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End Zone: AFA has reason to dream

Forty years ago this summer, my first idol in journalism wrote the best crystal-ball column of all time.



Forty years ago this summer, my first idol in journalism wrote what became, and still is today, the best crystal-ball column of all time.

Orville Henry, longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette (God rest his and its souls) and also my first newspaper boss, was looking ahead to the 1969 college football season, and he envisioned something dramatic, even historic.

Arkansas and Texas had done something unheard-of in that era, moving their usual mid-October rivalry game to the first Saturday in December, with ABC agreeing to put it on national TV. Both teams were coming off excellent seasons in 1968.

Henry, in that column, looked ahead to Dec. 6, 1969 and projected the occasion in remarkable detail. Texas and Arkansas would be unbeaten, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation. The game would become the "Big Shootout" for the national title, since the bowl games weren't so united (as in a Bowl Championship Series) back then. Henry figured it would be important enough for President Richard Nixon to attend, even in the mountain town of Fayetteville, Ark., and evangelist Billy Graham would give the invocation.

There were more specifics, not worth recounting here. But as the season wore on, Henry's feat of clairvoyance turned into a perfect blueprint for reality. Both teams did have 10-0 records, and they were the nation's top two teams, Texas followed by Arkansas. Nixon did show up, as did Graham. Arkansas led 14-0 after three quarters, until Texas quarterback James Street made some memorable plays that sparked the Longhorns to an epic 15-14 victory.

(Footnote: Street's son, Huston Street, now is a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, wearing the same No. 16 as his dad, which brings back nightmares for Arkansas followers in this part of the world.)

Anyway, that column came to mind recently, amid some early studying of Air Force's outlook for the 2009 football season. It really hit home, looking at the Falcons' schedule for this fall.

No, this doesn't mean Air Force will contend for the national championship. But who knows what might happen in 2009?

That's because the Falcons finish their upcoming season Nov. 21 at Brigham Young, which could help decide the Mountain West Conference championship. Sure, nobody can discount Utah, coming off its perfect season and BCS bowl victory against Alabama. It's also true that Utah and BYU will play their usual season-ender on Nov. 28, also at Provo. And you can't forget about TCU, either.

Still, Air Force is capable of spoiling that party. Not because the Falcons have a bunch of All-Americans, because they don't. But I haven't forgotten a conversation two years ago with AFA head coach Troy Calhoun, who talked excitedly about the incoming freshman class of 2007. When this group gets to be upperclassmen, Calhoun was saying, we'll see how good they might be. We're talking about cadet-athletes with size and speed, superior by Air Force standards, capable of producing quality depth to the lines and on defense.

"But our goal is to get to where we're a team of seniors and juniors," Calhoun said then. "Younger ones will have to be special to play a lot."

Calhoun and his staff brought in a similar bunch in 2008, and some had an immediate impact. Tim Jefferson became the starting quarterback, Asher Clark showed signs of brilliance at tailback, and cornerback Anthony Wright became a defensive regular. Then, last spring, other positive signs began unfolding, such as junior-to-be tailback Savier Stephens showing his potential.

Look at Air Force's preseason depth chart now, and one thing stands out: The entire starting offensive line, tackle to tackle plus the tight end, will be seniors going into fall, with underclassmen pushing from behind. Defensively, the front seven is all seniors and juniors, including some gifted leaders like linebacker Ken Lamendola and safety Chris Thomas.

Just as Calhoun was hoping for two years ago. His timetable then was aimed more toward a peak in 2010 — but it might come a year early.

Granted, several pieces have to fall into place, starting at quarterback. But this Air Force team, and this season, very well could turn into something special.

And if President Barack Obama shows up Nov. 21 for Air Force-BYU, well, you read it here first.

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