Air Force looks to have picked the wrong place and the wrong time to get hot again.
Coach Troy Calhoun has led the Falcons to three consecutive bowl games for the first time since Fisher DeBerry guided Air Force to four in a row from 1989-92. A convincing defensive performance in a 47-20 victory over Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl signaled Air Force can't be taken lightly.
At the same time, though, the Mountain West is enjoying the best run in its short history, with TCU and Utah making BCS appearances. Out of conference, Air Force hasn't been able to catch up with Navy for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy since 2003.
Air Force seems to be inching toward a breakout season. Could 2010 be it? A cursory look makes you say "yes." Two quarterbacks with starting experience are back, along with two productive running backs. One of the nation's most underrated secondaries returns three starters.
Yet, Air Force has major holes to fill in the trenches and among the linebackers. Questions in those areas could determine where Air Force finishes in 2010.
Here's a closer look at the Falcons.
THE SCHEME: As with the other service academies, Air Force runs an option offense, one that includes elements of the spread. With a veteran quarterback and an above-average passer for a service academy in Tim Jefferson, Air Force can be a little more creative with its offense, including putting Jefferson in the shotgun.
STAR POWER: Jared Tew (6 feet/210 pounds) isn't a huge fullback, but he's shifty. Tew rushed for 970 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Jason Kons is listed as a sophomore, but at nearly any other program, he'd be called a redshirt freshman. Kons didn't play last season, but he's slated to start at left tackle on Air Force's rebuilt line.
STRONGEST AREA: Air Force is rich with experience at the skill positions, returning every player who carried the ball or completed a pass last season. Jefferson is a dependable option quarterback; he passed for 848 yards and completed 57 percent of his passes. Along with Tew, TB Asher Clark rounds out the starting backfield; Clark ran for 865 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Seven players rushed for at least 200 yards last season. Leading receiver Kevin Fogler is a big target at 6-5 and 205 pounds.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: While Air Force is stocked with backs and receivers, that's not the case on the line. No starters return. A.J. Wallerstein, a guard turned tackle, is the only lineman with starting experience. With an inexperienced line and smaller backs, Air Force could struggle to run between the tackles.
THE SCHEME: Air Force lost coordinator Tim DeRuyter to Texas A&M, but the Falcons expect to run a similar system under former linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt. Air Force utilizes a 3-4 defense, and the Falcons likely will blitz more this season because of departures along the defensive front.
STAR POWER: CB Anthony Wright intercepted seven passes last season, but CB Reggie Rembert was the coaches' All-Mountain West first-team pick. Rembert is a lockdown corner who can shut down half the field. When quarterbacks have thrown his way, Rembert has come up with six picks in the past two seasons.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: With so many veterans, freshmen will have difficulty cracking the rotation. One possibility is three-star LB Seth Kline. He was one of the top recruits in Air Force's class and plays a position of need for the Falcons.
STRONGEST AREA: Air Force could make the case it has the best secondary in the country. True, these defensive backs won't be first-round draft picks, but they are effective. Three starters return: Wright (seven interceptions, two touchdowns), Rembert (three picks) and FS Jon Davis (three interceptions, one TD). In the Armed Forces Bowl against pass-happy Houston, Air Force picked off Case Keenum six times and limited him to a season-low 222 yards and one touchdown. Air Force led the nation in turnover margin and was fifth in pass defense.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The front seven is full of questions. Only two starters return -- E Rick Ricketts and LB Andre Morris. The biggest loss will be star NT Ben Garland, who freed up the linebackers to make plays. Air Force may have depth problems at linebacker.
Air Force had one of the nation's top all-around kicking games last season, finishing fifth in the nation in net punting and in the top three in the Mountain West in kickoff and punt returns. Erik Soderberg is back after kicking 22 field goals last season, but the Falcons must replace P Brandon Geyer. The all-star cornerbacks also are all-star return men. Wright averaged 18.2 yards on punt returns with one touchdown, while Rembert averaged a career-best 25.1 yards on kickoff returns.
After a tune-up against FCS member Northwestern State (La.), Air Force quickly will find out where it stands in the Mountain West pecking order. The second game of the season will be against BYU, the earliest Air Force has faced one of the Mountain West's "Big Three" since defeating Utah 20-12 on Sept. 8, 2007. After that, Air Force visits Oklahoma for one of two potential road games against top-10 teams. Air Force also faces TCU on Oct. 23. The Falcons could make their biggest statement on their home field. They haven't defeated BYU since 2003 and they haven't defeated Navy since 2002. Both visit Colorado Springs this season.
Calhoun will have an intriguing team this fall. On one hand, Air Force will be among the best in the Mountain West in its offensive backfield and secondary. If the offensive line and the defensive front seven grow up in a hurry, Air Force could join TCU, Utah and BYU in the top half of the conference. Even if those questionable position groups lack consistency, Air Force still could be good enough to secure a bowl bid.