As Troy Calhoun enters his eighth season leading Air Force football, he faces an assessment that would put most major-college head coaches on the hot seat. Today, three weekends before Air Force opens the 2014 season against Nicholls State (noon, Aug. 30, Falcon Stadium), it's safe to say the AFA program is in worse shape than it was when Calhoun replaced longtime coach Fisher DeBerry.
Calhoun inherited a nucleus solid enough that the Falcons jumped from 4-8 in 2006 to 9-4 in '07, starting an unprecedented run of six years ending in bowl games.
As we have come to understand more clearly from a recent Gazette investigation, though, discipline problems began unraveling the Falcons in late 2011. Air Force officially lost its equilibrium midway through 2012, dropping four of its last five games and then hitting rock bottom last year at 2-10 — the losingest season in AFA history — with a horrific 0-8 record in the Mountain West Conference. That's now a 3-14 stretch going into this fall, so it's no surprise that the Falcons are picked last in their division of the conference, without a single player on the preseason all-MWC team.
The big question hanging over Air Force: How long will it take to regain respectability?
Before everyone gives up on 2014, consider this: In all likelihood, Air Force already has hit the bottom. That happened last Nov. 30 at Fort Collins, when Colorado State laid a 58-13 shellacking on the Falcons. (It could have been worse.) Air Force's defense fell apart last year, giving up averages of 40 points, 250 rushing yards and 490 total yards a game, all ranking between 110th and 120th in the country. Meanwhile, the offense vacillated between listless and punchless.
Since last November, though, the atmosphere inside AFA football has been changing. You won't see any false bravado; the Falcons clearly have been humbled.
Calhoun has reshaped the defensive staff, with Steve Russ (a standout linebacker at Air Force 20 years ago who later played for the Denver Broncos) taking over as coordinator and working with defensive backs. Then, to fill vacancies left by others, Calhoun brought in Ron Vanderlinden from Penn State to coach linebackers and Tim Cross from Minnesota for the defensive line.
The good news is that Air Force returns ample experience on defense, so given the attitude adjustment, the unit should show improvement. The defensive line, anchored by junior Alex Hansen, senior Nick Fitzgerald and senior Troy Timmerman, should mix well with a linebacking corps headed by seniors Joey Nichol and Spencer Proctor, plus juniors Connor Healy and Dexter Walker.
Even with a better defense, though, it'll be just as important for the offense to rediscover the ball-control consistency that helped Air Force to all those bowls.
The biggest uncertainty for Calhoun and his offensive staff will be choosing a No. 1 quarterback, since three — senior Kale Pearson, junior Karson Roberts and sophomore Nate Romine — have starting experience. In fact, don't be surprised if one winds up playing some running back. First, though, if those in that trio can push each other, they also can make the most of other legitimate weapons led by runner Jon Lee, fullback Broam Hart and receiver Jalen Robinette.
Consider all that, and you realize Air Force's fall to 2-10 wasn't really about a sudden dearth of talent. It was the end result of those disciplinary issues and nasty secrets that slowly undermined the program — but are now being addressed.
So what would a legitimate rebirth look like? The first two league games, Sept. 6 at Wyoming and Sept. 27 at home against Boise State (both with new head coaches), will provide the answer. Lose both, and the most common prediction of 4-8 might come true. Win either one, and the Falcons could make it back to 6-6.
In other words, the AFA slide is over. But will the Falcons face a long climb back toward lasting success? We'll find out in September.