At this time last year, it appeared that Air Force head football coach Troy Calhoun and AD Hans Mueh were preparing fans for the worst. At the very least, they probably wanted to temper the expectations of those who dreamed of a future filled with Mountain West greatness after Calhoun went 9-4 in his first season in Colorado Springs. The recurring theme to their responses when asked about how the 2008 season would go was how young the Air Force football team would be. There was talk of “thin senior classes” and how it would be three years before Calhoun has the team full of the juniors and seniors he needs to really succeed. With talk like that, it would have been easy to expect disaster, but disaster isn’t what happened. Not exactly, anyway.
How one views the 2008 Air Force football season depends largely on the context in which it is placed. Even though they had 10 freshmen see game action over the course of the year, Air Force went 8-5 and made a second straight appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl. The Falcons kept the ball rolling offensively. too, finishing 6th in the nation in rushing while averaging nearly 267 yards per game. In modern college football, a service academy going 8-5, being a top rushing team, and earning a bowl berth has to be considered a success. So things must be looking up in Colorado Springs, right? Well, sort of. The season was a success in the macro world of college football at large, but in a lot of ways it came up short. Air Force definitely played better than I had expected they would when I wrote the “State of Air Force Football” post last year; there’s no denying that. But chances are that “Beating The Expectations Of Some Mediocre Blogger” wasn’t written on any locker room chalkboard as a team goal. Winning the CIC Trophy and the Mountain West Conference, however, probably were. And when it came to accomplishing those goals, Air Force lost every big game it played in 2008, the lone exception being a less-than-impressive 16-7 win over a woeful Army team.
Evereyone knows what it takes to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy; you have to beat your service academy rivals. By the same token, it’s clear that the road to the Mountain West title runs through Provo, Salt Lake City, and Fort Worth. BYU, Utah, and TCU have established themselves as the league’s top tier. Only one team outside of that group (Colorado State) has won the Mountain West since its inaugural season in 1999, and that last happened six years ago. A lot has changed since then. In 2002, BYU was still mired in the Crowton years, Urban Meyer had yet to arrive at Utah, and TCU was in Conference USA. It’s a different world now. While these teams don’t necessarily finish 1-2-3 in the MWC standings every season– hell, even Air Force beat TCU and Utah last year– they are the only teams that have the ability to be a consistent threat to break into a BCS bowl game. Utah, of course, has actually done so twice. Those three programs have a different ceiling than the rest of the league.
Those five games– Army, Navy, BYU, Utah, and TCU– are the most important on the Air Force schedule. They also happened to be the Falcons’ worst performances of last year. How bad was it? Air Force averaged 267 rushing yards per game. That breaks down to 321 yards per game against the other teams on the schedule, but only 179 against the “big five.” Utah held Air Force to only 53 rushing yards. Army– the same Army whose offensive futility I chronicled a couple weeks ago– not only outgained the Falcons 250-174, but held them to 1-13 on 3rd down conversions. As the Air Force offense struggled, the defense wasn’t nearly consistent enough compared to 2007 to pick up the slack.
I doubt that Air Force is content being second fiddle among service academies and second-rate in the Mountain West. I don’t doubt that Troy Calhoun has a plan in place to take Air Force to that ever-elusive “next level.” Whatever else is on that plan, the first step is obvious: he has to beat Navy.
