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1. Sustained gains
Former Notre Dame and Missouri head coach Dan Devine used to call himself a fussbudget. It's a great word that I think I have only seen used by Devine and in a Peanuts cartoon. A fussbudget is a worrier, a perfectionist with a permanent wince.
Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun has always struck me as one. He rubs other coaches the wrong way from time to time. He gives honest answers when something is bothering him. He interviews for other jobs. He doesn't seem like the type who will be completely happy anywhere.
He's also one hell of a coach. And Air Force afforded him an opportunity many coaches don't get: a chance to rebound.
Calhoun played quarterback during perhaps Air Force's most pivotal moment. His first season was 1985, when quarterback Bart Weiss and second-year head coach Fisher DeBerry were leading the Falcons to a 12-1 record and top-10 finish. They lost only to BYU and beat Notre Dame and Texas, among others.
Calhoun got full exposure. After the great 1985, the Falcons went 6-5, then 9-4, then 5-7. Up, down, up, down. When he served as their recruiting coordinator in 1993-94, they went 4-8 and 8-4.
Sustaining success is hard at a place with weight limits, service requirements, and no redshirts. When you've got the right mix of talent and experience, you can ride an underdog approach to a lovely season. In 59 years, Air Force has been to 25 bowls, has won at least eight games 21 times, and has spent parts of 16 seasons in the AP poll.
Considering the limitations, that's remarkable, not to mention a reminder that there are a lot of ways to win a football game. But the limitations catch up to you, at least for a while. In 23 seasons, DeBerry finished 8-5 or better nine times and twice won 12 games, but he also went 5-7 or worse five times, including in each of his final three years. DeBerry was an awesome coach, but the ups and downs were evident. And that has continued under Calhoun.
Calhoun spent eight years under the wing of another fantastic underdog coach: Jim Grobe. He spent six seasons at Ohio, as offensive coordinator for the last four. He joined Grobe at Wake Forest for two years before taking an interesting detour by joining the Denver Broncos. When Denver OC Gary Kubiak got the Houston Texans head coaching job, he made Calhoun his coordinator. To his option- and misdirection-based knowledge, he added zone blocking schemes and pro-style concepts. Then he returned to Colorado Springs to succeed DeBerry.
Though still an option-based team (out of necessity), Calhoun's Air Force has featured zone blocking and vertical passing to a degree that other service academies have not. The results have been strong. From 2007-10, the Falcons averaged 8.5 wins per year, then went 13-13 in 2011-12. And over the last two seasons, they've gone 18-9, winning 10 games in 2014 and a MWC Mountain title in 2015.
Oh yeah, and in the middle of this nice run, Air Force went 2-10 in 2013. After ranking 53rd in S&P+ in 2010, Calhoun's Falcons fell to 92nd, then 112th and 111th. The offense was inconsistent, and the defense was dreadful (122nd in Def. S&P+ in 2013). But given time to rectify issues, Calhoun did. The defense has ranked 60th and 71st the last two years. The offense hit a Calhoun-era high of 34th in Off. S&P+ last year.
Overnight, the program rebounded. And in 2015, Air Force sustained the gains of the out-of-nowhere, 10-losses-to-10-wins turnaround. Calhoun, happy or not, proved himself again.
2015 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-6 | Adj. Record: 9-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 63 | Final S&P+ Rk: 52|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|12-Sep||San Jose State||89||37-16||W||66%||85%||+13.8||+15.0|
|19-Sep||at Michigan State||9||21-35||L||46%||35%||+11.6||+12.0|
|17-Oct||at Colorado State||86||23-38||L||12%||1%||-20.3||-18.0|
|20-Nov||at Boise State||37||37-30||W||91%||98%||+10.4||+19.0|
|28-Nov||at New Mexico||99||35-47||L||25%||17%||-26.8||-21.5|
|5-Dec||at San Diego State||43||24-27||L||63%||52%||+0.2||+1.5|
|Points Per Game||33.8||39||25.5||48|
2. Unsustainable brilliance
Air Force's 2015 was a three-act play. The Falcons began with a romp over Morgan State, competed well against eventual CFP participant Michigan State, and handled San Jose State and Wyoming. But they also got romped by rival Navy and self-destructed with turnovers against Colorado State.
Midway, Air Force was 3-3, looking like a bowl team but nothing much more than that. And then the Falcons found altitude.
