Look back at Air Force's eight bowl victories, all coming between the 1982 and 2000 seasons, and you'll find one common theme.
In every case, the Falcons were facing confident opponents who, with good reason, expected to win.
Some based their cockiness purely on national stature, such as Texas in 1985 (Bluebonnet), Ohio State in 1990 (Liberty) and Mississippi State in 1991 (Liberty). Others had prominent stars who were supposed to dominate Air Force, such as Virginia Tech with defensive legend Bruce Smith (1984, Independence), Fresno State with future high NFL draftees like quarterback David Carr and receiver Bernard Berrian (2000, Silicon Valley), and Ohio State again with runner Robert Smith.
In all of those eight postseason wins, though, Air Force prevailed with discipline, patience, big defensive plays and solid quarterbacking the same traits that will determine whether the Falcons can come home with their ninth bowl win next week, facing the Houston Cougars on New Year's Eve (10 a.m., ESPN) in the Armed Forces Bowl at Fort Worth, Texas.
For the record, here's the full list of AFA bowl conquests: 1982 Hall of Fame, Vanderbilt, 36-28; 1983 Independence, Mississippi, 9-3; 1984 Independence, Virginia Tech, 23-7; 1985 Bluebonnet, Texas, 24-16; 1990 Liberty, Ohio State, 23-11; 1991 Liberty, Mississippi State, 38-15; 1998 Oahu, Washington, 45-25; 2000 Silicon Valley, Fresno State, 37-34.
Many onlookers figure Houston a 3-point favorite will run circles around Air Force. It's tough, trying to defeat the same team twice in one year, and if these teams had played in October or November, it's quite likely the Cougars would have won. They improved considerably after their 31-28 loss to Air Force in mid-September, and they almost won that day after the Falcons nearly blew a 31-7 lead.
Houston's standout sophomore quarterback, Case Keenum, had a huge year, throwing for 4,768 yards (397 a game) with 43 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. He was 34 of 57 for 362 yards, four scores and one interception against Air Force. In case you hadn't heard, the Cougars did lead the nation (including Oklahoma, Texas Tech and everyone else) in total offense with 575 yards a game, while scoring 41.2 points a game.
Do the Falcons have a chance?
The answer is yes, because this team has similar characteristics to its eight bowl-winning predecessors. Air Force's discipline and superior conditioning have been equalizers in every positive bowl experience, usually translating into a fast start, taking advantage of the opposing defense and excelling on special teams.
Yes, Houston made much progress after its narrow early loss to Air Force. But the Falcons upgraded their offense with the speed of late-blooming freshmen Tim Jefferson at quarterback and Asher Clark at tailback. The defense held up well (except when overmatched against TCU and Brigham Young), forcing 27 turnovers under the leadership of safety Chris Thomas, linebackers Ken Lamendola and Hunter Altman, cornerback Reggie Rembert and down linemen Jake Paulson, Ryan Kemp and Ben Garland.
The formula for beating Houston is fairly clear: Control the ball relentlessly on offense, make a handful of very big plays on defense, take advantage of scoring opportunities and win the kicking game. Rice did all that in the season finale, a 56-42 win over the Cougars, whose defense has let them down in big games.
Air Force might not lay 56 on Houston, but if Jefferson plays well and the Falcons can throw and run, we could see a preview of what they could be like offensively in 2009. The defense, fresher and stronger than in November, should be capable of doing its part.
If the Falcons can win, they'll walk away from 2008 with their second straight 9-4 record. Even now, regardless of the bowl outcome, it's appropriate to say AFA head coach Troy Calhoun and his assistants did an even better job with this team than last year's, when the new staff inherited a strong senior class and made the most of it.
Last week, amid all the other bowl predictions, my guess was Air Force, 37-34. Something tells me now that it might be even higher-scoring than that say, 46-38.
That would be Air Force's most points ever in a bowl game. And a fitting final chapter to another rewarding year.