September 26, 2023

After Deion Sanders' Colorado Buffaloes imploded against Oregon last weekend and fell from both the ranks of the unbeaten and the Top 25 in the pools, it heated up the question: What's the best college football team Colorado? Well, at least it did for me and I even took a Twitter poll. That's not anything even remotely scientific, but it's a fun debate. And the winner was ...
The Air Force Academy Falcons.
That's my vote, too. 
In their 17th season under the relatively low-key and unheralded Troy Calhoun, 56, the Falcons are 4-0 after beating Robert Morris, Sam Houston, Utah State and San Jose State, and they next face San Diego State Saturday at the construction zone known as Falcon Stadium. Conceded, that's not a Murderer's Row schedule so far, but even more intriguing is that there isn't an opponent remaining on the schedule that the Falcons can't beat.
Will they go undefeated? Almost certainly not, in part because the "distractions" of the stringent academic and military routine at the Academy can lead to letdown weeks for the Falcons, even more so than the college football norm, and unexpected losses. 
But you never know.

Two years ago, at the Front Range Huddle preview press function for the area's college football programs at the late, great Blake Street Tavern, I had a lengthy one-on-one conversation with Calhoun, whom I've known since his tenure as an NFL assistant with the Broncos and Texans. I pressed him on the issue of realistic and redrawn ambitions for the Falcons as such "innovations" as NIL were about to take root on the college football scene. The Falcons, of course, couldn't offer that enticement, just as they faced inherent disadvantages in the past with not being able to redshirt players or bring in transfers. They could lose players; they couldn't add them from other programs. (An asterisk there is that a year at the Academy's prep school could provide a redshirt-type experience.) 

Affably, Calhoun responded: "We'll see..."  
So far, the Falcons have managed just fine, continuing to do it under the radar in terms of attention and coverage from the Denver media and Front Range fandom. Much of the credit for the Falcons' virtually perennial competitiveness goes to Calhoun, who for years -- pre-Deion Sanders, in other words -- has been part of the top fit of coach and campus in the state.      
When Calhoun speaks to his players about the Academy experience, he's credible.
He lived it as a cadet and as mostly a backup option quarterback for the Falcons.
Calhoun is from the hardworking lumber town of Roseburg, Oregon. His dad, Terry, was a teacher; his mother, Joyce, was an emergency room nurse. As he finished up at Roseburg High, Troy surveyed his options, even thinking of whether he would join many of his contemporaries in going to work at one of the mills.

"My mom pretty much said, 'There isn't a choice to be made here. You're going to the Air Force Academy,"' Calhoun once told me at the side of the Falcons' practice field, earlier in his tenure. "There were many days I was here when I was mad as I could be at my mother. It ended up being a super place for me. But about the first 18 months, you're thinking, 'Mean old Mom.' Yet, what are you going to say when your mom walks into the house, sometimes she had blood all over. It's not like you're going to complain about being sore or saying this is a little bit too stressful. I guess she did know best."

Joyce kept letters from Troy, and later teased Troy that he frequently was telling her how mean she was.

Calhoun's sister, Callie, was two years behind him at the academy and won six individual NCAA titles in cross country and track and field. So the choices to accept the congressional appointments worked out well for both of Joyce's children. 
Calhoun, then with the Texans, was the natural selection as Fisher DeBerry's successor for the 2007 season. He tweaked and diversified the Falcons' option offense on the fly in his first few seasons, primarily adding variety in formations and a north-south, up-the-field emphasis; plus being more open to throwing the ball. At one point, as RPO became increasingly fashionable in other programs, it was arguable that he went too far, mitigating the Falcons' one major advantage -- the unique challenge of opponents facing the option attack.    

Calhoun found a middle ground, and it has worked. The Falcons are 125-78 under Calhoun. As the state's other coaches have come and gone, he has been the constant.
It also involves evolution, since the program's early days of success came when Ben Martin's teams were among the most imaginative and successful passing programs in the country, including when Ernie Jennings was the best wide receiver in the country in the Woodstock era. Also, though, the Falcons program had lean, undersized linemen because of size restrictions for cadets, but now many of their linemen at least look as if they've eaten several donuts in the past year.  

"Back in that day," Calhoun said, "you probably had to be a little unique in your approach, too. Then, throwing the ball was a little bit unique. The thing you can't be is cut out of the same mold on offense and defense as everyone else. You have to be a little bit different. Maybe as you get a little more size and quickness, you can have a different approach, but you have to be resourceful and creative, and still teach clearly so your guys can execute."
Through four games this season, the Falcons have thrown the ball 12 times. Senior quarterback Zac Larrier is 8-for-12, for 221 yards. His 1 TD pass was an 84-yard play, and the 26-yard average per completion underscores the big-play approch when going to the air.  

Calhoun flirted with Tennessee at one point and was at least mentioned as a viable possibility for the Broncos, CU and CSU jobs. (I'm not saying it ever came close to happening; it just made sense to consider him.) But he's stayed and now seems a lifer, destined to retire with the Falcons.

Here's the remainder of the Falcons' 2023 schedule. Note that they will play in three Colorado venues -- at Falcon Stadium, at CSU's Canvas Stadium, and at Empower Field at Mile High, where they will face Army on November 4. 
Saturday, Sept. 30 -- vs. San Diego State
Saturday, October 14 -- vs. Wyoming
Saturday, October 21 -- at Navy
Saturday, October 28 -- at Colorado State
Saturday, November 4 -- vs. Army at Empower Field at Mile High
Saturday, November 11 -- at Hawaii
Saturday, Noovember 18 -- vs. UNLV
Friday, November 24 -- at Boise State 
No, they don't face CU this season after beating Mel Tucker's Buffs in overtime in Boulder in 2019, and then routing the moribund Buffs 41-10 at the Academy in 2022. So any conjecture about who would win a 2023 CU-AFA matchup will remain just that -- conjecture. Right now, yes, I'd take the Falcons.

I hope they become a national story, too.      
Then-CU coach Mel Tucker congratulates the Air Force Falcons after their 30-23 overtime win in Boulder in 2019.

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