a Friday night in Boise. The game comes six days after Air Force plays Colorado, and Boise State seems to be in a position to lead the conference after losing to a renewed Fresno State team in the Mountain West Championship in 2018. However, Boise State is having a tough time filling Brett Rypien’s shoes at quarterback. It seemed like the previous backup, Chase Cord, would be the starter, but coach Bryan Harsin has named true freshman Hank Bachmeier as their QB1. He will be the first true freshman starter since Boise State entered the FBS in 1996. All things considered, Boise State is arguably Air Force’s toughest game on the schedule, but they’re not unbeatable. Troy Calhoun needs to find a way to knock them off to have a chance at being in the conference championship conversation.
I wrote a full schedule breakdown a few weeks ago, so I’ll spare all of the details on Mountain West opponents, but in addition to Boise State, Utah State and Fresno State are other opponents Air Force will have a hard time with. Now that week zero in the books, another team is emerging as a bigger challenge with Hawaii getting a win over a mistake-laden Arizona, but a Pac-12 team nonetheless. We’ll know more about Hawaii in the coming weeks with subsequent games against Oregon State and Washington, but what I saw was a dynamic offense, captained by Cole McDonald, that can make mistakes, but will overwhelm teams with their attack. Their defense looked good. It was by no means the hallmark of their performance being that much of their success came from Arizona’s failures, but they’re certainly not to be overlooked. I think this will be the most interesting opponent of the three teams Air Force and Army have in common, with San Jose State and Navy being the other two.
Finding a way to win is paramount to a team like Air Force’s success. Army has perfected their own brand through effective offense, but objectively, their system is not suited for use by a team like Air Force to compete in the Mountain West. Troy Calhoun knows there is pressure on himself and on his team. He loves the Air Force program and I’m sure he wants to win. With a tough schedule ahead, I just hope that he is making the right decisions with his gameplay behind closed doors.
While I think winning the Mountain West is a tougher task than winning the CiC trophy, it seems that Army and Navy are games that are more unclear than any conference game on the schedule. Air Force has purposefully improved and filled holes more than both Army and Navy have over the off-season. Troy Calhoun has acknowledged how Air Force’s receiving corps is questionable, the two quarterback system doesn’t seem to be going away, and loss of players thanks to graduation and disciplinary reasons have given cause to manage expectations of offensive positions. Yet, the depth on defense is undeniable. If there has ever been a team that won’t allow Army to play at their desired pace and will force turnovers against both Army and Navy, it’s the 2019 Air Force defense.
Army is overrated relative to their ranking. If that’s a controversial statement, you’re simply delusional. I couldn’t see Army beating teams that got less votes, including Mississippi State, TCU, Boise State, South Carolina, or Virginia Tech. I am infinitely more confident in Air Force beating Army, who received the 27th most votes in the AP poll, over Boise State, who received the 33rd most votes. Colorado will likely prove to be a much better team than Army and they’re not even in the AP poll conversation. This doesn’t take away from their accomplishments, but I believe that should Air Force beat Army, and it still shouldn’t have any indication of the Falcons earning a place in the national ranking.
So what does Air Force need to do to beat Army? It’s simple. They need to score more points than Army. I say that somewhat in jest, but Air Force needs to manage the game clock and realistically understand just how many drives they will have in the second half. Army doesn’t ever really seem to panic, but it was rare for them to fall behind on the scoreboard in 2018. Air Force needs to strike early and find a way to stop Army in the first half. We simply haven’t seen Army need to make a true comeback in 2018 aside from their game against Oklahoma. What we saw in the Army/ Air Force game last season was an even matchup where the game ended with Army definitively controlling the lead when it mattered. Air Force has the talent, they need a realistic plan to come out on top and the confidence to take risk when it matters.
As far as Navy goes, Air Force needs to simply forget about last year’s game. With home field advantage and a Navy team on a down year that still wasn’t playing to their potential, Air Force seemingly scored at will on big plays. This year, Navy has home field advantage and Malcolm Perry has the opportunity to own his role as the starter. The Falcons simply cannot expect to walk into Annapolis and face the same team they played last year.
I am confident that Air Force has a great opportunity to win the Commander in Chief’s trophy. They will play an Army team that isn’t as good as everyone thinks and a Navy team that isn’t as bad as everyone thinks. It’s still a long road to even get to those games, so the prospect of injury, the picture that each team’s record to those points paints, and countless other factors will come into play.
Talk is over. I can write until my fingers fall off and read into past performance until my eyes go cross. None of it matters when Air Force kicks off. The Falcons are in a great position with a new athletic director, deep talent, and tons of experience. However, it feels eerily similar to last season. When I look to what has changed from our last losing season until now, certainly there is more experience and a few improved players, but I think the reality check of 2018 is the biggest thing on our side. When you have a great team that finishes 5-7, it becomes clear that disjunctive talent isn’t enough. It’s coming together and living up to the namesake of the Bolt Brotherhood that will lead the Falcons to have a special season.