The reality affirmed this season by the Air Force Falcons is not an original one. It’s not something fans have failed to notice over the years. It’s quite familiar to anyone who has followed college sports with any appreciable level of care for at least seven or eight years, or however long it takes to absorb the rhythms of collegiate competition.
What is unique about Air Force in 2016: It has fit a larger pattern in a narrow and more situationally specific context.
Here’s the explanation of that sentence.
College sports — not just football — involve split seasons. Non-conference competitions enable athletes to see more of the country and test themselves against a wider range of opponents. Conference collisions provide a specific organizing framework in which familiar and geographically proximate schools can attain regional bragging rights and qualify for national championship events. Winning a conference championship and qualifying for a national tournament don’t always exist, as FBS football shows, but in most cases, winning a league is the portal to greater national relevance.
Within this basic two-part structure, some teams thrive on the strangeness and uncertainty of non-conference play. As soon as conference games or meets begin, the presence of a well-known opponent in the arena turns these teams to mush. For other teams, it’s precisely the opposite: New non-conference opponents can be mysterious and confounding, but conference play becomes reassuring and stabilizing. It anchors the season and offers a comfort zone.
In college football 2016, one can see these different examples at work in many teams.
Miami gained a 3-0 start without playing a Power Five opponent. As soon as the schedule became noticeably tougher, the Hurricanes faltered. Yet, that 3-0 start still holds value for Mark Richt: It’s what will get him into a bowl game barring an 0-3 finish over the next three weekends.
In the Sun Belt, Arkansas State inverted Miami’s progression. Miami won its first four games and then lost its next four. Arkansas State lost its first four and then won its next four. One team loaded up on non-conference wins in a lower tier of competition. The other team flourished in its conference but could not claim a single win out of its league — not even against a lower-division (read: FCS) team, Central Arkansas. It was as though the Red Wolves were merely waiting to get back at the very same Sun Belt they dominated (8-0).
Some teams — we know them when we see them — are simply inspired by various kinds of challenges. Only a select few teams are able to weave through various minefields at all points in a season. Alabama and Clemson might not always play the same kind of game with the same level of energy (they have won games in the 40s and the teens this year, with drastically different levels of output from offensive and defensive units), but they always have enough toughness and dedication to push through their less impressive outings.
Most teams will go through a season attaining a soaring height in a few instances, hitting rock bottom in one or two, and muddling through a series of close to moderately close games roughly half the time. These are the Miamis, Arkansas States, Marylands, and Washington States of college football. Within this large subset of teams, the ones that pull out the close games with regularity — Washington State in the Pac-12 — are the ones which can come close to the top tier. Those teams are exceptional, however, not the norm.
Among all these teams, though, Air Force has set an example which other FBS teams don’t have a chance to create.
Air Force — like Army and Navy — has a chance to send its seniors to the White House each year by winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. My colleague at Today’s U, Tom Shanahan, wrote about the meaning of that experience here.
Clearly — and strikingly — Air Force played its best football of 2016 in its two Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy games. The Falcons finished with a plus-33 scoring margin, an average of 16.5 points per game. In its other seven games so far, Air Force outscored opponents by 46 points, an average of under 7 points per contest. In the two CIC games, Air Force allowed an average of 13 points and conceded only six total first-half points combined (zero against Navy, six against Army). In its seven non-CIC games, the Falcons surrendered an average of just over 27 points per game, more than double the CIC game average.
New Mexico torched Air Force for 45 points, Wyoming 35. Two of Air Force’s four non-CIC wins came out of conference against non-Power Five teams, one of them an FCS foe. Air Force’s two Mountain West wins through nine games have come against Utah State and Fresno State, two of the worst teams in the league. The Falcons couldn’t beat USU or FSU by more than 10 points.
It’s clear: Air Force treated Navy and Army as its Super Bowls, drifting through most of the rest of its slate. College teams — not just in football — do this all the time. Kansas doesn’t play everyone tough, but it always gives a fight to TCU. Indiana doesn’t play consistently over 12 games, but it always seems to pester Ohio State, fueled with a determination to pull a huge upset against the Buckeyes. Vanderbilt often plays poorly, but it regularly bothers Florida — it did so even when Steve Spurrier was coaching the Gators in the 1990s.
On and on and on, college teams elevate a few games above others. They might not be models of consistency, but they summon forth more energy in some games.
The Air Force Falcons have done the same thing in 2016, but they did so in a context most college football teams never have a chance to access.
Thank goodness for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy (and White House senior visits).