When you have a strong identity in place, and when you have mastered the art of underdog strategies, it is easy to almost begin to ignore the impact individual players or levels of experience have. A good percentage of college football fans could probably tell you that Air Force runs its own variation of the triple option on offense, and a certain percentage could also probably tell you that they operate out of an underdog-friendly 3-4 defense, placing an emphasis on speed and big-play prevention since they can't compete from a size perspective.
A majority of those same fans probably couldn't name for you a single player on the Air Force roster last season. Some could probably throw out quarterback Tim Jefferson's name. A few more who watched every second of the 2011 Military Bowl could probably recall a skill position player like Jonathan Warzeka or Zack Kauth. But that's pretty much it.
So does identity trump the individual? We will find out in 2012. Jefferson, Warzeka and Kauth are all gone, but that's not even the half of it. In all, Air Force must replace its top two quarterbacks, top running back, three top receivers, top two tight ends, four of its top six offensive linemen, four of its top six defensive linemen, three of its top five linebackers, its top two cornerbacks and its best safety. And for good measure, the Falcons must replace their top kickoff returner and punt returner too.
Troy Calhoun has succeeded beautifully in replacing Fisher DeBerry as Air Force's head coach. In five seasons, his Falcons have never won fewer than seven games; they have been to five straight bowls, won two of them, and gone 41-24 overall. The program had begun to fade a bit in DeBerry's final years in charge, and Calhoun immediately rejuvenated the program. But is his system in such a plug-and-play state that it can overcome this incredible amount of turnover? Because not only are all but six of last year's starters gone, but a good percentage of the second-string has also run out of eligibility. Strong identity can overcome some turnover and inexperience, but this much? Is there a system in the world that can overcome this?
Calhoun immediately reestablished the Falcons' bowl credentials, and in four years, he has already directed two lovely surges in terms of overall quality of play. The AFA has won 34 games, but they have quickly hit their heads on a nine-win glass ceiling. In a new Mountain West that has added Boise State but lost BYU and Utah, can the Falcons establish themselves a bit higher up in the pecking order? […]
With BYU and Utah leaving the Mountain West and TCU getting ready to do the same, the conference is in the market for a new No. 2 (after clear No. 1 Boise State). Looking at recent performance, the clear, obvious candidate is Air Force, even considering incoming programs like Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii. [...] They should certainly be as good as they were last year, though their odds of making another odd-numbered surge have to be considered pretty low. They are what they are right now: an eight- or nine-win mid-major team who can be pushed around but is a major pain to play ("Major Paine"). The Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 has them projected at 8-4 with a Proj. F/+ of 56th. Really daring pick there, eh?
Ho hum. For the fourth straight year, Air Force won either seven or eight games in the regular season, finished 7-6 and narrowly missed out on something better because of an eight-point loss to Wyoming (a game played without Tim Jefferson) and a thrilling, one-point loss to Toledo in the aforementioned Military Bowl. The Falcons did what they do -- run an insane amount of the time (81 percent of the time on standard downs, 61 percent on passing downs), play a conservative, reactive 3-4 defense, and win more games than they lose. In all, this was probably the worst Air Force team since 2008, but it was another reasonably successful season. Now, however, comes the big challenge.
First things first: While we tend to generalize about such matters, Air Force does not run a strict flexbone attack. They almost take a Mike Leach approach to the triple option. They run a small handful of base plays, but they will do so out of a multitude of different formations. Just watch the video below from their 2009 Armed Forces Bowl pantsing of the Houston defense.
Every play has multiple built-in options, and almost every play comes from a different formation. It is beautiful to watch, as long as you aren't a fan of the team it is confounding. As with any good underdog offense, the Falcons almost remove pure defensive quality from the equation when it comes to stopping them. They gained 416 yards against TCU and 565 against Notre Dame last year, and they gained 458 against Oklahoma in 2010. They turn the game into a battle of familiarity, discipline and deception, and as they have proven for years under Calhoun, that is a game they can win more often than not. They struggle against teams more familiar with their style -- they averaged just 330 yards per game against Army and Navy last year, for instance, and Georgia Tech held them to 287 yards in the 2010 Independence Bowl -- but that is beside the point. Most teams aren't going to be familiar with them, and that's just fine with them.
That said, while defenses need to be familiar with their attack to stop the Falcons, the Falcons themselves also need a high level of experience and acquaintance to succeed. And I'm not sure they get the benefit of the doubt in that regard heading into this fall, not with so many new pieces. Both of last year's quarterbacks, Jefferson and Connor Dietz, are gone; they combined for 198 pass attempts and 191 rushes, and the only other quarterback on last year's roster (senior Tucker Tipton) attempted two and one, respectively. Since Air Force has yet to update its 2011 roster online, and since practice reports are amazingly hard to come by, we're going to assume that Tipton takes his turn behind center this fall.
