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Picks: Happy endings for CU, AFA


Four months ago, Air Force and Colorado crept gingerly into the 2007 football season.

Air Force was coming off a 4-8 disappointment, its third consecutive losing record, plus the upheaval of longtime head coach Fisher DeBerry's retirement followed by the adjustment to Troy Calhoun, with his new staff and routines.

Colorado was trying to forget its nightmarish 2-10 disaster of 2006, banking on rookie quarterback Cody Hawkins and hoping to make it through head coach Dan Hawkins' second season without too many debilitating setbacks, especially in the Big 12.

That was August. Now it's late December, and both the Falcons and Buffaloes are still playing football.

Air Force rocketed to 9-3, thanks to a fast, confidence-building start, an extraordinary season from Chad Hall and a much more dependable defense. Colorado improved to 6-6, highlighted by knocking off then-unbeaten Oklahoma, convincingly thumping Texas Tech at Lubbock and finishing with a scorefest win against Nebraska.

Those results put both into bowl games, just 220 miles apart, a three-hour drive on Interstate 20.

Colorado faces Alabama in the Independence Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 30, starting at 6 p.m. (Mountain time) on ESPN in Shreveport, La.

Monday, Air Force and California kick off ESPN's New Year's Eve bowl tripleheader at 10:30 a.m. (MST) in the Armed Forces Bowl at Fort Worth, Texas.

The oddsmakers have made the Falcons and Buffs identical 3-point underdogs, despite Cal and Alabama finishing the regular season on losing streaks (three for Cal, four for 'Bama) capped by defeats to their biggest rivals, Stanford and Auburn, respectively.

That's good psychology for the Buffs and Falcons. And for both, it helps provide an excellent opportunity.

Bowl games can mean different things for different programs. They can be carefree rewards with no pressure or expectations attached. They can be huge challenges, defining success or failure for the entire season.

Granted, nothing that happens in Shreveport or Fort Worth can take away from what Air Force and CU accomplished this fall.

But both surely realize what kind of springboard their bowls can be not just toward 2008, but also in recruiting and national credibility.

Good exposure for both

Colorado-Alabama is the only bowl Sunday, though it will compete for viewers with the NFL's prime-time, regular-season finale, Tennessee at Indianapolis. Air Force-Cal will have the entire football stage to itself for the first 90 minutes, and only minimal competition after that.

CU has a chance to show that it can stand up to a typical Southeastern Conference opponent with plenty of speed. Early in the season, the Buffs hosted Florida State when the Seminoles were struggling and very beatable. But senior runner Hugh Charles was injured, and that became one of the Buffs' low points, a 16-6 loss. Alabama narrowly lost to Florida State but did topple bowl-bound Tennessee and Arkansas.

Colorado still has a shot at big-time recruits, most notably a potential star runner, Darrell Scott of Ventura, Calif. He's rated the nation's No. 1 running back, and among the top five prospects overall, by Scott is strongly considering CU, but he's also reportedly thinking about Florida, LSU and Texas, a formidable list. So a strong showing against Alabama, especially if Charles has a big finale, could make the difference.

Air Force might not win or lose any recruits off this game, with academy appointments already in the works, but lots of gifted high school sophomores and juniors will be watching and judging the Falcons.

Not a single AFA player has been to a bowl, while Cal has whipped Texas A&M and Brigham Young the past two postseasons. Also, the Bears have big-play talent, led by All-American receiver-returner DeSean Jackson, that could overwhelm the Falcons.

Then again, this Air Force group has many of the same characteristics starting with a veteran senior quarterback in Shaun Carney as AFA teams in the past that chopped down the likes of Texas (1985), Ohio State (1990), Mississippi State (1991), Washington (1998) and Fresno State (2000) in bowls.

Prediction time

So much for the buildup. What should we expect?

Colorado should beat Alabama. The teams are well-matched, but the Tide fell into a deep funk at the end of coach Nick Saban's first year, tumbling from 6-2 to 6-6. Saban, an excellent defensive strategist, will have smart plans for stifling CU. It might be low-scoring, but the prediction here goes with the Buffs, something like 20-17.

Air Force is tougher to figure. This could turn into a Cal blowout, if the Bears show up angry to atone for their swoon from 5-0 to 6-6. But with the Falcons refreshed, and determined to make it a 10-win year, their persistence should outlast Cal's. My pick: AFA, 30-24.

So much for the shoulds. Let's see what reality brings.


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Here's hoping Air Force men's hoops at Wake Forest, noon Sunday, should be on FOX Sports Rocky Mountain, taking FSN South's telecast.

Ralph's picks

All bowls, all the time:

Upset specials
Auburn (taking 2) vs. Clemson
Oregon (taking 6) vs. South Florida
West Virginia (taking 7) vs. Oklahoma
Against the spread
Oregon State (giving 5) vs. Maryland
Wake Forest (giving 2) vs. Connecticut
Texas Tech (giving 6) vs. Virginia
Missouri (giving 3) vs. Arkansas
Florida (giving 11) vs. Michigan

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