The Air Force Falcons manhandled one of their most bitter rivals, the BYU Cougars, on Saturday to send them packing from the Mountain West Conference and set the stage for an even bigger game this Saturday at Oklahoma.
While the inter-service academy rivalry to win the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy is certainly very important, no team has had as much consistent success against Air Force as Brigham Young, and the schools and the players relish the rivalry.
While Navy has emerged as a top rival in recent years, BYU has been a key rival for decades.
I hope the rivalry survives Brigham Young’s move to independence, even though I suspect it won’t, as both programs are classy and there is plenty of respect between the players and coaches.
The big win by Air Force sets up a huge showdown in Norman with the Oklahoma Sooners, who are coming off a 47-17 shellacking of the Florida State Seminoles in a game that was actually even more one-sided than that lopsided score. This is a game that will likely sail under the radar, but it has the potential to result in a monumental upset.
Here are 10 reasons why.
10. Oklahoma looked like a national title contender on Saturday. But the week before, they barely survived against the Aggies, and we are not talking Texas A&M.
That would be the Utah State Aggies, the team that most people don’t even realize is a Division I school. It was a game in which they appeared to be sleepwalking at times.
The vaunted Aggies dropped 24 points on the Sooners and came away with a one-touchdown loss.
So, which is the true Oklahoma? I’m guessing the powerhouse that schooled the Seminoles is much closer to reality, and I doubt they will overlook Air Force after the BYU thrashing.
At the very least, though, they have shown that they have a C-game in them, and if they bring anywhere close to the kind of effort and lack of execution they displayed against Utah State against the Falcons, they will not survive it.
9. Oklahoma sees the type of offense Air Force runs once every blue moon and never to the same level of execution. Gone are the days of old when Nebraska ran a similar option attack to perfection. Big 12 schools rely much more on precision passing games and brute force.
If you don’t get a chance to practice against a multidimensional option attack, there will be an adjustment period. No practice squad can simulate the kind of speed, blocking schemes, and precision that the Sooners will see on Saturday.
8. Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson. This kid is special and comes with a ton of experience. He brings back memories of other dangerous Air Force quarterbacks such as Dee Dowis, Beau Morgan, and Chance Harridge, all of whom engineered major upsets for the Falcons.
At this point in his career, he may be even better than Morgan and Harridge, and he is surrounded by weapons.
Oklahoma has the elite athleticism to shut down the option, but if they fail to play assignment football, it may not matter.
7. It is still early in the season. Air Force is a very tough early season draw. All things being equal, teams are much better off playing them later in the season. As a relative measure, Air Force is best positioned for a monumental upset in the first few games of the season.
Why? Because they are a very disciplined and smart bunch of kids. They don’t tend to struggle with the same level of sloppy play and poor execution that plague most teams during the early going.
I watched plenty of marquee teams over the first couple weeks, and almost none of them were hitting on all cylinders, as sloppy turnovers and stupid penalties ruled most of the games.
Air Force would have been better off catching the Sooners in their opener, but all things being equal, catching them in Week 3 is better than catching them in Week 8, when they would stand little chance.
6. There is a second reason that Air Force is tough in the early season. Simply put: They are not worn down yet. The players are smaller, by far, than most of their opponents. Judging on size alone in the BYU matchup, it looked like a high school team playing a college team.
For a few reasons, they simply don’t recruit the behemoths that make up the core of most teams. Nobody comes to Air Force dreaming of one day playing in the pros, although a few players do make it to that level. They tend to recruit the tweeners, players that slip through the cracks.
By the end of the season, this disparity in size has started taking its toll. Add to that the brutal academic pressure that is kicking in for the players as the first semester starts winding down, and they are more likely to be the victims of an upset late in the season than the team inflicting one.
Air Force is fortunate this year to be catching all of their toughest opponents before the end of October, finishing with three relative lightweights during the toughest academic period.
5. Oklahoma is coming off a week where they were entirely focused on Florida State, meaning they were game-planning to stop a pass-heavy offense. This does not leave them much time to switch their focus entirely over to solving Air Force’s almost exclusively run-based offense, one of the best run-based offenses in the country.
Can they do it? Absolutely. Their defense is loaded with elite talent, players that will one day ply their wares in the NFL. But I have a hunch they will struggle in the first half while they adjust.
If Air Force can get off to a fast start, they’ll have a shot at holding on late.
4. This Air Force defense is playing very well, better than your average Falcons defense. They stymied BYU’s precision pass offense, essentially shutting them out for three quarters. While Oklahoma is probably a much better team than the inexperienced Cougars, the Falcons’ defense has at least shown the kind of discipline and ability to keep things interesting.
When the Falcons defenses of the past have struggled, it has typically been against strong passing teams, hence their relatively poor record against BYU.
This group appears much stronger in that area with some real talent throughout the secondary. They will have trouble with Oklahoma’s size and will be worn down by game’s end. But if they can hold strong early, they may give their offense the cushion they need to build a sustainable lead.
3. Oklahoma may be primed for a letdown after completely dismantling Florida State. No doubt Bob Stoops will spend the week trying to convince his squad that Air Force is the second coming of Tommy Frazier and his merry band of Cornhuskers.
However, he’ll have a hard time convincing his players that Air Force is a threat, especially after they hear how great they are all week leading up to the game. They’ll also already be looking forward to the Texas showdown, which is a couple weeks away following a road trip to Cincinnati.
2. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun will have no problem focusing his Falcons on this game. This is their big shot to really make a statement.
While they play TCU, who may potentially be an even better team, later in the year and also have a date with Utah, neither of these teams commands anywhere close to the national recognition of Oklahoma.
Calhoun will have the Falcons convinced they can win this one, and they will treat this like their Super Bowl.
Whenever anyone talks about the Mountain West, they usually mention the big three at the top of the division: TCU, Utah, and BYU. Air Force wins this one and they’ll be added to that group, which is a powerful motivator.
1. Possession time. Air Force is a ball control offense. If they can execute to perfection, Oklahoma will have far fewer opportunities to score. More importantly, they will have trouble getting in sync as an offense. This is one reason why BYU struggled so mightily on offense. When you are stuck on the sideline watching much of the game, it is hard to get back in rhythm when you finally get on the field.
The history of this early season has been one of mind-numbing upsets, as the level of separation between the elite teams and those from smaller conferences is closing at least a little bit. While those upsets will become less frequent as the season progresses and teams have worked out the kinks, I suspect we’ll see at least one more major upset this week.
Looking at the games, this one has as much potential to be that upset as any other.
My prediction: Air Force surprises Oklahoma early and takes a 14-point lead into the half and holds on late to shock the Sooners faithful with a one-point win. Air Force 28, Oklahoma 27.