Head Coach Troy Calhoun enters his 17th season on a nice roll. His Falcons have won double-digit games in 4 out of the last 8 years. Although he has been a pretty consistent winner over his tenure, he did not win 10 games in any of his first 8 years. He’s built a strong staff of assistants that is loyal to the team and the Academy’s mission.
Now Calhoun has built his team to the brink of doing something he has not accomplished - winning the Mountain West championship. A majority of his offensive weapons from last year are back, led by quarterback Haaziq Daniels who is entering his third year as the starter. The offense will work behind an offensive line that returns seven who have starting experience from the Joe Moore Award finalist group last year.
The defense loses three key players from last year, but features replacements who have seen significant playing time. LB Vince Sanford returns after leading all linebackers in the conference in sacks and TFLs last year, along with leading tackler Trey Taylor and DE Chris Herrera with his 9.5 career TFLs and 64 tackles.
The Falcons will also be able to ride the tailwinds of a schedule that includes only 5 true road games, and that doesn’t include the MW West division’s best team Fresno State.
Reasons for optimism
Conditions are pretty much optimum for another historic season in terms of rushing yardage. Last year’s rushing average of 328.4 yards/game was the 8th highest in school history and the highest ever while a member of the Mountain West. The Joe Moore Award finalist offensive line is back nearly intact with a year of experience under it’s belt. Almost all of the line were sophomores last year, so they should be bigger, stronger, and more aware this year.
FB Brad Roberts highlights a group of runners that Phil Steele ranks as the sixth best in college football. The top 4 rushers from last year are back, having totaled over 3000 yards between them. DeAndre Hughes at tailback is a speed burner who can create explosive plays as he did against Nevada last year, running for 223 yards and 9.6 yards per carry. Even the backups have a lot of speed. John Lee Eldridge and Jacob Trach competed in sprints for the Academy’s track team, and Zach Larrier is the two-time MW 200-meter champion.
At quarterback, Haaziq Daniels has matured into a dangerous threat both with his legs and his arm. He could become the first Falcon quarterback to reach 1000 yards rushing and passing since Chance Harridge in 2002. His performance against Louisville in the First Responders Bowl should discourage this year’s opponents from copying the Cardinal’s strategy of stacking the box against the run. That can only help the ground game.
Reasons for concern
The Falcon’s most dangerous deep threat last year, Brandon Lewis, has graduated and is now pursuing an NFL career as a UDFA. Adding to that loss, his most likely replacement to have that kind of production, Micah Davis, has entered the transfer portal and has received an offer from Indiana. Dane Kinamon will likely start at slot receiver, and he is a solid blocker and has sure hands when the ball is delivered to him, but his longest reception thus far is for 23 yards.
TE Kyle Patterson will be back in the lineup after missing most of the season last year, but we’ll have to watch for any lingering effects. When he has been in the lineup, the Falcons have sent him deep several times for big gains.
Both Haaziq Daniels and Brad Roberts underwent surgeries over the summer that kept them out of spring practice. Again, we will have to watch for any effects on their performance and stamina to log a lot of playing time.
One final factor to consider is the change in the rules in regard to blocking below the waist. All offensive players will have to incorporate the rules into their techniques. Especially early in the year, there may be some mental errors that affect some plays.
Last year, I wrote that the key stats to watch for the Falcons were third down conversion rate and yards per reception. I’ll make a small modification to those stats by making the conversion rate applied to third OR fourth down conversions. The Falcons go for it on fourth down more than almost anyone else, and they convert on fourth down more than almost anyone else. I had said it would be a good year if they could convert on 50% of third downs. The Falcons fell short of that mark with a 45.4% rate (20th best FBS). However, they converted 78% of fourth down attempts (third best FBS). Add them together, and they converted on 51% of attempts after reaching third down. That’s how the Falcons average 13 more minutes of possession than the opponents.
Last year I wanted to see an average yards per completion of > 20 yards, and the Falcons averaged 22.58. The goal remains the same for this year.
Accomplishing these two goals has resulted in 10 wins each time the Falcons have accomplished them in the last six years.
I’ve already mentioned Zach Larrier above. Falcon fans are hoping that Calhoun and staff can find a way to get him into the game and utilize his speed and quickness. As a quarterback, he has not yet thrown a pass, and I think Daniels is likely more reliable in that aspect, but it’s possible we could see him get some good production from a variety of positions. The depth chart that the Falcons have released still list Larrier as the #2 quarterback.
Reasons for optimism
For the last two years, the Falcons have been among the best defenses in terms of points allowed in FBS football. In 2020, they were third in points allowed at 15 points per game, and last year, they were 16th with 19.8 points per game. A good portion of this excellence is due to the ability of the offense to maintain long drives and keep the ball away from opposing offenses. That also keeps the defenders well rested. That dynamic should continue this year, as explained above.
