As July winds down, that can mean only one thing around Colorado Springs: It's almost time for the Air Force Falcons to begin their preseason football practices.
And yes, it's true that AFA fans are looking forward to the 2011 season with almost unlimited expectations, as discussed in this space back in March. That's because this team, led by senior quarterback Tim Jefferson and tailback Asher Clark along with a talented defense, should have a chance to win every game on its schedule.
Before the optimism gets too far out of control, though: That doesn't mean Air Force will be going 12-0. In fact, it makes sense now to temper that springtime optimism a bit. And there's one very good reason.
This very well might be one of the most gifted AFA squads ever, top to bottom. But the Falcons also are facing arguably the toughest schedule any Air Force team has ever encountered in the program's history, back to the late 1950s.
Yes, the toughest.
Sure, Air Force battled through some grueling autumns in the past, especially during the 1960s as an ambitious independent. In 1964, for example, the Falcons played road games at Washington, Michigan, Boston College, UCLA and Colorado, plus home dates against the likes of Notre Dame, Missouri and Arizona. But that AFA group also went 4-5-1 and only scored 14 or more points in three games.
Obviously, that kind of record would not be acceptable in 2011.
As several of us media-types were discussing recently, there's really only one way to describe Air Force's 2011 challenge: In all likelihood, the Falcons' hopes for another special season will depend on their nationally televised home game Sept. 10 against Texas Christian University.
Think about that, and let it sink in — the Falcons' chances for greatness probably will rise or fall on whether they can beat the team that just won the Rose Bowl.
Granted, the schedulers did Air Force a favor, bringing the Horned Frogs to Colorado's rarefied air so early in the season. Versus helped out, too, by moving the kickoff up four hours to 1:30 p.m. for its national telecast: If it's a hot day and a four-quarter game, the Falcons will surely have the edge in conditioning. Plus, TCU will be breaking in a new quarterback and key people on defense.
But that early test against TCU still pales in comparison with what Air Force must face in October. That month brings what has to be the toughest stretch of back-to-back-to-back-to-back opponents ever for an AFA team. First comes Oct. 1 at Navy, which has an off week beforehand. Then, on Oct. 8, a trip to Notre Dame, a darkhorse candidate for a Bowl Championship Series berth.
The next Saturday, Oct. 15, Air Force returns home to meet San Diego State, which ran all over the Falcons last year before settling for a 27-25 victory. This fall the Aztecs come here led again by runner Ronnie Hillman, a legitimate All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate.
After all that, the Falcons' third road game in four Saturdays will be at Boise State, a game that could decide the Mountain West Conference title. Boise, you'll recall, was headed for the BCS last year until an upset loss at Nevada, but the Broncos rebounded to obliterate Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl and finish 12-1. They also enter the MWC with senior quarterback Kellen Moore on the Heisman short list.
So that's five opponents, all of whom played in bowls last year (the only loss was Navy to San Diego State), with two Heisman hopefuls and a handful of likely All-Americans. Those five finished a combined 51-14 last year.
What's realistic to expect? If the Falcons can escape those games with just two losses, that would mean a chance for a 10-2 regular season. Most likely, if they can't knock off TCU, they'll be looking at something less.
It'll be fascinating to see how Air Force can stand up to that schedule. We're not ready for final predictions, but barring major injuries, these Falcons might shock the college world a few times.
What will that mean at the end? Perhaps an extraordinary year, but also possibly a disappointment.
No big deal. Just beat the defending Rose Bowl champions, then see what happens.