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After 2 straight losing seasons, Air Force is positioned well to rebound

The rebound actually began last year for Troy Calhoun’s Falcons ... everywhere but the win column, at least.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Wyoming
Cole Fagan (34)
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

The draws of a triple-option system for a service academy are obvious. It helps to negate built-in size and speed disadvantages, for one. It shrinks the games so that those size- and speed-advantaged opponents also get fewer chances to separate themselves. It makes them terrifying underdogs, and it’s a great way to overachieve against what your stats think you should have achieved.

Plus, when you’ve got the right quarterback, at least, it’s a close-game cheat code. There’s an advantage to having bread-and-butter go-tos you can lean on in tough situations.

The proof is right there in the records. Jeff Monken’s Army has won 13 of its last 16 one-possession finishes. From late-2011 to late-2016, Ken Niumatalolo’s Navy went on a 19-5 run in such games.

Air Force has always been a little bit different. Troy Calhoun, now entering his 13th season as the Falcons’ head coach, had a unique combination in his background: the former Air Force QB and six-year assistant also worked for misdirection king Jim Grobe at Ohio and Wake Forest for eight seasons, then worked in the NFL for four. When he took the AFA job, he knew he’d have to run the option, but he’s always worked to incorporate wrinkles — zone blocking, different formations, etc.

He’s also played defense at times. From 2007-18, service academies have ranked 80th or better in Def. S&P+ on 12 occasions, and Calhoun’s Falcons are responsible for seven of them, including all four top-60 finishes (2007-10).

(Granted, when the wheels fall off, they fall off — Air Force’s 2017 defense ranked 124th, the lowest of any in that sample.)

NCAA Football: Air Force at San Diego State
Troy Calhoun
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, Air Force strayed from the script in another way: the Falcons were totally done in by close-game losses.

After crumbling from 10-3 and 58th in S&P+ in 2016 to 5-7 and 104th in 2017, the Falcons rebounded to 85th. In terms of overall point differential, they went from minus-12 in 2017 to plus-54.

Their win total remained at five, however. After going 12-7 in one-possession finishes from 2014-17, they were 2-5 last year. In four of the five losses, it wasn’t late-game execution that did the Falcons in — it was first-half disaster. They trailed FAU 19-7 at half, Nevada 21-7, SDSU 14-9, and Army 14-0.

Air Force began games conservatively, running the ball 89 percent of the time in the first quarter before working the pass in a bit more (83 percent run in Q2, 80 percent in Q3). That backfired at times, but the combination of a sometimes-interesting passing game and a sturdy run defense allowed the Falcons to claw back into games.

Now to get back to actually winning them.

On offense, Air Force brings back two seasoned quarterbacks, plus five of last year’s top six running backs and six linemen with starting experience. On defense, the Falcons have to replace four starters in the front seven but bring back five of last year’s top six havoc creators (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles). Better yet, their schedule is pretty manageable, featuring seven opponents projected worse than 90th in S&P+.

Of course, six games are projected within one possession. We’ll see how that goes this time around.

Offense

After incumbent QB Arion Worthman struggled and backup Isaiah Sanders fared only somewhat better, it appeared Air Force’s 2018 prospects had turned around when Donald Hammond III entered the lineup. The sophomore from Hampton, Ga., got his first sustained action in the third quarter of the Nevada game and nearly dragged the Falcons back from a 14-point halftime deficit.

Air Force pummeled Navy the next week, with Hammond rushing for 60 yards and throwing for 142 in just 10 passes, but he was hurt early against San Diego State (he would miss the next two games), and Air Force fell 21-17.

If Hammond had played the entire Nevada and SDSU games, it’s quite possible that Air Force ends up with two extra wins and goes bowling. Sanders returns, but it’s likely Hammond is the 2019 starter. He’s as or slightly more efficient a runner than Sanders, and when he was in the game, Air Force’s passing capabilities rose dramatically.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Wyoming
Donald Hammond III
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, his receiving corps will look a little bit different. Geraud Sanders, a 6’3 senior who caught 14 passes for 236 yards, returns, but three of the four primary wideouts do not. Marcus Bennett (24 catches, 465 yards) was particularly dangerous, too.

Maybe turnover in the receiving corps doesn’t have as much of an effect for a team that runs the ball 80-plus percent of the time, but it was indeed a key weapon last year. There’s hope in the small sample that sophomore receiver Brandon Lewis provided — he caught five of eight passes for 100 yards last year — but this receiving corps has something to prove.

Luckily, the run is still the key component here, and Air Force is awfully experienced, and efficient, in that regard.

Sanders and Hammond combined for a 48 percent rushing success rate, and primary returning fullbacks Cole Fagan and Taven Birdow combined for 49 percent. The run game didn’t provide many big plays — the Falcons were 27th in rushing marginal efficiency and 11th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) but 104th in rushing marginal explosiveness. But it would have been a lot worse without junior tailback Kadin Remsberg, who not only produced a 51 percent success rate but rushed for 10-plus yards on nearly 20 percent of his carries.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Air Force
Kadin Remsberg (24)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the biggest big-play weapon in the backfield (Joseph Saucier, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry and caught six balls for 146 yards) is gone, but just about everybody else is back. This should be an efficiency machine again, especially with the experience up front. Tackles Scott Hattok and Parker Ferguson were both excellent last year, and while all-conference guard Griffin Landrum departs, there are still four experienced pieces for the three interior line spots.

Air Force was most of what you would expect an Air Force offense to be last year: the Falcons never went backwards, they created manageable third downs, they were efficient near the goal line, and, yes, they struggled on passing downs. But with Hammond running the show, the ceiling for Calhoun’s and offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen’s offense appears to be a couple of feet higher ... at least, if he has guys to throw to.