- First 6 games
Average percentile performance: 50% (~top 65) | Record: 3-3 | Average score: AFA 31, Opp 24 | Average performance vs. spread: -3.5 PPG
- Next 5 games
Average percentile performance: 85% (~top 20) | Record: 5-0 | Average score: AFA 38, Opp 16 | Average performance vs. spread: +16.4 PPG
- Last 3 games
Average percentile performance: 35% (~top 85) | Record: 0-3 | Average score: Opp 43, AFA 32 | Average performance vs. spread: -10.7 PPG
Air Force went from 3-3 to 8-3, Mountain Division champion. The offense averaged at least 6.2 yards per play in each game of the win streak. The defense allowed 4.7 or fewer three times. The Falcons outgained Utah State by 141 yards, then went to Boise and outgained the preseason MWC favorite by 229. This wasn't an instance where the perceived underdog beats good teams with turnovers or lucky bounces; Utah State and Boise State were lucky to stay within seven points. It was unlucky that Air Force didn't win by more.
This surge, in which Air Force played like a legitimate top-20 team, couldn't last. With the division title clinched, the Falcons laid an egg in Albuquerque, and they were comfortably outgained in both the MWC title game and Armed Forces Bowl. The defense gave out, and the offense couldn't make up the difference.
This was a half-season of brilliance and a half-season of scuffling. But even with the late fade ... damn, were those Utah State and Boise State performances impressive.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||46.0%||22||Succ. Rt. +||109.8||32|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||29.3||58||Def. FP+||28.8||50|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||5.2||13||Redzone S&P+||114.6||23|
|Q1 Rk||65||1st Down Rk||33|
|Q2 Rk||40||2nd Down Rk||10|
|Q3 Rk||24||3rd Down Rk||62|
3. They figured you out
Air Force's offensive strength was adaptability. Starting quarterback Nate Romine tore his ACL and MCL late in the Week 2 win over San Jose State, but after a slow start, senior Karson Roberts ended up performing even better than Romine. Fullbacks D.J. Johnson and Shayne Davern both missed significant portions. But until the postseason, at least, the Falcons just kept improving.
It was the same within a given game. Air Force ranked 65th in first-quarter S&P+, 40th in the second quarter, 24th in the third, and 16th in the fourth. As opponents' game plans became clearer, Air Force's adjustments became more effective.
Coordinator Mike Thiessen proved himself tactically nimble, especially when it came to the big pass play. Air Force quarterbacks completed just 34 percent, at 8.3 yards per completion, with a 61.8 passer rating in the first quarter; in the final three quarters: 56 percent completion rate, 23.3 yards per completion, 182.2 passer rating. Once opponents got lulled in by the run, it was over.
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Nate Romine||5'11, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7667||7||18||143||2||1||38.9%||0||0.0%||7.9|
|Pate Davis||6'0, 180||Sr.||NR|
|Ryan Brand||5'8, 193||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8048|
4. Got a quarterback? Got two?
Romine's career has been beset with ups and downs. He saw significant action as a freshman over the second half of Air Force's miserable 2013, then took a backseat to then-senior Kale Pearson during 2014's rebound. He was the heir apparent, but his 2015 ended after just a couple of games.
There are no redshirts in Colorado Springs, so Romine enters his senior season again as the perceived starter, but he's still got some recovering to do. In the meantime, Pate Davis and former three-star signee Ryan Brand have been splitting first-team snaps in the spring.
The role of Air Force quarterback is one prone to injury -- you're running the option, and when you do pass, you're often looking pretty far downfield. That opens you up to hits (though with a great offensive line, QBs didn't take many hits last year).
You're probably going to need more than one QB. And it will be interesting to see what happens if or when Romine is forced to miss more time.
