One recent morning, in the midst of what has been an annual research project, I was struck by a sobering revelation.
This fall will be my 40th season of paying close attention to Air Force football and the Denver Broncos.
Granted, not all of these years have been the same. I spent 2001 to 2006 in the "wilderness," bouncing to Florida and Texas, but never losing touch in part because it was still newspaper work with columns and differing roles in sports, seemingly always with ties back to Colorado in some way.
Then the past decade back in Colorado Springs has been varied, with this column being constant at times and sporadic more recently.
But the awareness and ongoing analysis have never faded. It also helps when readers still say they like seeing the End Zone when it reappears. So when that four-decade realization came, I figured it would make sense to jump back in the mix with a look at the upcoming 2016 season — not just because of the longevity, but because this autumn should be fascinating.
Let's break it up in the usual way...
Air Force: Rarely through the years, and that includes the best of times during the stretch of 1982-1985 (four bowl wins, four victories against Notre Dame, Navy and Army, etc.), has the Air Force Academy promoted as much optimism going into a season as now. Early TV ads and player interviews have gone so far as to suggest the possibility of a 12-0 record for the Falcons.
This is a team that won eight games in 2015, reached the Mountain West Conference championship game and nearly won it at San Diego State, then hit the wall in the Armed Forces Bowl against California quarterback Jared Goff, merely the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft. But with nine defensive starters returning from a very good unit, plus a superlative group of skilled-position offensive players, the Falcons have reason to be confident, though head coach Troy Calhoun (starting his 10th year) never will be described as cocky.
Their schedule is cooperative, with the toughest two opponents — Boise State on Nov. 25 and Navy on Oct. 1 — coming to Falcon Stadium. The toughest road trip, Sept. 24 at Utah State, might tell us more clearly what to expect. Predicting 12-0 is never smart, because so many things can happen (and the Falcons often wear down in November) but it's easy to see this AFA team going at least 10-2.
Here's why: I keep remembering last Sept. 12, when Air Force faced San Jose State in an early league showdown. With a precarious 17-16 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons came up with big plays on both sides of the ball to roll up an impressive 37-16 win. But the night was spoiled when highly regarded junior quarterback Nate Romine went down late with a season-ending knee injury. If not for losing Romine, I thought the Falcons could have won 10 or 11 games.
Romine is back, having been granted a hardship year, so he's still a junior in eligibility. Having a proven starter at the helm, along with such other playmakers as runners Jacobi Owens and Tim McVey, fullbacks Shayne Davern and D.J. Johnson plus receivers Jalen Robinette and Tyler Williams, means the offense should be truly explosive. And the defense, led by safety Weston Steelhammer and linebackers Haji Dunn and Patrick Healy, could include 11 seniors at any given time. Hard to beat that.
So now you know, Air Force could be set up for something special. If the Falcons can avoid major injuries, and if they can make it past that early trip to Utah State, anything could happen. Yes, anything.
Denver Broncos: Coming off a championship season, starting over at quarterback with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch plus facing a killer schedule, the Broncos still should ride their NFL-best defense to at least a 10-6 season. But the quarterback uncertainty will be a hindrance unless Lynch emerges as a sudden star. Denver's best hope is to put it all together in December, pull off another division title and then make one more serious playoff run. There's not another obvious Super Bowl team from the American Conference, so who knows? But the world knows Denver's defense was enough last year. Why not again?