The Air Force Falcons begin the 2011 campaign against the South Dakota Coyotes of the FCS Great West Conference. South Dakota is in their fourth season at the FCS level and is eligible for the FCS playoffs this season after a three year transition period following their move from the Division II ranks.
Even though the Coyotes are coming off a 4-7 mark in 2010, they return three key skill position players in '11. South Dakota is lead by senior quarterback Dante Warren who started all 11 games last season compiling 2,137 yards and 18 touchdowns. Perhaps Warren's most impressive outing last year came in the Coyotes biggest win stunning Minnesota in Minneapolis 41-38. Warren completed 21 of 30 passes for 352 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Arlington Heights, IL product also ran for 81 yards on 10 carries and reached the end zone twice on the ground. Warren was second team all-conference averaging 194.3 yards passing and 35.7 yards rushing per game.
Warren's top target last season makes his return as well in '11. Junior wide receiver Will Powell lead the Coyotes in receiving yards (933), receptions (47), and touchdowns (10) on his way to second team all-GWC honors like his quarterback Warren. Powell had four games of 100 yards or more in '10 including an 8 catch 156 yard 2 touchdown effort against Minnesota. His 933 yards was the third highest receiving total in South Dakota history.
Warren and Powell are rejoined in '11 by senior running back Chris Ganious. The Houston area product garnered first team all-conference honors in '10 gaining 817 yards rushing and finding the end zone 4 times on 188 rushing attempts. Ganious was also named first team all-GWC in '09 when he gained 828 yards on 148 carries. The fifth year senior has amassed 2400 yards rushing in his career at South Dakota and is fourth on the Coyotes all-time list.
I t appears that head coach Ed Meierkort has been building towards this season and the possibility of making the FCS playoffs. The Coyotes have 21 of 22 starters returning from last season. On the defensive side of the ball, the Coyotes are returning all 11 starters from the 2010 campaign. In fact, South Dakota will have 18 of their top 20 tacklers returning. The Coyotes are lead by senior inside linebacker Adam Broders. The Bloomfield, NE native was selected to the all-GWC first team defense as a junior in '10 when he recorded 75 tackles, 30 solo, and tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 6.5. Broders is joined in the middle of the defense by fellow senior line backer Shea Williams.
Williams led South Dakota with 89 tackles, 37 solo. William tied Broders for the team lead in tackles for loss, but led the team in sacks with 3. The defensive backfield will be lead by safties Shane Potter and Aaron Swift. Potter is a senior who finished second on the team in total tackles with 76 and was in on two pass break-ups. Swift as a true freshman in 2010 finished forth in tackles with 61 and led the Coyotes with 4 pass break-ups. Swift is out of Aurora, CO Eaglecrest High School and is likely to have many friends and family at Falcon Stadium on Labor Day weekend. Swift much such an impact in 2010 he was awarded as the Coyotes Most Valuable Freshman.
Can the Coyotes compete with the Air Force Falcons? Given the upset of Minnesota last season (alright the Gophers did have a tough year going 3-9) and that it will be week one, Air Force had better not take these boys from the South Dakota plains lightly. Never has a Troy Calhoun coached team faced an opponent with so much experience returning. When a group comes back with so few players gone it takes them less time to gel. This is one team that should be ready from day one.
Now before we start calling for an upset there are a few things that Air Force will have going for it. The Falcons are a Division I FBS team that relies upon precision and speed. South Dakota has not faced the option attack the Falcons employ. Air Force is returning its fair share of starters as well, not the 21 the Coyotes will bring back mind you, but plenty of experience is returning. Oh, and there is that altitude thing in Colorado Springs. I am not one for making predictions of final scores, but look for this one to remain close through the first half. Air Force will then make their usual adjustments and pull away, leaving the Coyotes gasping for air.
Let's say Air Force 57, South Dakota 20.