What does an all-senior offensive line, a returning QB, two tailbacks, and a smash-mouth defense get these days for a service academy? Air Force took these assets into 2009, and emerged with its third straight bowl bid, and only bowl win of the decade, topping Houston (convincingly) in a chilly Armed Forces Bowl, and tallying its third eight-or-better win season in a row. QB Tim Jefferson completed long passes to returning WRs Kevin Fogler (pictured) and Jonathan Warzeka, adding hope to Falcon fans' expectations of a fourth bowl and second post-season win in 2010. More importantly, Jefferson's aerial prowess (10-14 for 161 yards) forced Houston to give the servicemen room on the ground to do what they do best: run. Jared Tew and Asher Clark ('10 sr. and jr., respectively) took 60% of AFA's ground snaps in the game, for 75% of its ground yards, and 80% of its touchdowns.
This summary was about what AFA watchers expected to see all year from the Falcons, but injuries hobbled Jefferson and Clark for much of the season. Sophomore Connor Dietz and junior Jared Tew stepped into the QB and RB slots effectively enough to keep the Academy's post-season run going, but the team standouts came from the defense. DBs Reggie Rembert, Anthony Wright, and Chris Thomas plagued offenses all season, in front of another great defensive front for the Academy.
Glass-half-empty people may focus on AFA's inability in '09 to cover any of the distance between it and the MWC's big three, but the Wimple is the half-glass-full type, and prefers to note how the Academy hasn't lost any distance to those three, either. And that's saying something, considering how steadily AFA battled injuries this season, and how much the MWC's top teams have improved in the last few years. AFA took Navy and Utah to overtime (losing both tilts) and played TCU to the wire in a blizzard-like game in Colorado Springs, perhaps covering the memory of its lopsided defeat in '08 with its manly showing in '09. For a second year, AFA finished fourth in the conference, beating all of its teams except Utah, TCU, and BYU.
Does the outlook brighten for 2010, or have the Falcons reached the highest altitude? There seems ready room for improvement in the Falcons' OOC performance, perhaps generating a top-25 ranking. AFA played Minnesota close, and missed its first victory over Navy in years by a missed field goal; they almost got a second victory over Utah and TCU in three years, as well. Jefferson, Clark, Dietz, Tew, Fogler, Warzeka, Rembert, and Wright all return; the Academy's skill and speed positions are well-stocked. Jefferson's connections with his wideouts in the bowl fund optimism that the Academy can manage a more balanced attack in 2010-- and a balanced pass-run option attack would be frightening to opposing defenses indeed. But... (how rarely to college teams avoid that rejoinder!)
But both lines lose seniors in droves. Four o-linemen graduate, including all-MWC Nick Charles and Peter Lusk; two of the three d-linemen played their last this week, including all-MWC noseguard Ben Garland. Both AFA inside LBs graduate as well. Replacing these interior starters will be coach Calhoun's biggest worry this offseason, and any dropoff in production from the new personel up front will make merely maintaining course in 2010 a program success. That no freshmen appeared on the late-season two-deep on either line may indicate the Falcons have depth enough to make this transition less painfully than in the past-- but that will remain a hopeful guess until the first whistle in September.