Air Force is under the radar as Colorado’s best

While the Colorado Buffaloes rebuild and the Colorado State Rams try to maintain their footing, it’s the Air Force Falcons that enter 2015 with a legitimate claim to being the top college football program in Colorado.

CBS Sports recently published a map of the United States that was used to identify the top college football program in each state, using that school’s logo in the shape of that state. For Colorado, CBS chose the CSU Rams logo to represent our state and gave a concise (and hard to argue with) written reason for doing so. Only one thing was missing: Any mention of the Falcons.

Given the University of Colorado’s recent struggles, it wasn’t a shock that the state’s marquee program was not selected. But it is surprising that Air Force, which has been to a bowl game seven of the eight years that Troy Calhoun has been the head coach, a program with an established “national brand” who last season beat Boise State, won the Commander in Chief’s trophy, beat Colorado State in the regular season finale and posted a 10-win season, was completely overlooked.

Not that it really matters, of course. All that actually matters is what happens on the field, and AFA let its play speak for itself last season. Coming off a dreadful, injury-riddled 10-loss season in 2013, Calhoun did a masterful job of regrouping and refocusing his players. Historically, it’s when little is expected from Air Force that they do their best work. Last season was more proof of that. Picked last in the conference after going 2-10, they reversed course with one of the biggest turnarounds in all of college football, making themselves a factor in the division race right up until the end.

“It was about how hard we worked in the off season,” senior offensive lineman A.J. Ruechel told the Mountain West Digital Network on MW Media Day. “We brought pretty much the same team back on the field again, with a new attitude that had just worked hard all offseason.”

In 2015, the preseason prognosticators are giving them a little bit more credit – AFA is picked to finish fourth in the six-team Mountain Division instead of last – but few consider them a serious contender to win the division or compete for the conference title. The Falcons return just 10 starters from last season, but that’s a little misleading. After all the injuries the previous two seasons, there’s a great deal more game experience coming back than just those returning starters.

Meanwhile, Navy is getting a lot of love from the national media, including the prediction that they will take back the coveted C & C Trophy and even contend for a New Year’s Six bowl game. The schedule certainly favors the Midshipmen, who will host Air Force on October 3. The Falcons do have a week off prior to the trip to Annapolis, and they may need the extra recovery time after a visit to top-10 ranked Michigan State on September 19. Air Force also travels to Boise and to Fort Collins to face two top-tier Mountain West foes with revenge in mind. Even the all-important home game with Army will be a tough test, given that it comes just seven days after a road trip to Hawaii.

It’s pretty clear that it will be tough for Calhoun’s team to replicate last season’s 10 wins… but then again, when have the cadets ever backed away from a challenge?

“After our bowl game (win), our first team meeting was about, ‘Okay, how can we keep this up, how can we keep getting better,’” senior defensive lineman Alex Hansen said at Media Day. “It’s easy to get complacent. But our spring practices, how we were hitting, there was as much intensity there as there has ever been.

Calhoun will make certain that’s the case this fall as well. Hired before the 2007 season, his team won nine games that year and finished second in the conference. He was named MW Coach of the Year after that season, and you could make a strong case he should have won it again last year, when CSU’s Jim McElwain was given the award prior to that final regular season game. Calhoun’s teams are a collective 15 games over .500 during his tenure, with three bowl wins in seven appearances.

To most in the national media (when they notice) Air Force remains that cute little program with the 1970s offense that can sneak up and bite you from time to time, but won’t do much more than that. Look closer however, and you’ll see that Calhoun’s team’s have done more than that on a regular basis. Frankly, Air Force has been the best, most consistent college football program in Colorado over the past decade. Counting the two seasons prior to Calhoun’s arrival, Air Force has won 67 games the past 10 seasons, CSU 51 and CU 38.

Maybe this season they will be able to make someone notice.

Listen to Mark Knudson and Michael Klahr, Saturday mornings 8a-10a on Sports Stampede Radio on Mile High Sports AM 1340.

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