Before we get into that, let’s start with a history lesson. Air Force won the last WAC title of the brief 16-team era, before the Mountain West schools defected to form their own league. The Mountain West’s members, which roughly consist of the original pre-1996-expansion WAC, broke away from the expanded conference because they felt it was not financially viable, and was becoming diluted both athletically and geographically (being spread across four time zones). The scheduling demands of such an unruly, 16-team leviathan were also threatening to end long-standing football rivalries, putting traditional matchups in a rotation with less appealing games against unfamiliar teams. Air Force was one of the more vocal critics of the 16-team league, but it was also one of its biggest beneficiaries competitively. The split into two divisions meant that in most seasons, the Falcons could avoid playing half of the good teams in the league. Each team played their division, plus one team from the other division, to fill the eight-game conference schedule. Air Force didn’t have to play BYU, San Diego State, Utah, and Fresno State in ’98; instead, they played 3-9 New Mexico. That meant that the Falcons only had to play three other teams with a winning record in the regular season; 8-3 Wyoming, 8-4 Colorado State, and 7-5 TCU. The rest of their conference schedule was a combined 17-40. In essence, the WAC created for Air Force the reasonable schedule that we talk about as critical to service academy success. Instead of running a gauntlet of conference titans, Air Force could play a few “reach” games while the bulk of their schedule was made up more favorable matchups. Get through that, and the conference title comes down to one championship game. It would still be a tough obstacle, but it’s a lot easier to pull a one-game upset than it is to ask for those same upsets week after week.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, that’s essentially what is asked of them in the Mountain West. Since the league’s formation, Air Force has averaged nearly 4 conference losses per year (3.7 to be exact) and has lost at least two conference games in every season. In ten years of Mountain West membership, Air Force has won only one regular season championship in all sports. So what does that have to do with beating Navy? The answer here, like in so many other things, is recruiting.
Nick Saban would tell you that it’s hard enough to beat Utah no matter what players you have. Having to do so with service academy players is a situation that most coaches would want to avoid, to put it mildly. But this is the task that lies before Troy Calhoun. It’s not an impossible one, but it gets pretty darn close when you have to do it with the second pick of service academy players. To accept that, I guess you have to take Coach Niumatalolo at his word when he told Bill Wagner that he did, in fact, win the vast majority of head-to-head recruiting battles with Air Force once again this year:
Niumatalolo said only three players that visited both Annapolis and Colorado Springs chose Air Force over Navy and that it was somewhat understandable since all hailed from the West Coast. Meanwhile, The Capital discovered no less than 10 recruits who said they picked the Midshipmen over the Falcons, including highly regarded kicker Scott Blasinsky, quarterback Tyler Lynch, defensive lineman Wes Henderson and linebacker Josh Patton.
There’s no reason not to believe it. This has been the case for a few years now. Paul Johnson was straightforward about how he wasn’t beating Air Force for recruits when he arrived in Annapolis, but once he beat them on the field, that started to change. He won a few more recruits away from Fisher DeBerry each year until it finally reached the point where Navy was dominating recruiting the way Air Force used to. Given all of this, it’s obvious why Calhoun needs to get that first Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. He needs to swing the service academy recruiting pendulum back west. Of course, Fisher DeBerry never won the Mountain West even when he was getting the cream of the service academy football crop. But he was in the twilight of his career by then, and by many accounts he just didn’t have the energy that is so crucial to coaching success. Calhoun is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Maybe he’d have a better shot, maybe not. Either way, if Air Force can’t consistently beat Navy, then there is no way that they will consistently beat BYU, Utah, TCU, or any other Mountain West program that rises to their level.
For that reason, last year’s game against Navy had to be incredibly frustrating. It seemed like the perfect scenario for Air Force to come out on top. They were playing at home. They had an extra week to prepare, while the Mids came into the game having played two BCS schools and an excellent Ball State team in consecutive weeks. The quarterback that made Navy’s offense go was injured and couldn’t play, while Air Force was getting Ty Paffett back from injury. And of course, Paul Johnson was gone. Yet even though Navy’s offense had a lackluster performance, the team still put up 33 points and earned its sixth straight win in the series. If Air Force didn’t win last year, then when will they?
Who knows? Don’t think that it can’t happen, though. Conventional wisdom said that there was no way that Navy should have won in 2003 either, yet here we are. But even if it’s possible, every year that Navy is on top, every year that Ken Niumatalolo can show that the Navy machine is as well-tuned as ever with him in charge, just makes the job that much harder.