|Jacobi Owens||FB||6'0, 202||Sr.||NR||NR||207||1096||7||5.3||4.8||39.6%||4||2|
|D.J. Johnson||FB||5'10, 235||Sr.||NR||NR||82||425||6||5.2||3.6||40.2%||2||2|
|Benton Washington||RB||5'11, 205||Jr.||NR||NR||55||321||4||5.8||3.4||52.7%||1||0|
|Timothy McVey||RB||5'9, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7889||51||435||9||8.5||11.9||39.2%||1||0|
|Bryan Driskell||RB||5'8, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059||50||363||0||7.3||7.1||48.0%||0||0|
|Shayne Davern||FB||6'0, 240||Sr.||NR||NR||46||323||4||7.0||9.6||34.8%||0||0|
|Tyler Williams||WR||5'10, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7900||31||182||1||5.9||3.7||61.3%||1||0|
|Aubrey Duty-Tyson||FB||6'0, 240||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7794||24||101||1||4.2||1.8||33.3%||2||1|
|Nate Romine||QB||5'11, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7667||22||111||1||5.0||9.3||31.8%||2||0|
|Jake LaCoste||RB||5'10, 205||Jr.||NR||NR||7||36||0||5.1||2.0||42.9%||0||0|
|Scott Hester||RB||6'0, 230||Sr.||NR||NR||6||34||1||5.7||2.3||50.0%||0||0|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Jalen Robinette||WR||6'4, 215||Sr.||NR||NR||58||26||641||44.8%||37.7%||11.1||50.0%||43.1%||2.46|
|Timothy McVey||RB||5'9, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7889||12||10||307||83.3%||7.8%||25.6||75.0%||58.3%||4.38|
|Ryan Reffitt||TE||6'5, 230||Jr.||NR||NR||8||2||14||25.0%||5.2%||1.8||25.0%||12.5%||1.05|
|Bryan Driskell||RB||5'8, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8059||4||2||11||50.0%||2.6%||2.8||75.0%||25.0%||0.93|
|Tyler Williams||WR||5'10, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7900||3||2||10||66.7%||1.9%||3.3||33.3%||0.0%||0.00|
|Benton Washington||RB||5'11, 205||Jr.||NR||NR||3||2||1||66.7%||1.9%||0.3||66.7%||0.0%||0.00|
|Shayne Davern||RB||6'0, 240||Sr.||NR||NR||1||1||33||100.0%||0.6%||33.0||100.0%||100.0%||3.34|
|Jacobi Owens||FB||6'0, 202||Sr.||NR||NR||1||0||0||0.0%||0.6%||0.0||100.0%||0.0%||0.00|
|Josh Self||TE||6'3, 225||Sr.||NR||NR|
|Andrew Daughtery||WR||6'2, 190||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Cody Bronkar||WR||6'2, 197||So.||NR||NR|
5. Fullbacks and play-action
The offensive line was the driver of success.
In 2014, Air Force ranked 100th in Adj. Line Yards and 84th in Adj. Sack Rate, then lost three starters. But offensive line coach Clay Hendrix found the right recipe last fall; the Falcons improved to 13th and second, respectively (they allowed just three sacks all season), and produced two all-conference performers in tackle Sevrin Remmo and guard A.J. Ruechel.
With almost no defender presence in the backfield, Air Force had time to establish its option and pull the ball back and look deep. As is customary, Hendrix now has to replace three more starters (including Remmo and Ruechel) but will be calling from a pool of juniors and seniors.
If the line holds up, the skill positions should do their jobs. Last year's top seven running backs return, including leader Jacobi Owens and explosive options in Timothy McVey, Bryan Driskell, and Shayne Davern.
Meanwhile, one of the two primary receivers is back. Air Force must replace Garrett Brown and his 13.9 yards per target, but big senior Jalen Robinette, a three-year contributor who has caught 85 passes for 1,738 yards and 12 touchdowns in his career, is back for one more go-round. Four to five solid running backs and a big-play receiver: That's pretty much what Air Force's offense requires. If the quarterback and offensive line are up to snuff, this offense will again play at a high level.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Sevrin Remmo||RT||14||17||2015 1st All-MWC|
|A.J. Ruechel||RG||14||27||2015 2nd All-MWC|
|Colin Sandor||LG||6'2, 275||Sr.||NR||0.7333||14||18|
|Alex Norton||C||6'2, 288||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7667||8||8|
|Dylan Vail||C||6'2, 280||Sr.||NR||NR||6||6|
|Allen Caunitz||RG||6'4, 250||Sr.||NR||NR||0||1|
|James Rast||LT||6'4, 265||Jr.||2 stars (5.1)||0.7372||0||0|
|Jackson Wilson||LG||6'3, 280||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7667||0||0|
|Jake Barnhorst||RT||6'4, 260||Jr.||NR||NR||0||0|
|Andrew Gikas||OL||6'3, 230||Sr.||NR||NR||0||0|
|Patrick Halloran||OL||6'4, 255||Sr.||NR||NR||0||0|
|Jordan Tyler||OL||6'2, 260||Jr.||NR||NR||0||0|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||35.2%||13||Succ. Rt. +||117.9||12|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.1||88||Off. FP+||29.5||77|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.7||90||Redzone S&P+||113.6||25|
|Q1 Rk||112||1st Down Rk||66|
|Q2 Rk||13||2nd Down Rk||91|
|Q3 Rk||55||3rd Down Rk||80|
6. Damn the torpedoes (and the consequences)
The single biggest reason for Air Force's stark turnaround was a defense that went from identity-free to as aggressive as any in the country. The Falcons ranked 13th in success rate allowed in 2014 and 112th in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of successful plays.