Last year, Coach Calhoun said that his defensive line was “generational.” Combining with an excellent linebacking corps, the Falcons finished 28th in the country with 37 sacks and ninth in rushing defense with 102.2 yards per game. Chris Herrera, Kalawaia Pescaia, Elijah Brockman, and Jayden Thiergood are back from that line, but the anchor for the line, Jordan Jackson, has moved on to the NFL.
The linebacker group should again be strong. 1st Team All-Mountain West Vince Sanford will be back along with his 17 TFLs and 9.5 sacks. In the middle, Alec Mock and TD Blackmon had 13 starts between them last year, and they will be augmented by Bo Richter, who came on strong at the end of the year and started the bowl game alongside Mock. Richter has big upside potential, as he did not start playing football until late in high school. Spur linebacker Camby Goff has been moved to safety, and Jace Waters is listed at that position this year.
Reasons for concern
Tre Bugg and Corvan Taylor, two of the biggest playmakers in the defensive backfield, have graduated. Goff’s move to safety makes up for the departure of Taylor. The three top competitors for the cornerback positions are Zion Kelly, Eian Castonguay, and Michael Mack. Each of them has started a few games, but are unproven defenders.
I expect the pass rush and rushing defense to be good this year, but relatively untested cornerbacks are a little worrisome. Passing yards allowed per game should give an indication of whether or not the Falcons can make a run at a conference championship.
Safety Trey Taylor solidified the Falcon pass defense last year when he recovered from an illness and took over at free safety after the Utah State game. He exhibited sound fundamentals in tackling and pass defending, but ended up with only one interception. He has the skill set to develop into a Weston Steelhammer-style ball hawk. That would greatly aid the quest for a conference championship.
Most sports books have over/under on wins for the Falcons of 8.5. I expect the Falcons to reach 9 wins and have a chance at 10 wins.
This is a very good FCS program that is dangerous for the Falcons because they have an excellent rushing defense. Last year they allowed only 87 yards per game rushing and 2.5 yards per carry. This will be the first game action under the new NCAA rules on blocking below the waist. It might take the players a while to get used to the new techniques. The game shouldn’t be in doubt, but not your usual FCS shellacking.
The PAC 12 (now 10) version of Nevada this year. A lot of last year’s team entered the transfer portal, including their best running back, two top receivers, and three contributors from the defensive backfield. They’ll also be adjusting to a new offensive coordinator after finishing last year as the second worst offensive team in FBS, just ahead of New Mexico. It is a P5 team that can recruit high-skill players, but the Falcons should win this one.
The Pokes are always a dangerous opponent in Laramie for Air Force. Transfer quarterback from Utah State Andrew Peasley had a great performance against the Falcons last year in relief of Logan Bonner and has been good at evading the pass rush each of the last two years. I think the Falcons can eke out a close win to go 3-0.
A rebuilding year for the Wolf Pack. Another win.
Tai Lavatai is not the kind of quarterback that Coach Niumatalolo normally has running his offense and the offensive line is subpar for Navy. The CIC trophy is on the line, so Navy will keep it close, but the Falcons should win.
Will the Falcon defense be able to adjust to Coach Anderson’s offense now that they’ve seen it once? Utah State has shown no ability to stop the Falcon rushing attack in recent years. The Falcons have averaged 403 yards rushing against the Aggies the last four years, and the only two players to make big plays last year, Nick Heninger and Justin Rice, have graduated. I think the Falcons can win it, but the game will be a toss-up.
After last year’s match, don’t expect anything other than a win by the Falcons.
Was last year a “growing pains” year under first-year coach Avalos, or was it indicative of some issue with the new staff’s system? Given Boise’s history, the team should be given the benefit of the doubt, and I expect a more normal 9+ wins from the Broncos.
Most observers think this game will determine the division championship, and I agree. Boise is not the best at stopping the Falcon rushing attack, but even with the game in Colorado Springs, the edge goes to the Broncos.
Last year, the Falcons made two mistakes on what looked to be promising drives and came up short in overtime. First a halfback pass to the quarterback, who was covered by three defenders, and then a block below the waist on the final drive of regulation in Army territory. Army made no glaring mistakes, and that was the difference.
This has been the pattern with this game lately. I think the Falcons have an edge in talent, but I’ll call it a tossup.
The Lobos are making strides, but the Falcons should win.
Jay Norvell takes over the Rams and brings a talented freshman quarterback to run his Air Raid offense. The Rams could be dangerous, but it should take a while to master the offense in Ft Collins, so the Falcons should win.
San Diego State
Outside of the other Academy teams, the Aztecs are the only team that consistently defends well against the Falcon rushing attack. The game will be played in the Aztecs' new stadium, which gives them the edge for the win.