I will go ahead and cut to the chase here. Air Force needs a winning season and to take back the Commander in Chief’s trophy. Air Force has a new athletic director in Nathan Pine, whose past successes in other programs are hallmarked by his ability to fundraise and anything less than a successful season will almost certainly provide a huge roadblock in those efforts. We’ve had two consecutive losing seasons with multiple close games despite great talent and experienced coaches. If you want to hear a chronological game by game breakdown of our season, you can check out the podcast we did on Air Force’s schedule, but I put each game into categories based on how I think Air Force will need to handle them to reach their goals.
In triple option football, and sports in general, obviously anything can happen. David can always slay Goliath, but going into this group of games can be an important exercise in trying out new strategies and keeping starters fresh for bigger games. Now this is counter-intuitive to the old school mentality of never overlooking games and taking the schedule week by week, but we have to be realistic. It’s extremely difficult to take New Mexico as seriously as we would Boise State or Colorado. It’s important to take these wins and get out to prepare to craft a winning season overall.
Colgate is the first lock. It’s somewhat frustrating that Air Force schedules its FCS game for week one of the season. While it helps in seeing how our team operates in a relatively low threat environment to make adjustments going forward, it can also have the opposite effect. There may not be opportunities for Air Force to see their true weaknesses with an under-powered opponent, leaving them to be exposed twice as badly in subsequent games. Although I am confident Air Force will get the win, Colgate has the potential to be a true trap game. Externally, it’s parents weekend. Although the team stays together before the game, having the majority of the team with family in town could serve as a distraction. Colgate is also not your typical FCS team. Their quarterback, Grant Breneman, was selected as the Patriot League offensive player of the year and a lineman, Nick Wheeler, was named the Patriot League defensive player of the year. Colgate was also picked as the number one team in their conference in the coach’s poll and they went 10-2 with losses only to Army and North Dakota State in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
San Jose State
San Jose State comes second on my list of locks. They had a 1-11 record in 2018 and the returning players don’t really seem poised to make a statement this season aside from a few linebackers, Ethan Aguayo and Jesse Osuna, who played fairly well last season. This game is critical because it’s the second conference game of the season, but I certainly don’t think we should be over-working our starters in a game like this as it falls a week before Navy.
New Mexico is a battling it out with San Jose State for the distinct honor of worst team in the conference. No running back averaged more than 57 yards last season, and their running back Tyrone Owens, who at least ran in six touchdowns last season, has graduated. This game comes after Army and begins the final three game stretch of conference opponents to close out the schedule. It’s a perfect opportunity to allow starters to recover after what is sure to be a physical battle against Army and close out the season on a high note.
The Must Wins
As it stands, I’ve only listed three locks. Air Force isn’t playing a schedule like Army, so the following games could go either way, but are critical to have a successful season. I have no doubt in my mind that Air Force has the talent to win these games, but these are the toss-ups, and it’s going to come down to coaching, eliminating mistakes, and playing smart with the game clock. If Air Force wins these games, and were to lose the other three, they would sit at 9-3 and get the Commander in Chief’s Trophy back and a bowl bid. Obviously Air Force doesn’t need a 9-3 record to be bowl eligible, but all of these games are winnable.
Anything can happen against Navy. Air Force beat Navy 35-7 at home last season, but now the Falcons will return to Annapolis to face a team that is guaranteed to be improved. Of course, Air Force has improved as well since last season with the strength and experience of returning players, so I feel good about this game. I put this as a must win because in order for Air Force to have a good season, in most Air Force fans’ minds, we need to beat Army and Navy. The responses may vary if this question were asked, but I speak for myself in saying I would rather go 2-10 and win the CiC vice 10-2 and not beat Army or Navy. It just means that much.
Hawaii is one of those teams that really wants to be in the national conversation. Based on their schedule, it makes me wonder if they are posturing themselves to make a case to move to the PAC-12, with opening games against Arizona, Oregon State, and Washington. Their team is odd. They have an impressive, mobile quarterback in Cole McDonald, who ranked sixth in the NCAA with 36 passing touchdowns. He is a driving force behind their 8-6 season, much Lamar Jackson was at Louisville. However, they’re pretty transparent. They have a 250 pound running back who is powerful, but lacks in quickness. Air Force needs to control the clock and keep the ball out of McDonald’s hands to win this middle-tier conference game.
I had a tough time deciding where to put Utah State in the grouping of games. Their quarterback, Jordan Love, who is in the discussion for a first round pick in the 2020 draft, is likely the toughest quarterback Air Force will face all season. He has the advantage of experience against Air Force and is highly adaptive. Utah State also boasts some incredible DBs. Air Force did lose to Utah State last season 42-32, but Air Force managed the clock poorly and was dealing with injuries and uncertainty at quarterback. I placed this into the must win column because it’s an attainable game that would make a statement. If Air Force plays well, it will create momentum going into the Army game at home.