They were willing to allow big plays (77 gains of 20-plus yards, 120th in FBS) to force three-and-outs and turnovers. If the balance is there, this is a perfect way to run a college defense.
It was the same in 2015. Air Force again ranked 13th in success rate allowed, but there was at times too much slippage in the big-play department. The Falcons gave up only 70 gains of 20-plus this time (101st), but 28 were 40-plus yards. Only Arizona State allowed more 40-yarders. The result: a ranking of 128th in IsoPPP, dead last.
That was a bit much. You can give up big plays if you're making stops in return, but a couple of 40-yarders per game will kill you. Air Force made as many run stops near the line as anybody, but if you got to the second level of the defense, you were running until your legs got tired.
A lot of that can be ascribed to youth. Air Force returned only four starters last year, and as you see below, very few seniors were in the rotation -- the Falcons return four of their five primary linemen, seven of nine linebackers, and five of six defensive backs. That means good things for 2016, and it tells you that inexperience was probably a handicap in 2015.
(The Air Force defense, by the way, ALSO tended to adapt and adjust well. The Falcons ranked 112th in first-quarter S&P+ but 13th in the second. They fell to 55th in the third, then improved to 31st in the fourth. Better do your damage early.)
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Lochlin Deeks||NT||6'4, 265||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7900||14||23.0||3.5%||5.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Santo Coppola||DT||6'4, 285||Jr.||NR||NR||13||13.0||2.0%||4.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Samuel Byers||DT||6'5, 275||Sr.||NR||NR||10||10.0||1.5%||3.0||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|David Harris||DL||6'0, 269||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||4||8.0||1.2%||2.5||2.0||0||1||0||0|
|Jalen Lacy||NT||6'4, 250||Sr.||NR||NR||12||4.5||0.7%||1.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Kellen Cleveland||DE||6'4, 235||Sr.||NR||NR||4||1.5||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cody Moorhead||DL||6'5, 275||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||12||1.5||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Grant Ross||ILB||6'0, 220||Jr.||NR||NR||14||45.5||7.0%||5.0||1.5||0||0||1||0|
|Claude Alexander III||ILB||6'1, 225||Sr.||NR||NR||13||45.0||6.9%||10.5||4.0||0||0||0||0|
|D.J. Dunn, Jr.||OLB||6'3, 240||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR||13||38.5||5.9%||12.5||6.0||0||2||0||0|
|Patrick Healy||ILB||6'1, 225||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7656||10||29.5||4.5%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jack Flor||ILB||6'2, 225||Jr.||NR||NR||14||23.0||3.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jacob Onyechi||OLB||6'1, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7667||12||21.5||3.3%||4.0||0.0||0||2||0||0|
|Ryan Watson||OLB||6'3, 230||Sr.||NR||NR||14||17.5||2.7%||4.5||3.0||0||0||1||0|
|Matt Evans||LB||6'4, 225||Jr.||NR||NR||12||1.5||0.2%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Omar Gardea||LB||6'2, 225||Jr.||NR||NR||3||1.5||0.2%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Shaquille Vereen||LB||6'0, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7667|
|Brody Bagnall||LB||6'3, 230||So.||NR||NR|
7. Only one (really important) guy to replace
Only 28 percent of opponent carries gained even five yards on Air Force last year. Unadjusted for opponent, that's the second-best opportunity rate in the country; the Falcons also boasted a top-20 sack rate, presenting one of the most active, exciting front sevens in college football. There was obvious, aforementioned downside to this approach, but defensive coordinator Steve Russ knew how to get people into the backfield and around the ball.
Russ has basically the same cast of characters to work with this year. Master blitzer D.J. Dunn Jr. is back, as are strong run-stopping inside linebackers Grant Ross and Claude Alexander III. Lochlin Deeks, a former star recruit who broke out as a junior, is also back.
Only one guy doesn't return, but he's a big one. Alex Hansen was Air Force's best run stopper and pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks and eight non-sack tackles for loss. He picked up the slack after Air Force lost two play-making linebackers following 2014, and now someone else has to pick up the slack for his departure.
It's hard to predict breakout performers at Air Force, where most guys don't have recruiting profiles and often go straight from being unlisted on the roster to landing on the two-deep. But keep an eye on senior nose guard David Harris, who started strong but missed much of the season with injury, and junior linebackers Matt Evans, Omar Gardea, and Shaq Vereen, who all seem to boast strong athleticism but might not get a chance to shine until the first-stringers graduate (or, I guess, get hurt).
