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2017 Air Force football should remain steady in the most exciting ways possible

Expect yet another bowl trip, this time with a bunch of shootouts along the way.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-South Alabama vs Air Force Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

On December 28, 1983, Air Force replaced head coach Ken Hatfield with offensive coordinator Fisher DeBerry. Hatfield was leaving for Arkansas, where he would engineer four top-15 finishes in five years.

Both DeBerry and defensive coordinator Fred Goldsmith vied for the job, but on the power of the Falcons' recent offensive success, DeBerry won. Goldsmith would have to wait until 1989 to get a head coaching shot at Rice. (When Goldsmith left for Duke in 1993, he was replaced by ... Hatfield. The circle of life.)

DeBerry’s Falcons mastered the option offense. He used all of Air Force’s built-in advantages (disciplined, smart, dedicated personnel) to offset Air Force’s built-in liabilities (a lack of size, blue-chip talent) and employ an offense that required discipline and repetition to defend. His vision was most crystallized in 1985 — AFA finished 12-1 with wins over Notre Dame and Texas, among others — but the advantages of the system lasted a long time.

In the 33 years since DeBerry was introduced, the Miami dynasty came to life, died, was reborn, and died again. The wishbone and I-formation went out of style, first in favor of a pro-style approach, then in favor of the spread. Jim Harbaugh went from Michigan quarterback to Michigan head coach. College football TV packages went from being worth about $40 million total to nearly that much per SEC school.

But in that span of time, Air Force has made just one more head coaching hire. DeBerry retired following 2006, replaced by his former quarterback Troy Calhoun.

Few FBS schools can ever boast that level of continuity; Calhoun’s name pops up during the coaching carousel each year, but each year he remains in Colorado Springs. Air Force has been to 21 bowls in this span and suffered only six losing seasons. The rare drought is met with an extreme rebound; the Falcons went from 5-7 to 8-4-1 in 1989, from 4-8 to 9-4 in 2007, and from 2-10 to 10-3 in 2014.

And in the last few years, the Falcons have found an confusing, aggressive defensive identity to match their offense.

Honestly? It makes it kind of difficult to figure out new things to say about the Falcons in each year’s preview. Calhoun made things interesting a while back when he went from 10 losses to 10 wins in a single year, but Air Force has ranked between 50th and 62nd in S&P+ in each of the last three seasons, sandwiching two 10-win seasons between a division title campaign.

My annual S&P+ projections are derived from three factors: recent performance, two-year recruiting, and returning production. Two of those three factors don’t really apply to the Falcons; recruiting matters, but AFA’s rigorous process filters out a lot of commitments before they see the field, and returning production has an almost inverse relationship with Air Force. For the Falcons, losing a ton of last year’s production means the process is working. If you return a lot of last year’s important players, the previous senior class didn’t do its job.

A one-size-fits-all method of production, then, doesn’t do much for Air Force. The Falcons are projected to plummet this year, from 62nd to 116th in S&P+, because of those factors. And who knows, maybe that’s what will happen. Goodness knows most of the defense has to be replaced again, and maybe at some point the new batch of defensive play-makers won’t grasp its responsibilities.

Still, Air Force has been too steady not to get the benefit of the doubt.


2016 in review

2016 Air Force statistical profile.

An injury ended up becoming a blessing in disguise. The Falcons had begun 2016 4-0 with wins over Utah State and Navy, but the offense and defense alternated funks during a three-game losing streak.

Trailing 21-17 to woeful Fresno State late in the third quarter on October 28, quarterback Nate Romine injured his ankle and was replaced by sophomore Arion Worthman. Air Force wouldn’t lose again. He converted a fourth-and-1 with a 12-yard rush to start the fourth quarter, then scored from two yards out. With 2:34 left, he scored on a four-yard jaunt to put the game away.

From that point forward, AFA average 39 points per game and won the final six games of the season.

  • First 4 games (4-0): Avg. percentile performance: 59% (53% offense, 57% defense) | Avg. yards per play: AF 6.2, Opp 4.9 (plus-1.3)
  • Next 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 30% (38% offense, 44% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.7, AF 5.5 (minus-0.2)
  • Last 5 games (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 59% (78% offense, 47% defense | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.6, AF 6.3 (minus-0.3)

The defense battled injuries and depth-chart shuffling at every level and never rediscovered its September form, but it didn’t matter because opponents couldn’t get the ball away from Air Force.

