Last week I looked at SMU’s chances of earning the title ‘BCS Buster’ in the upcoming season, but they’re hardly the only under-the-radar team who could make waves this year.
Laugh if you will at the prospect of any team not named TCU or Boise State winning the Mountain West this year, but Air Force could surprise a lot of people by the end of the season and grab the conference championship. Consider that the last three Mountain West Champions went onto play in a BCS bowl game and this could be an even more exciting year for fans of the Air Force Academy.
The Falcons are loaded with experience this season led by senior quarterback Tim Jefferson, who emerged as a dual threat passer last year in the Falcons’ triple option offense. Jefferson led the nation’s second-ranked rushing offense with 15 touchdowns and finished second on the team with 154 rushing attempts for 794 yards (5.2 yards per carry). He’s come quite a way since his freshman and sophomore seasons when he averaged 2.8 and 2.9 yards per carry, respectively. A senior this year, Jefferson will lead an offense returning its leading rusher and most of the offensive line, although the all-important fullbacks need to be replaced.
The pass defense last year ranked 2nd in the nation and the pass efficiency defense ranked 10th. Cornerback Reggie Rembert is going to have to be replaced, but the secondary should again be in good shape. The defensive front, though, needs to step up to penetrate the line of scrimmage. The rush defense ranked 103rd in the country, allowing over 200 yards rushing per game, and the Air Force D ranked 109th in sacks and 103rd in tackles for loss. The Falcons lose a key contributor up front in Rick Ricketts, but others such as tackle Ryan Gardner and linebacker Jordan Waiwaiole should step up to turn an experienced front seven into production on the field.
Gardner was confident following spring practice and told News First 5′s Jordan Mason that he believed Air Force could finish the year undefeated. “I think we probably have one of the best Air Force teams we’ve had in years,” he said. Jefferson was optimistic as well. “That’s always the goal,” he said according to News First 5 in Colorado Springs. “When is it ever a goal to lose a game? We definitely have the talent to do it.” Head coach Troy Calhoun, however, wasn’t ready to anoint this Air Force team a BCS Buster. “When you haven’t played a game it’s easy to say that,” Calhoun said. “Otherwise I think its discussion. It’s talk. I think ultimately what it’s going to come down to is just long haul work.”
Calhoun is right that none of this talk matters until the Falcons take the field, but it’s nice to hear a couple of the team’s veterans express the confidence that this team can go the distance. Sometimes all that separates the winners from the losers is their mindset. Gardner and Jefferson are confident, and perhaps they should be, that they have the pieces to unseat TCU as the Mountain West Champions and hold off Boise State, who joins the conference this year and is the preseason favorite to take the Mountain West.
The September 10 game against TCU will be huge. The Horned Frogs are missing several pieces from last year’s Rose Bowl-winning team, but they’ll return a talented squad with plenty of pieces to be competitive on a national scale. If Air Force takes that one, though, their confidence will be at an all-time high as they get into the meat of their schedule. They’ll have to deal with Navy, Notre Dame, San Diego State and Boise State, too, but expectations are high for a season that could very well end in a conference championship and BCS bowl game appearance.
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