OVERVIEW: Air Force uses the triple option and ranked second nationally at 306.5 rushing yards per game. It again should have one of the nation's most effective ground attacks this fall - if the Falcons can find a fullback. Air Force has led the Mountain West in rushing 13 consecutive seasons and has ranked in the top 10 nationally every season since 1987. The return of QB Tim Jefferson also should give Air Force at least some semblance of a passing game.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Who's the fullback? Air Force has a proven quarterback and running back working behind a veteran line. As long as the Falcons get good production from their fullback, they once again should be able to run the ball against just about anyone. But the Falcons don't know what to expect from their fullback because they don't have any experienced candidates to fill that spot.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The anticipated two-team race for the MWC title between TCU and Boise State expands into a three-team donnybrook after Air Force surprises the Horned Frogs on Sept. 10. While it's tough to imagine Air Force actually capturing the conference crown, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if they stayed in contention all season and posted double-digit wins for the first time since 1998.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: A tough October schedule proves too taxing for the Falcons, who need a late-season surge just to become bowl-eligible.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Air Force has a remarkable plus-50 turnover margin during coach Troy Calhoun's four-year tenure. The Falcons have 109 takeaways and have committed just 59 turnovers during that stretch. Air Force led the nation in turnover margin in 2009 at plus-22.
BACKFIELD: Air Force returns its top two rushers in RB Asher Clark (182 carries, 1,031 yards, five TDs) and Jefferson (154-754-15). Jefferson also threw for 1,459 yards and 10 touchdowns with six interceptions last season, though he completed only 51.6 percent of his passes. Jefferson is entering his third year as the starter. Clark ranked third in the Mountain West in rushing last season and has run for 2,484 yards over the past three seasons. The Falcons lack an experienced fullback. Wesley Cobb and Mike DeWitt are competing for the starting spot. Cobb rushed for 13 yards on five carries last season, while DeWitt was injured and missed the season.
RECEIVERS: This isn't a team that throws the ball much, but Air Force does return two of its three leading receivers from last year in seniors Jonathan Warzeka (18 catches, 406 yards, three TDs) and Zach Kauth (16-274-4). Warzeka showed his big-play potential last season by scoring on each of his two catches against Army - one from 63 yards out, the other from 53 yards away. Kauth came on strong late last season by catching seven passes and scoring two touchdowns over his final three games. Senior Joshua Freeman is the favorite to open the season as the starting tight end, though senior Daniel Pickett and junior Austin Briehl also are competing for the job.
LINE: Air Force returns three starters from a line that paved the way for the nation's second-ranked rushing attack and allowed the fewest sacks of any FBS program. The Falcons gave up only five sacks in part because they only attempted 168 passes. The top returning starter is senior G A.J. Wallerstein, who earned second-team all-conference honors last season. Air Force also returns junior T Jason Kons and senior C Michael Hester, though Hester exited spring practice behind senior Jeffrey Benson on the depth chart. Junior Jordan Eason is expected to start at left guard, while senior Kevin Whitt is atop the depth chart at right tackle.
OVERVIEW: Air Force returns eight players who made at least six starts last season for a unit that ranked 28th in scoring defense and 37th in total defense. Air Force was second nationally in pass defense. TCU beat Air Force 38-7, but no other team exceeded the 28-point mark against the Falcons. This typically is a playmaking group, as the Falcons are plus-50 in turnover margin over the past four seasons.
LINE: This area could be a concern for the Falcons. Air Force ranked 109th nationally in sacks per game and 103rd in tackles for loss per game a year ago. The Falcons could have a tough time delivering more of a pass rush without second-team all-conference selection Rick Ricketts at end. A look at Air Force's depth chart doesn't reveal a single first- or second-team lineman who recorded more than one sack last season. The Falcons also lack size up front, as none of their six first- or second-team linemen exceed 260 pounds. Ross Fleming, listed as a second-teamer at two spots on the line, is just 220 pounds. Maybe the Falcons' experience will make up for their lack of bulk: Projected starters Zach Payne, Ryan Gardner and Harry Kehs are seniors.
LINEBACKER: Air Force is loaded here. The headliner is senior Jordan Waiwaiole, who recorded a team-high 96 tackles last season. Air Force also returns senior Brady Amack (82 tackles last season) and senior Patrick Hennessey (60 tackles). Hennessey is a big-play threat who produced 10 tackles for loss and recovered two fumbles last season. Air Force will break in one new starting linebacker in its 3-4 alignment. Junior Alex Means is listed as the first-teamer at that spot, though sophomore Jamil Cooks also could receive plenty of playing time.
SECONDARY: Senior CB Anthony Wright and senior FS Jon Davis each earned honorable mention All-MWC honors last season. Wright's 10 career interceptions are the most of any active MWC player. Davis recorded 93 tackles last season. Wright is a fourth-year starter, while Davis enters his third year in the starting lineup. SS Anthony Wooding started each of the Falcons' final six games last season and finished with 30 tackles. Senior Josh Hall should crack the starting lineup at cornerback, though he must hold off challenges from Chris Miller and P.J. Adeji-Paul. Hall made 16 tackles in a backup role last season.
Erik Soderberg will try to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 season. After going 22-of-30 on field-goal attempts in 2009, Soderberg was just 5-of-10 last season, including 0-of-4 from beyond 39 yards. Soderberg even lost his job late in the season to Zack Bell. The job is likely Soderberg's since Bell has completed his eligibility, but he will have to perform better. Junior Parker Herrington and sophomore Zach Hoffman also will compete for the kicking job. Air Force lacks an experienced punter, though David Baska is the favorite to take over the role. Warzeka averaged 28.73 yards per kickoff return last season to rank 11th nationally. Air Force ranked fifth in punt coverage and 56th in kickoff coverage last season.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: N/A
Buzz: The Falcons did a solid job recruiting the state of Texas in their 2011 class by landing four three-star prospects from there, and coach Troy Calhoun and his staff are back in the state recruiting 2012 players. Air Force's first three commitments this recruiting cycle are from Texas in RB Devin Rushing, WR DeAndre Liggins and DE Roland Neal. - ADAM GORNEY
Although he technically isn't a freshman, Baska has spent his entire college career on Air Force's junior varsity team. He now is the clear front-runner to take over as the Falcons' No. 1 punter. Air Force ranked 18th nationally in net punting last season with Keil Bartholomew serving as the Falcons' main punter, so Baska will have a hard act to follow.
Air Force will know in a hurry whether it can contend for the MWC title. After opening with FCS member South Dakota, the Falcons play host to TCU in their second game of the season. The TCU showdown represents Air Force's only September game against an FBS opponent, but the schedule gets much tougher in October. Air Force opens the month with back-to-back trips to Navy and Notre Dame, returns home to face San Diego State, then travels to Boise State and New Mexico the next two weeks. If Air Force can make it out of October with a decent record, the Falcons should have a much easier time the rest of the way. They have three consecutive November home games, with Army, Wyoming and UNLV, before ending the regular season at Colorado State.
Air Force heads into this season with justifiably high expectations. Jefferson is one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks, Air Force's offensive line is solid and the defense features enough talent at linebacker and in the secondary to make up for the concerns on the line. But the Falcons' talent level remains a notch below Boise State and TCU in their conference. Air Force could benefit from playing TCU at home so early in the season. The Falcons have an experienced quarterback and TCU doesn't. Maybe that will make a difference in an early September game. The problems could come in October. Playing four road games in a five-week stretch will make it tough for the Falcons to seriously contend for a conference title. Air Force should close on a rush to finish 9-4 with a win in a minor bowl, but the Falcons probably will have to settle for third place in the conference standings.