The Falcons dominated the best Army team in years, won shootouts over Colorado State and San Jose State, and then beat Boise State for the third consecutive year. If they had gotten their act together sooner, they could have won the MWC Mountain for the second straight year.


Offense

Air Force offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Air Force’s Worthman surge was a reminder that personnel does matter, even in a reliable option system. For parts of four injury-plagued seasons, Nate Romine has been a grinder and played a role in some wins, but Worthman’s insertion into the lineup resulted in an uptick in both efficiency and explosiveness.

Worthman’s opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least 10 yards) was 10 percentage points higher than Romine’s, and his completion rate was 17 percentage points higher. He was a sophomore seeing his first action, so there were some predictable drawbacks — his sack rate was nearly seven percentage points higher, his interception rate 1.4 percentage points higher — but the trade-off was worth it for the pure upside.

Romine returns, the beneficiary of the rare medical redshirt for Air Force. But this is Worthman’s show, and his next loss as Air Force quarterback will be his first.

The combination of Worthman and Tim McVey proved devastating late. McVey ended up sixth on the team in total carries but second in rushing yards. The Colorado State game is the ideal for the 2017 Air Force run game — in the 49-46 win over the Rams, McVey rushed 15 times for 184 yards and four scores, while Worthman contributed 16 carries for 143 yards.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Air Force
Timothy McVey (33) and Ronald Cleveland (4)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This duo is terrifying, but there are still obstacles the offense has to overcome.

  • New fullbacks. The explosive guys get the glory, but the fullbacks are the engine, and in D.J. Johnson and Shayne Davern, the Falcons have to replace a duo that combined for 20.5 carries per game last year. Junior Parker Wilson had 16 carries for 97 yards and could render concerns moot, and three-star sophomore Tavin Birdow could see time soon.
  • A new go-to receiver. Star receiver Jalen Robinette is gone. The Falcons still boast proven big-play ability out wide (returnees Ronald Cleveland and Tyler Williams caught 10 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns, while tight end Ryan Reffitt had eight for 173), Robinette was a rare threat. He boasted greater size than Cleveland or Williams and better speed than Reffitt. 6’5 junior Jake Matkovich and 6’4 senior Cody Bronkar were backups who combined for one target and no catches.
  • Two all-conference linemen gone. Air Force has solid experience up front, with four seniors boasting starting experience. But only two were full-time starters, and the Falcons must account for the loss of two honorable mention all-conference pieces: guard Colin Sandor and center Dylan Vail.

I’m assuming the best of this offense, mainly because of Worthman and McVey. But success is not a given; the midseason funk of 2016 is a reminder.

NCAA Football: Air Force at San Jose State
Tyler Williams
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Air Force defensive radar

Air Force’s defensive success has fascinated me. We’ve gotten used to service academies producing a high-efficiency option, but they have struggled to find defensive systems that offer the same path to success. In the last five years, Army has ranked better than 117th in Def. S&P+ just once, and in the last seven years, Navy has ranked better than 83rd just once despite constant overall success.

I don’t want to overstate Air Force’s defensive quality, but the Falcons’ 2014 turnaround was engineered by a defensive surge, from 122nd to 61st. They ranked 67th in 2015, and they were on pace for a pretty good 2016 until injuries took over.

What impresses me most about this turnaround is how Calhoun and coordinator Steve Russ have figured out a way to mirror the Falcons’ offensive identity on defense.

Here’s Air Force’s offensive efficiency and explosiveness chart:

Air Force offensive efficiency and explosiveness

The Falcons generated the occasional big play through the air, but for the most part, this was a death-by-a-thousand-papercuts offense with devastating efficiency numbers.

Now here’s the same chart for Air Force’s defense:

Air Force defensive efficiency and explosiveness

Almost the same thing. Efficiency matters above all else, and Air Force is willing to attack and confuse you, even if it means giving up a big play or two. (It became more than two over the second half of 2016.)

