Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 14 Air Force.
For the past three decades, Air Force has quietly been a machine, one that’s operated beautifully without my attention or, I assume, the attention of the average college football fan. Watch, don’t watch, it doesn’t really matter; the Falcons will still be runnin’ and winnin’ when you finally decide to tune it.
Ever since the Big Tuna took off for the New York Giants and handed things over to Ken Hatfield, Air Force has been rolling through opponents with an option-based flexbone attack implemented by his offensive coordinator and eventual successor, Fisher DeBerry. After DeBerry took over in 1984, Air Force never again sank down to the depths it found itself in during the mid-1970s—he would remain in the post for 23 seasons, his sole head coaching gig, and post just four sub-.500 seasons in that span before stepping down in 2006. His successor, like his predecessor, would prove to again be yet another perfect long-term hire.
The Falcons now head into their 11th season under head coach Troy “Howdy Doody” Calhoun. Under Calhoun, Air Force has made nine bowl-game trips, returning to Colorado Springs with four victories; looking at the program’s recent productivity—28 wins in the past three seasons—it appears the Falcons are in the midst of yet another decades-long coaching run.
DeBerry’s flexbone offense has long been one of the crown jewels of all triple-option lovers, a system so consistent that if the Falcons played in a Power Five and recruited with similar resources, it’s hard to imagine them being any less successful or entertaining than Paul Johnson’s masterpiece at Georgia Tech. The system isn’t solely option-based, though—while the triple-option is one of the plays they run, the Falcons will occasionally trot out a shotgun or I-formation, as they tend to lean on their feature tailback rather than spread the love among the backs.
Last season, Air Force finished third in the nation in rushing at 317.4 yards per game; when this attack was paired with a defense filled with upperclassmen that held opponents to 114.2 yards per game, good for 10th in the nation, the result was Air Force’s second 10-win season in three years. The double-digit win total was posted with an exclamation point and middle finger to those that criticize the triple-option as being a system that crumbles when trailing big—after spotting the Jaguars 21 points from the jump, the Falcons hung 42 unanswered points on South Alabama to close the season with another bowl victory.
But—you had to know there was a “but” coming—there’s one tiny detail that the 2017 version of Air Force will be missing that pretty much powered last year’s squad: the players. The Falcons lost a program-record 32 seniors to graduation, including damn near the entire defense as well as their top wideout. With an offense that’s posted top-50 scoring numbers the past three seasons and a defense that’s been conditioned to believe last year’s brick wall of a front seven is the norm, I’d expect some growing pains this season as the games that were blowout victories in 2016 become high-scoring, hard-fought nail-biters this season.
The offense will rely heavily on a pair of rushers that, to the naked eye, come off as a duo of undersized backs; to opposing defenses, they’re as big a pain in the ass as any backfield. Quarterback Arion Worthman will pick up where he left off last season, as the youthful starter signaling several years’s worth of consistently explosive offenses. He had to take over for Nate Romine eight games into the 2016 campaign after the starter went down with an injury; Worthman proceeded to finish the year 5-0 as a starter, adding 674 yards and 6 touchdowns on 130 carries.
The Falcons like to implement bootlegs and play-action passes to buy their gun-slinger a little extra time, and the same will be true of Worthman’s play selection. Although he has an arm capable of making the limited-option throws this offense makes use of, Air Force averaged just 7.6 passes per game with Worthman under center. He topped this in the season-opening throwaway win against VMI, throwing for 172 yards and two scores on 8-of-12 passing—you, a smart football fan, know this means nothing, but it is a nice start.
While Romine was somehow able to obtain a medical redshirt—redshirts are typically not widely available at the service academies as they at other Division I programs due to military commitments—Worthman will continue to hold his spot as Air Force’s man under center barring injury.