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Roland Ladipo||CB||5'10, 185||Sr.||NR||NR||14||65.5||10.0%||4.5||1||3||17||1||0|
|Weston Steelhammer||SS||6'2, 200||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7733||14||63.0||9.6%||10.5||1||5||7||0||0|
|Brodie Hicks||FS||6'2, 200||Sr.||NR||NR||13||52.5||8.0%||1||0||2||2||0||0|
|Jesse Washington||CB||6'0, 185||Sr.||NR||0.7800||14||33.5||5.1%||2||1||0||5||1||0|
|Hayes Linn||FS||6'0, 185||Sr.||NR||NR||14||16.5||2.5%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Marquis Griffin||CB||5'11, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR||14||6.5||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tyler Weaver||SS||6'1, 210||Sr.||NR||NR||14||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jayce Webster||DB||5'10, 175||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Brayden Hill||DB||5'10, 205||Sr.||NR||NR|
|Tyler Jackson||DB||6'0, 192||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Dailen Sutton||CB||6'1, 170||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652|
|Kyle Floyd||SS||6'0, 200||So.||NR||NR|
8. Big plays for, big plays against
Opponents completed only 53 percent of their passes but averaged 14.4 yards per completion in 2015. That pretty much tells the story. Air Force pressured the quarterback and attacked the ball when it was in the air. That often worked out beautifully, and it often went horribly wrong. And opponents' passing success usually dictated the winner of the game.
- Opposing QBs in Air Force wins: 47% completion rate, 11.8 yards per completion, 3.4% INT rate, 97.5 passer rating
- Opposing QBs in Air Force losses: 65% completion rate, 18.3 yards per completion, 1.6% INT rate, 202.1 passer rating
That is ... a stark difference.
For better and worse, this year's secondary will resemble last year's, only with slightly more experience. That probably means more big plays allowed, but it also means another year of dynamic, aptly-named strong safety Weston Steelhammer, who recorded 10.5 TFLs, defensed 12 passes, and got himself ejected for targeting very early in the bowl loss to Cal. And it means another year of corners Roland Lapido and Jesse Washington, who combined for 6.5 tackles for loss and 25 passes defensed.
If you can protect your QB, and if your receivers can fight off physical coverage, you will probably score a lot of points on Air Force. But if you can't, you might not find a Plan B.
|Steve Brosy||5'11, 210||Sr.||33||37.0||3||12||11||69.7%|
|Luke Strebel||5'10, 170||Jr.||42||62.1||24||3||57.1%|
|Luke Strebel||5'10, 170||Jr.||37-37||5-6||83.3%||5-5||100.0%|
|Tyler Williams||KR||5'10, 185||Jr.||15||22.2||0|
|Bryan Driskell||KR||5'8, 190||Sr.||8||19.5||0|
|Special Teams S&P+||23|
|Field Goal Efficiency||11|
|Punt Return Success Rate||123|
|Kick Return Success Rate||14|
|Punt Success Rate||105|
|Kickoff Success Rate||46|
9. Kickoffs good, punts bad
Shootouts worked pretty well for Air Force in one regard: It meant more kickoffs. That was good news for a special teams unit that was efficient in punt returns and solid in kick coverage but could neither cover nor return punts with any consistency. Garrett Brown did return a punt for a score, and Steve Brosy's punts were certainly high. But the punts didn't go very far, and Brown didn't have many good returns beyond that one.
Luckily, the good aspects of this unit return. Luke Strebel's place-kicking, combined with his deep kickoffs, make him one of the conference's more important special teams weapons.
2016 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|24-Sep||at Utah State||73||-4.8||39%|
|15-Oct||vs. New Mexico||102||7.7||67%|
|29-Oct||at Fresno State||94||0.8||52%|
|19-Nov||at San Jose State||92||0.7||52%|
|Projected wins: 7.7|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-14.3% (90)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||125 / 121|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-5 / -1.0|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||-1.5|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||60% (34%, 85%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||8.7 (-0.7)|
10. The fussbudget will probably win again
Last year's schedule was impressive, with road games against teams ranked No. 9, 21, 37, and (in the conference title game) 43 in S&P+, plus a home game against No. 53 Utah State.
At first glance, this year's schedule offers far less resistance. Navy and Boise State visit Colorado Springs (and Navy won't be nearly as good), Utah State is projected to regress, and instead of Michigan State in non-conference play, the Falcons welcome Georgia State. Nine of 12 opponents are projected 92nd or worse.
That offers some slack. It is quite conceivable that the Air Force defense improves and the offense holds steady, pushing Air Force toward 10 or 11 wins with a top-50 rating. But if the Falcons do slide on offense and still give up too many big plays, the schedule should assure they win another eight or nine games.