Air Force also tends to emphasize run defense, the most important thing for any Mountain West defense, even one that doesn’t have to face Air Force. Even when last year’s defense began to struggle, it was because of a pass defense that ranked 99th in Passing S&P+. The Falcons still ranked a mighty ninth in Rushing S&P+, swarming to the ball and allowing fewer five-yard gains than any other defense in college football.

I know individual play-makers might not matter as much for this defense as they do for others, but the turnover up front still makes me nervous. The Falcons were so good in run support, and losing not only six of seven defensive linemen but also four of five linebackers feels a little excessive, yeah? Outside linebackers Haji Dunn Jr. and Jacob Onyechi combined for 12 non-sack tackles for loss, and it’s hard to simply assume that their replacements will match that. Meanwhile only one returning lineman made a single tackle. That’s rough.

The default leaders this year are tackle Santo Coppola (2.5 TFLs), senior inside linebackers Grant Ross and Jack Flor (9.5 combined TFLs, 5.5 sacks), and senior SPUR linebacker Shaq Vereen. Ross was the leading tackler in the front seven, and at worst, these three could form a solid backbone.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-South Alabama vs Air Force
Grant Ross (44)
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Turnover means less in a secondary that struggled a decent amount, but once again, the turnover is excessive. Cornerback Marquis Griffin is the only returnee who logged more than 4.5 tackles a year ago; the six other Air Force DBs who pulled that feat are gone.

This was an exciting secondary. Granted, it was also an exciting secondary that got burned, but safeties Weston Steelhammer and Brodie Hicks combined for seven tackles for loss and 11 picks, and Russ will have to dial back the aggressiveness a bit without these two patrolling. Juniors Dallen Sutton, Robert Bullard, and Kyle Floyd combined for 12.0 tackles and no havoc plays last year; they are by default among Air Force’s most proven DBs now.

This will test the bounds of my “a lack of returning production is actually good” theory. Air Force returns almost literally no production. But at least the depth chart will still be filled almost entirely by juniors and seniors.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Utah State
Marquis Griffin
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Air Force will have to prepare for some high-scoring shootouts, but the Falcons will again have a secret weapon in the form of strong special teams.

Air Force ranked 23rd in Special Teams S&P+ last year, with receiver Ronald Cleveland serving as one of the most efficient punt returners in the country and the other pieces of the unit performing above average.

The Falcons are in the market for a new punter, but Cleveland is back, as are Tim McVey in kick returns (26.3 average, one touchdown) and Luke Strebel in place-kicking and kickoffs (90 percent on kicks under 40 yards, 51 percent touchback rate).


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep VMI NR 19.5 87%
16-Sep at Michigan 10 -35.0 2%
23-Sep San Diego State 52 -14.2 21%
30-Sep at New Mexico 110 -3.4 42%
7-Oct at Navy 71 -14.1 21%
14-Oct UNLV 118 2.9 57%
21-Oct at Nevada 117 -2.3 45%
28-Oct at Colorado State 43 -20.4 12%
4-Nov Army 102 -0.2 50%
11-Nov Wyoming 80 -6.3 36%
18-Nov at Boise State 29 -24.0 8%
25-Nov Utah State 73 -8.5 31%
Projected S&P+ Rk 116
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 79 / 125
Projected wins 4.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 1.2 (62)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 115 / 117
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 6 / 4.7
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 25% (33%, 18%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.4 (1.6)

Mostly because of the dramatic loss of production on defense, Air Force is projected to regress considerably in S&P+, to 79th on offense, 125th on defense, and 116th overall. I said up top that I don’t think that will happen, but it could still be difficult for the Falcons to play at a top-100 level on defense, even with a strong system in place.

The schedule presents its own obstacles; five of six road games come against teams that bowled last year, including potentially the two best in the 2017 MWC, Colorado State and Boise State. That will put a lot of pressure on the Falcons to win out at home.

The defense has plenty of unknown pieces, but assuming the drop-off isn’t as ridiculous as projected, Air Force will be in position to win shootouts. The Falcons will have Worthman and McVey, and opponents will not.

This probably won’t be a division contender, but it’s hard to imagine Air Force losing more than six games. And since Worthman and much of the defense will return in 2018, we’ll consider this a transition year to something bigger then. If the Falcons have proven anything over the last four decades, it’s that they respond awfully well to the rare setback.


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