This is the game where Air Force leaves it all out on the field. If Air Force wins all of my must-win and lock games up to the this point and drops the other games, they will sit at 5-3 and need to win out on the downslope of the season. Army is very hot right now. I won’t debate that at all, but the secret to their success is that there is no secret. They control the clock, eliminate turnovers, and play the odds of conversion on fourth down. If winning football games were that simple, every coach in the country would abandon pro style offenses and unique schemes to run the triple option. Knowing this, Air Force needs to expose their objectives. Mo Fifita is Air Force’s biggest player and will be hard to push on fourth and inches. Air Force’s defensive backs are assassins and have tremendous depth from the reports coming out of camp. They need to force turnovers. On offense, Air Force doesn’t tend to allow drives to unfold as slowly as Army. They will move the ball slowly, but tend to take shots at the end zone. Patience will be key to keep momentum and prevent Army from getting the ball. This game is relatively late in the season, but if Army plays like they did last year, they will have inflated confidence that can easily be broken by wearing them down. Air Force only lost this game 14-17 last year, and I have confidence that they can pull out the win this year. After all, they have to.
Colorado State is a rivalry for college football fans in the state of Colorado. While I can tell you that the players and students from both schools don’t feel the same, the teams are still familiar with one another. Even on a down year, Air Force pulled out a win last season, so this may have been suited for a lock, but I can see this being a close matchup. Mike Bobo has overcome health issues and will certainly bring his team to play. In my hypothetical scenario, Air Force would be 7-3 going into this game, which means they will be riding a wave and could set them up nicely for a conference championship scenario.
I think of Wyoming as a slightly tougher Colorado State and they are arguably Air Force’s biggest Mountain West rival for those who are still paying attention to either team in late November. Wyoming has a lackluster offense and a solid defense, but Craig Bohl has Air Force figured out, which is tough for Troy Calhoun considering that lack of experience with the triple option usually provides an advantage for the Falcons over their opponents. If Air Force wins the CiC, and they are now in the conversation for winning the West division, this serves as an important step on the way to a great season.
The Uphill Battles
These are the toughest games on our schedule. I would love to win every game this season, but we have to be realistic. A few losses are manageable, and you can have a fantastic year even without a perfect record. These are the games that will give the Falcons the biggest challenge, and coming away with wins would be a huge feather in the cap of the team.
While I’m excited that Air Force gets to revive a series that was last played in 1974, this is a tough game. Air Force will be coming off a bye week, which will be of questionable necessity, and going from an FCS opponent to a power 5 team. As I said in my comments against Colgate, if the FCS team leaves Coach Calhoun unable to identify weaknesses in his team, they will certainly be exposed in a bad way by Colorado. In the grand scheme of things, this game doesn’t make or break the season, but a win would create massive momentum going into conference play. I think it will be important to play to win in this game like Army will against Michigan, versus the attitude that has become pervasive in service academy vs. power 5 matchups, which is just having a good showing. Colorado has a first year coach with some pretty old-school ideas, and they will play Air Force after facing Nebraska, so the opportunity could present itself for the Falcons to get a win.
If there is a game Air Force needs to manage its expectations on, this is it. That’s not to say Air Force can’t win, but if they do lose, they cannot let it get to them. Air Force will play Boise State on a short week at Boise on Friday night under the lights. If Air Force were to drop two contests to Colorado and Boise State, they need to be careful because the season would be far from unsalvageable. Boise State is ranked first in the Mountain West in pre-season voting, and although they have younger players at major skills positions, Bryan Harsin knows what he’s doing. This will likely be Air Force’s toughest game all season, with a lot of factors going against them, but it’s absolutely realistic to say that Air Force can win.
While this game could and probably should be substituted with Utah State in terms of must win/ uphill battles, I think Air Force will have a hard time preparing for Fresno State. Air Force will have played Navy in the week prior and Fresno State is in the West division, so it will be tough for the team to really keep their heads dow for this one. A win is absolutely a good thing, instilling confidence, putting Air Force one step closer to bowl eligibility, and keeping them in the conversation to win the conference, but this will be a very difference team from what Air Force faced and defeated in 2016. Fresno State has a highly accomplished coach with Jeff Tedford, who has coached Marshawn Lynch, Aaron Rodgers, and Trent Dilfer among others. Although he hasn’t coached his team against Air Force since returning to Fresno State, there’s no doubt that he is up to the challenge. I believe that if Air Force comes to play and the coaches get creative, this is the most winnable of the uphill battles, and it kicks off a difficult part of the schedule.
Troy Calhoun was ostensibly wrong when he said that this is Air Force’s toughest schedule to date at Mountain West Media Days. It just isn’t their most difficult season considering the fact that Air Force has played seasons with three or more top 25/ power 5 teams on the schedule. While some of the teams on the schedule will likely crack into the top 25, there is a roadmap in there to produce a winning season with the current level of talent on the Falcon depth chart. I do think that the timing of some of the games makes such a task exceedingly difficult, like scheduling an FCS opponent, then a week off, then a power five opponent, then rolling into conference play, this is practically the same schedule framework that Air Force has had for the last decade. Although I’m a realist (some would say a pessimist), I do believe that this can be a highly successful season.