Can the Air Force defense minimize regression?

Haaziq Daniels (R) of Air Force and Andre Carter II of Army (L)
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 06: Air Force Falcons quarterback Haaziq Daniels (4) gets the pitch blocked by Army Black Knights linebacker Andre Carter II (34) during the Lockheed Martin CommanderÕs Classic between the Army Black Knights and the Air Force Falcons on November 6, 2021 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire)

The Air Force Falcons have been one of the more fascinating and enigmatic teams in college football over the past six seasons. How many other college football programs have had three double-digit-win seasons over the past six years?

How many college football programs have had three seasons with no more than five wins over the past six years? You’ll find several teams in both categories, but Air Force might be the only team which fits in both.

That’s right: Over the past six seasons, Air Force has three seasons with 10 or more wins, and three seasons with no more than five wins. This has been the ultimate feast-or-famine football program, with no modest 8-4 or 7-5 regular seasons. It’s either supreme success or losing and misery.

Last season, Air Force won 10 games, and the Falcons shared the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy based on their win over Navy. When Navy beat Army in December, the academy got a share of the prestigious prize it covets every autumn. One can’t ask for much more than what the Falcons produced in 2021. They came agonizingly close to beating Army and winning the CIC Trophy outright, but they lost to the Black Knights in overtime. Their only two Mountain West Conference losses came to the two teams which played in the MWC Championship Game, Utah State and San Diego State.

The Utah State game was a weird one. The Air Force defense inexplicably allowed 49 points to the Aggies in the loss which boxed them out of the conference title game. One aberration in the course of 13 games is a natural part of college football and not indicative of a fundamental, structural flaw on a team. Aberrations happen. The unfortunate part of the scenario for the Falcons was that their one aberration carried such a cost. Telling a team to not have one aberrational game in a whole season isn’t much of a plan or strategy. This is college football. The unpredictability is part of the charm.

In terms of carving out a path to success for Air Force in 2022 – building off the successes of 2021 – it’s clear that the offense needs to improve. Air Force lost tough games against San Diego State and Army in which the defense played more than well enough to win, but the offense bogged down. If you wanted to say that the improvement of the offense is the central key to the 2022 campaign, you could easily construct a credible case and would not get too much pushback.

Yet, from this vantage point, it seems that for a program which has endured so much volatility in recent years – some of it for the better, not always for worse – the real key lies on the defensive side of the ball.

The 2021 Air Force defense regularly put the clamps on opponents. Even in the aforementioned losses to San Diego State and Army, AFA allowed no more than 21 points, and the Army game was an overtime affair. The Utah State game can’t be explained; it’s the fish that got away. The rest of the 2021 season was a magnificent display by the Air Force defense.

The Falcons held Boise State to 17 points. They limited Wyoming and UNLV to 14, New Mexico to 10. A high-powered Nevada offense scored just 24 points against Air Force in regulation before the game went into three overtimes. The Falcons allowed a grand total of just 17 points in regulation in their two CIC Trophy games of the season – 14 in regulation to Army, three to Navy. That high standard of sustained quality enabled the Falcons to fly high for most of the year.

The problem entering 2022 is that prime performers at each level of the Air Force defense are gone. Tre Bugg will no longer anchor the secondary. Jordan Jackson will no longer play on the AFA defensive line. Linebacker Demonte Meeks was a very reliable tackler. He isn’t returning for this season. Only five starters return from the 2021 group, so no one should think the 2022 defense is going to match the 2021 standard.

Troy Calhoun
Troy Calhoun
The real key: making sure regression isn’t severe. The Falcons, who have recently bounced around from five-win seasons one year to 10-win seasons the next, need to reduce their volatility. That points more to the defense being able to limit its regression than anything else. Sure, the offense has to improve, but the defense can’t crater. The bottom can’t be allowed to fall out. The key pieces which are missing from the 2022 defense need to be replaced. We haven’t even mentioned safety Corvan Taylor, who was also part of the 2021 defense’s success but isn’t returning for this year. A lot of “nerve center” performers who created a balanced, integrated, well-connected defense will not be around this fall to create similar continuity. Other, newer faces will have to make sure this unit doesn’t take a big step backward. This defense won’t be as good as 2021, and no one is expecting it to be. The drop-off will happen, but its severity and scope must be minimized.

On offense, quarterback Haaziq Daniels is back for one more season. He is an experienced signal-caller who completed only 50 percent of his passes last season. That lack of efficiency caused more drives to stall than the Falcons would have wanted. Even a modest increase in completion rate – to the upper 50s, not even 60 percent – could make a significant difference for the Falcons this season. The offense is almost certain to be better, just as much as the defense is almost certain to be worse.

As long as the offense makes its expected, natural progression in 2022, we’re left with the reality that if the defense can minimize its regression and limit damage on Saturdays, Air Force could make another run at 10 games, another run at the CIC Trophy, and another run at the Mountain West championship.