Out wide, the lanky Jalen Robinette is gone at wide receiver, a year after leading the team in receptions and receiving yards; I don’t really expect any one of the Falcons rising receivers or backs—Geraud Sanders, Tyler Williams, Marcus Bennett, and Ronald Cleveland—to instantly step in and command over 50 percent of the passing game like Robinette. Instead, look for this year’s passing game to take on the feel of any group project you’ve had to work on—expect everyone to let you down, so when one guy comes through, it’s a pleasant surprise.
Looking toward the rushing game, the line loses guard Colin Sandor and center Dylan Vail, but the remaining group, including the majority of backups, consists solely of seniors and juniors. This bodes well for Timothy McVey, considering three of Air Force’s top four running backs from a year ago are gone. Fullbacks D.J. Johnson and Shayne Davern are out, as is running back Jacobi Owens. McVey returns at running back after rushing for 708 yards and 10 scores; he added another pair of scores and 193 yards as a receiver. Parker Wilson is expected to pick up some of the slack, but expect offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen to work the hell out of McVey this season—in the season-opener, he was good for 98 yards and a score on 10 rushes and another 77 yards through the air.
On the flip side, the defense will have a whole lot more work to do. A year after fielding one of the most consistent rush defenses in the nation, the Falcons have been stripped of pretty much every player that worked to make that possible. The line’s top returner is defensive tackle Santo Coppola—he leads all current Falcons having posted a whopping 2.0 sacks last year. Six of last year’s rotating seven linemen and four of Air Force’s top-five linebackers are no longer with the team, thrusting the duties onto seniors like Coppola or inside linebackers Grant Ross and Jack Flor to immediately replace the efficient 2016 bunch. Also, I’m not sure how you replace a safety named Weston Steelhammer, but Air Force has to do it.
While Timothy McVey will be this offense’s backbone and workhorse, the productivity of Arion Worthman is what will determine whether or not this recent Air Force push will make it to include a fourth chapter.
Like McVey, Worthman isn’t going to frighten anyone at the coin toss—the Illinois native stands 5-foot-11 and weighs in at 205 pounds. What comes after the toss is what should frighten defenses. For Worthman, it’s not so important that he boasts blistering speed or a hulking physique, but rather he’s able to consistently make the split-second decisions required of him in the running game. Like any run-first quarterback, he can take a beating, but the junior is typically good about being smart with who he lays his shoulders into. He makes speedy, accurate pitches with both hands, and when he decides to tuck it himself, he can put distance between most any front-seven player. As a passer, he’s never going to be someone that wows you, even in an option offense, but he proved that, at least with a stud like Robinette out wide, he can get the job done. Provided he stays healthy and gets someone to show up weekly at wideout, he’ll make for one of the conference’s best runners; that’s saying something in the Mountain West.
As sure as I am that I would ascend to heaven if a triple-option team ever made it to the playoff, I am equally sure that Air Force, at least this year’s version, will not be the one to send me to meet my maker just yet. Despite their overall success and the reflection of that in their overall record, the Falcons struggled in conference play, going 5-3 last season, just as they did in 2014. It’s a reach given their inexperienced defense, but challenging for the Mountain West’s Mountain division (not a creative bunch, I know) is within reach for Air Force. Consider also that San Diego State will be playing without Donnell Pumphrey, the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, and the Mountain West almost starts to seem like a conference worth watching. Almost.
Yeah, Calhoun easily earns a dick rating for his long-held policy that injured players are a cancer that should subsequently be forced away from team drills and required to earn back their jersey numbers.
In the immortal words of Wyoming’s Dave Christensen, “Go give your fuckin’ press conference, fly boy!”
Sept. 2: VMI
Sept. 16: @ Michigan
Sept. 23: San Diego State
Sept. 30: @ New Mexico
Oct. 7: @ Navy
Oct. 14: UNLV
Oct. 20: @ Nevada
Oct. 28: @ Colorado State
Nov. 4: Army
Nov. 11: Wyoming
Nov. 18: @ Boise State
Nov. 25: Utah State