Defense

Calhoun’s defenses have fascinated me. Whereas Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo has long adopted a bend-don’t-break approach — sit back, tackle well, and wait for an opponent to get impatient — to both complement the high-efficiency offense and account for talent differentials, Calhoun has always wanted to figure out how to disrupt opponents’ timing. He deals with all the same size limitations and non-redshirt disadvantages, but he has had some occasionally brilliant run defenses.

He had one in 2018, for instance. The Falcons ranked 20th in Rushing S&P+, and they pulled that off by attacking the line of scrimmage. They were fifth in rushing marginal efficiency and 35th in stuff rate, but they still managed to corral opponents pretty well when their attacks failed, ranking third in opportunity rate (percentage of non-sack carries gaining at least four yards).

It was a team effort. Ten different Falcon defenders made at least four run stuffs, and first-year defensive coordinator John Rudzinski (who was promoted to the role under cloak and dagger for some reason) was able to constantly keep opposing offenses on wrong footing.

This would have all been more effective, of course, had the Falcons been able to defend the pass, too. They were 125th in Passing S&P+ and 119th in Passing Downs S&P+. As uncomfortable as opponents may have been near the line of scrimmage, their receivers were all sorts of comfortable while running downfield.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Air Force
Jordan Jackson (94)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The front seven has been thinned out a bit by attrition, as Rudzinski has to replace three of his five primary linemen and four of eight linebackers. The two most important players are back, though.

  • Jordan Jackson is the rarest of rare quantities for a school like Air Force: he’s not only a healthy-sized 3-4 defensive end (6’5, 270), but he’s also a play-maker. He recorded 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and a team-leading 14.5 run stuffs. Those are good play-making stats for a 4-3 lineman, much less a 3-4. Plus, he was only a sophomore last year!
  • Senior inside linebacker Kyle Johnson was outstanding in his role as well, recording 7.5 TFLs and nine run stuffs. His dance partner on the inside, Brody Bagnall, was similarly effective and leaves a pretty high bar for either senior Christopher Musselman, junior Demonte Meeks, or sophomore and former star recruit Thadius Blackmon. But in Johnson, Rudzinski still has one rock.

With senior nose guard Mosese Fifita and OLBs Parker Noren, Grant Donaldson, and Lakota Wills, Air Force still has some stalwarts for the front seven. And be on the lookout for sophomore end Nakoa Pauole, too — almost no freshmen ever crack Air Force’s depth chart, but he did last year.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Air Force
Jeremy Fejedelem (2) and Zane Lewis (6)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The run prowess should continue to some degree, but it will only matter so much if the pass defense doesn’t improve.

Corner Zane Lewis and safety Jeremy Fejedelem did have their moments, combining for 6.5 TFLs, four interceptions, and seven pass breakups. Plus, the Falcons’ defense allowed eight fewer points per game when Garrett Kauppila was in the lineup (23.1) than when he was out injured (31.3).

Kauppila’s return, plus that of 2017 starter James Jones IV from an ACL tear, should make this secondary the best version of itself. The ceiling might not be incredibly high, but achieving your low ceiling is still better than proving your low floor, as Air Force did last year.

Special Teams

Under Calhoun, Air Force has had some of the most consistently solid special teams units in FBS. The Falcons have ranked in the Special Teams S&P+ top 50 in nine of 12 seasons and were top-25 for four straight years from 2013-16. They fell to 42nd in 2017, however, then 65th in 2018. Place-kicker Jake Koehnke was automatic inside of 40 yards, and the return game was decent, but punting was a disaster. Charlie Scott’s punts were too short, and while Koehnke’s were longer, he frequently out-kicked his coverage and allowed nearly 19 yards per return.

Granted, if Hammond is able to build off of last year, maybe the offense will be good enough that the need for good punting is minimized. Still, it provides some field-position peace of mind, especially considering every return man is gone.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Colgate NR 18.6 86%
14-Sep at Colorado 68 -7.8 33%
21-Sep at Boise State 24 -18.6 14%
28-Sep San Jose State 117 15.2 81%
5-Oct at Navy 118 10.3 72%
12-Oct Fresno State 51 -6.5 35%
19-Oct at Hawaii 94 -0.5 49%
26-Oct Utah State 42 -8.6 31%
2-Nov Army 80 0.4 51%
9-Nov at New Mexico 115 9.3 70%
16-Nov at Colorado State 109 6.7 65%
30-Nov Wyoming 92 3.6 58%
Projected S&P+ Rk 90
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 74 / 93
Projected wins 6.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.0 (80)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 111
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 1.0
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 62% (62%, 62%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 6.1 (-1.1)

This team was custom-made for blown leads in either direction last year. If opponents jumped out to a lead, Air Force could reel them back in with a better-than-usual passing game (with Hammond, at least) and a defense that prevented you from running the ball. Of course, if Air Force jumped out to a lead, a sieve of a pass defense assured opponents comeback opportunities, too.

Things should normalize a bit this year. The receiving corps and defensive front seven have been drained a bit and could regress, but the pass defense should improve, and the run game will be as efficient as ever.

Air Force rebounded on paper in 2018 but remained stagnant in the win column. If the injury bug is reasonably kind (especially on defense, where there could be depth concerns), the Falcons should by all means win at least seven or eight games and bowl again. The schedule could make for an even higher ceiling — S&P+ only projects one game out of reach (at Boise State, a team Air Force tends to play pretty well) — but when you’ve missed the postseason twice in a row, 7-5 or 8-4 sounds pretty good. We’ll set the bar there.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.