Air Force has not won a conference title since 1998, the last year of the infamous 16-team WAC, but this season the Falcons have a shot to win the Mountain West and possibly even make it to the BCS. This 2011 team may not reach the peak that the 1985 team that was one win away from playing for the national title, but it is not out of the possibility for the Falcons to make it to the BCS this year. They have the experience in key offensive positions to make a legitimate run.
The overwhelming consensus has Boise State winning the Mountain West with Air Force coming in at the third spot, and that is due to the recent track record of Boise State coupled with their experience in regards to returning starters. My official prediction is the same: Boise State will win the Mountain West, but that does not mean I am not going to be high on the Air Force.
The biggest hurdle is that the Falcons start the season unranked in both the USA Today Coaches and AP polls, but they are at least receiving votes which helps. With having South Dakota and Tennessee State on the schedule, their strength of schedule will take a big hit. On the other side, they do face three teams currently ranked in Boise State, TCU and Notre Dame; plus, San Diego State is an above average team that has the chance to be ranked. Winning is the most important thing, because in 2007 Hawai'i went 12-0 and made it to the Sugar Bowl by playing in a lesser league and facing two FCS schools. The only difference is that Hawai'i started the season ranked in the preseason.
The fact is that teams do not like to play Air Force. Opposing teams hate preparing for their option attack because they have to game plan for a completely and rarely used style. Replicating the option attack by a team's scout unit is very difficult since the scout team themselves are usually made up of redshirts, walk-ons and players low on the depth chart. Plus, it is something they are unfamiliar with running as well.
That is the key advantage that Air Force has when facing teams with better talent. Just look at last year's game on the road against Oklahoma where Air Force lost, 27-24, and had chances to win the game. Their unique offense is why the Falcons have a shot against any team in the country.
The run-option offense requires offensive players to be smart and make a decision on the fly and it all depends on what the quarterback decides to do with the ball. The Falcons have Tim Jefferson directing this offense and he has been doing so ever since he was a freshman at the Academy. Having a senior quarterback and one who has this much experience is key for any football team, but it is even more of an advantage for Air Force. At the line of scrimmage, Jefferson makes his first read to see what the defense is giving and he will adjust when needed, but once the ball is snapped that is when split-second decisions can make the difference in a one-yard gain on a fullback dive or whether Jefferson tucks the ball and heads to the edge where he can either keep it to himself or pitch to his senior running back mate Asher Clark.
Defenses that do not play 1/11th football get burned, because the one time the defensive tackle does not go cover the fullback dive is the time the fullback breaks free for a large gain. Speaking with people who went up against the Air Force offense find it extremely boring; they are coached for this game to do the same thing over and over. That is how Air Force gets opposing teams: they wait for them to make the mistake and take advantage.
Senior running back Asher Clark is another reason to why the Falcons will have a successful season and make a run to a BCS game. In 2010 Clark was third in the Mountain West in rushing with 1,031 yards and he should improve upon that for 2011 since the key fullback position will be manned by a new starter. Clark and Jefferson have been playing in the backfield for the past three seasons and know each other extremely well which can be the difference between a big play or a loss of two yards. Clark knows when Jefferson is going to keep the ball on a speed option, so Clark will go ahead and block down field instead of waiting for the pitch that may or may not come.
The only concern in this attack is that the fullback position will be handled by juniors Wes Cobb and Mike DeWitt. In 2010 Cobb had five carries for 13 yards whereas Cobb missed the majority of 2010 with an injury and in 2009 as a freshman was on the junior varsity team. Cobb is listed as the starter on the depth chart, but head coach Troy Calhoun says positions are still fluid.
The fullback is a key position in the Falcons offense because they are counted on producing running the ball almost as much as the running backs. The fullback dive is a key element in the Falcon offense because they will run that play after play and can set up so many other options for Air Force if defenders fail to play their assignment.
An element that is lost on those on the outside is that the Falcons can throw the ball. Jefferson is one of the schools better passing quarterbacks and is exceptional at the deep ball. Teams focus so much on the running game that the defensive backs must play their receiver each and every play, but eventually they get bored or bite hard on a play action play and that is when Jefferson goes over the top for a deep gain. In 2010 Jefferson averaged a league best 9.2 yards per attempt and 17.79 per completion. Wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka has been the main target, as he had 18 receptions for a whopping 406 yards. He did not catch the ball often, but when he did the play counted.
The defense is the key concern, rightfully so, but in their defense they were fourth in the Mountain West in total defense last year but only 19 yards separated them from second. The Falcon defensive line and linebackers are undersized due to the restrictions placed at Air Force, but they make up for that in speed and technique to beat the larger offensive lineman.
The rushing game is where Air Force will have the most trouble when they face San Diego State and TCU, but they do return seven defenders with six of them in the front seven; the rush defense should be much better and that will allow them to contain opposing defenses.
In the secondary the Falcons do have Anthony Wright Jr., who is a preseason all-conference selection and last year he had two interceptions and five passes broken up as well. Wright is the leader of the secondary and as the defense as a whole. The defense must make stops and not allow too many big plays or get caught in a track meet, because the Falcons will not win those games. To help the defense succeed, it circles back to the offense who can play ball control offense and keep the time of possession in their favor by keeping opposing offenses off the field.
The biggest hurdle in getting Air Force to a BCS game is their October schedule where they play at Navy, at Notre Dame, San Diego State at home on a Thursday night and then at Boise State. This stretch is one very difficult stretch by playing a rival, two ranked teams, two trips to the east coast and a dangerous San Diego State team.
If, and it is a big if, Air Force can run through that stretch they have an exceptional chance at going undefeated. Navy is not as good as they have been in the pass, Notre Dame has struggled and lost the past two years to Navy who also runs a run option attack. The Boise State game is one who some are writing off as a Boise State win. However, Boise State is a team who excels at their best when they get weeks and weeks to prepare for a team. One week to prepare for Air Force is a daunting task for any school and even though Boise State has a great defensive line they have never played an offense like Air Force. Teams do prepare during fall camp and their bye week for Air Force, but even that may not be enough for Boise State who is seeing the Falcon offense.
As for TCU, the Falcons get the Horned Frogs at home and in week two which is a big deal since TCU is breaking in new quarterback Casey Pachall. The last time TCU came to Air Force in 2009 the Falcons nearly pulled off the upset, but that game was in icy weather where TCU turned over the ball in the red zone multiple times.
Air Force is favored in nine games with the exception of Boise State, TCU and Notre Dame. Out of each of those teams, Air Force can take advantage of their deficiencies and the advantages that Air Force has can help pull off upsets in these games.
The odds are not in favor for Air Force to make a BCS game because they are unranked, so they will need teams ahead of them to lose. Most importantly they must win their own games. Air Force may not make it to a BCS game, but they are an undervalued team nationally in my opinion.