We're also going to assume that running back Mike DeWitt is the new primary rusher. A big back (220 pounds), he was a quality goal line specialist in 2011, scoring 12 touchdowns among his 117 carries. Still, the Falcons are likely to miss back Asher Clark, one of the most consistently explosive backs Air Force has had in a while. Of this year's batch of senior running backs, the most interesting might be Darius Jones, who received only 14 carries last year but gained 137. And as amazing as it sounds, two receivers might be missed even more than Clark. Air Force was particularly impressive in their play-action passing game last year, both in when they used it and how well they used it. Zack Kauth and Jonathan Warzeka combined to catch 62 of 94 passes (a combined 66 percent catch rate) for an explosive 1,062 yards (11.3 per target). The next three Air Force targets combined to catch just 28 of 44 passes (a decent 64 percent) for 404 yards (9.2 per target) -- solid, sure, but less spectacular. Junior Ty MacArthur, who caught just four passes last year (but for 101 yards), now becomes the default big-play threat.
Comparatively speaking, the offensive line is wonderfully experienced. It must replace four players with starting experience (66 career starts), including all-conference guard A.J. Wallerstein, but four players with said starting experience return (39 career starts), including two-year starting tackle Jason Kons.
As silly as this sounds, one of the reasons I began pursuing advanced football statistics in the first place was because of tackling-machine linebackers. I was getting tired of linebackers on bad defenses earning all-conference or All-American honors simply because they racked up eleventy billion tackles. I wanted to know whose tackles were preventing good plays, not simply who was good at corralling a player after a nine-yard gain. I often talk about guys who make the "somebody had to make the tackle" tackles as if that is a negative, or at least neutral, trait. But at times there is certainly value to be found in ridiculous tackle totals.
Case in point: now-former Air Force inside linebacker Brady Amack. He racked up 98.5 tackles last year, 13.1 percent of his team's total. In a 3-4 alignment, the job of the boundary players is often to leverage the play back toward the inside linebackers, and clearly Air Force did a decent job of that in 2011. It is hard to know, actually, how many of his tackles were due to superb playmaking or strong leveraging from other players. Regardless, Air Force ranked a perfectly healthy 52nd in Rushing PPP+ (big-play prevention), and Amack and his supporting cast were clearly a major reason why. With both starting outside linebackers (Alex Means and Jamil Cooks) returning, it is possible that Amack's replacement (Austin Niklas? Josh Kusan?) could put together similar numbers, and Air Force's bend-don't-break run defense could continue apace.
That's the rose-colored spin. Means and Cooks are, it seems, outstanding OLBs -- not only did they most likely help Amack out to a great degree, but they combined for 17.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and four passes defended. The problems for Air Force, of course, are twofold: 1) Means and Cooks account for half of Air Force's returning starters (the only others: end Nick Fitzgerald and safety Anthony Wooding, Jr.), and 2) aside from big-play prevention on the ground, Air Force's defense ranked in the triple digits in just about every other major category. The Falcons were 112th in the country in Passing S&P+*, and while that shows that they might not miss their three departed starters in the secondary, it also suggests that the replacements won't be amazingly successful.
While the overall inexperience of the defense is alarming, it does appear that a couple more playmakers could emerge this fall with more opportunities: inside linebacker Niklas, who managed four tackles for loss, defended two passes and forced a fumble in limited opportunities, and cornerback Chris Miller, who broke up three passes in a similarly limited role.
* The Falcons are a case study in raw stats versus opponent-adjusted stats. They ranked sixth in the country in passing yards allowed per game, which seems like a great total until you realize that a) they didn't face many good passing offenses, and b) opponents ran on them significantly more than national averages: 72 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 40 percent of the time on passing downs (national average: 33 percent). Granted, that's what happens when both Army and Navy are on your schedule, but the equation is pretty simple: Face fewer pass attempts, mostly against lesser pass offenses, and your numbers will look pretty good.
In Idaho State, Colorado State, New Mexico and possibly Hawaii, Air Force has four likely home wins built into their schedule. Because of that, it is conceivable for Air Force fans to hope for a bowl game, but with this amount of turnover I am going to set the bar at five wins. Pull off more than that with such a new cast of characters, and you have accomplished something impressive.
One must say this about Air Force: It is in the right conference. If you face a wealth of lost playmakers, you will be right at home in the Mountain West, where nearly every team looks to take a step backwards in 2012. Still, Air Force loses more than perhaps any team in the conference, even Boise State. The Falcons have been one of the most strangely, boringly consistent teams in the country, they run a system that might be more friendly to personnel losses than others, and obviously, with the way they recruit, they are unlikely to either bring in or lose some amazing, four-star athletes -- they are used to making the most of what they have. That said…
…my goodness, do they have a lot to replace in 2012. Troy Calhoun has done an outstanding job of, in a way, modernizing the Fisher DeBerry system, and he likely has a lot more games to win in Colorado Springs. But until proven otherwise, I have to assume his Falcons take a temporary step backwards this fall.