As Vegas oddsmakers start trickling out their predictions for the 2022 college football season, the murkiest of pictures becomes a little clearer. Benchmarks become tangible for each team. It’s easy bulletin board material. Most of the people making these props never played the sport at a high level, so what the fuck do they know? Except for they’re pretty damn good at what they do and can be relied upon for the start of many arguments.
The most peculiar development surrounded six teams being favored in every game this season. We have the two teams that competed for the national championship last year, Georgia and Alabama, as well as two teams that always appear to be contenders in Ohio State and Oklahoma. There’s a pesky Pac-12 team that’ll be overhyped and crumble against other-Power-Five-Conference elites in Utah. Rounding out the sextet is Air Force. Wait, what? A service academy? No ACC teams? No Cincinnati?
Yup, one of that group of six truly isn’t like the others. Air Force hasn’t come close to being relevant on a national level since the Falcons posted a 12-1 record in 1998. I’m betting that’ll change 24 years later. I’m buying into the hype of Air Force becoming this year’s gridiron Cinderella.
I’ll take it a step further — the Falcons will be this season’s Group of Five representative in the New Year’s Six. And that’s aided by a tough schedule, not hindered. After facing FCS-level Northern Iowa in its season opener, Air Force won’t have much of a break until its season ends. Its non-conference games are against Colorado, a must-win to make the NY6, and the other two service academies, Navy and Army, with the Black Knights also boasting a solid squad this season.
Calling the Colorado game a “must-win” is almost evergreen when it comes to making the New Year’s Six, as the selected team is almost always an undefeated one to be carrying that mantle. Every game is basically a must-win, with maybe only a minor less-than-a-touchdown stumble allowed. The more impressive wins the better. Laying the smackdown to Northern Iowa and Navy is expected for a team getting one of the best-dozen bowl-game designations. Blasting Colorado is the Falcons’ biggest resume-builder on a nationwide level that they have, no matter how good any other team in the Mountain West will be.
Let’s dive into Air Force’s conference a little bit more, the always-underrated MWC. It’s as deep as ever. Eight of the Mountain West’s 12 teams made a bowl game last season. Four teams, including the Falcons, had double-digit wins. The always-potent Boise State is on the rise and a division rival. You can never count out Wyoming. AF avoided one of the heavier hitters from the West division in Fresno State, but its regular-season finale is against San Diego State and might be a preview for the Mountain West Championship game.
The Mountain West has only claimed the coveted Group of Five spot in the NY6 once, the first year of the current format in 2014, when Boise State beat Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. Only once since then has that spot not gone to a team from The American: Western Michigan in 2016. Houston, UCF (twice), Memphis, and Cincinnati (twice) have had a lock on that spot, including each of the last five years. Conference USA and the Sun Belt Conference are the only two leagues to never have a team play in a New Year’s Six game.
Every team needs multiple elite players to reach the New Year’s Six and the Falcons aren’t short on those. After rushing for 1,356 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, Brad Roberts is back for his senior season. Air Force returns its starting quarterback in Haaziq Daniels, a true dual-threat who had 18 combined touchdowns in 2021 with only three interceptions. On defense, the team’s leading tackler, free safety Trey Taylor, returns as does linebacker Vince Sanford, who was named to the Chuck Bednarik Award Watch List, presented annually to the best defensive player in college football.
The Falcons have all the tools to be this year’s breakthrough team in college football. Their last two full seasons generated 21 total wins and a perfect regular season shouldn’t only be expected out of Vegas, but by plenty across the nation. One slip-up likely derails any lucrative bowl-game dream, and Air Force has several roadblocks in its way. I’ll take the bet that it’ll get past those.