After three consecutive losing seasons, the sudden retirement of head coach Fisher DeBerry and pessimistic predictions coming from all directions, it's safe to say Air Force's football program has slipped from its longtime pedestal.
For two full decades, the Falcons dominated their service-academy rivals, regularly earned a presence in the national rankings and wound up playing in a wide variety of bowl games.
But after going 174-95-1 from 1982 through 2003, including 8-6 in bowls, Air Force has slid to 13-21 over the past three years. Nobody on the AFA roster has played in a bowl, enjoyed a winning season or even celebrated a single home victory over Army or Navy.
Everything has changed over the past seven months. Troy Calhoun, a former AFA quarterback (class of 1989) who later was a college and NFL assistant (including three seasons with the Denver Broncos), has brought a fresh outlook, a more balanced offense, new energy and a younger staff to the Falcons.
Preseason practice began Wednesday the academies can start early because their classes begin sooner, Aug. 9 at Air Force. That means the Falcons will have a full month before their opener Sept. 1 at home against South Carolina State.
They have no help from the schedule after that, with their next four games against Utah, TCU, Brigham Young and Navy all of which played in bowls last year (going 3-1) and expect to do so again in 2007.
What's the realistic outlook? Hard to say after all the changes. There are two common assessments, leading to opposite conclusions.
One: The Falcons were much better than their 4-8 record last year, and with some key returnees, led by quarterback Shaun Carney, tailback Chad Hall and linebacker Drew Fowler, they should surprise the many onlookers who rate them seventh or worse in the Mountain West Conference.
Or: Air Force has fallen out of step and behind the times, strategically and physically, in recent years. With so many upperclassmen recruited to different philosophies on offense and defense, Calhoun and his staff (including a handful of former Air Force players) will need some time to redirect the program.
Which one is right? We may not know until the end of this season. Against such a brutal early schedule, the Falcons could be much-improved and still reach October with a 1-4 record. Anything better than that, and they'll have a good shot at finishing .500 or higher.
"We'll have to win with passion, which is the way it's always been around here," Calhoun said. "Our seniors are definitely hungry, and they want to change things. There's a lot that they haven't been able to achieve, like the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. But I don't even bring it up. I don't have to, because they know."
At this stage, the schedule alone suggests 6-6 would be a reasonable goal.
Bits and pieces
If you're planning to watch the summer's NFL preseason opener, New Orleans vs. Pittsburgh in the annual Hall of Fame Game at 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5, make sure you have digital cable or whatever it takes to have the NFL Network, which is televising the game. This is just one more not-so-subtle move by NFL Network to carve out its niche and force cable companies to make it accessible to viewers. (Comcast has it on channel 177, part of the digital package.)
Now that Nobuhiro Tajima and Suzuki have rewritten the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb's overall record with a time of 10 minutes, 1.408 seconds, the question is whether they will try again to break the 10-minute barrier. But at 57, Tajima is almost out of realistic opportunities. ... One has to wish the Unser family might return, perhaps with Al Unser Jr. driving a factory-supported operation. Little Al, before his two Indianapolis 500 wins, drove the mountain as fast as anyone in the early 1980s, and at 45, he admirably has gone public about his difficult battle to overcome alcoholism.
Colorado College opens its Western Collegiate Hockey Association schedule at home Oct. 19-20 against none other than Minnesota, after exhibitions Oct. 6 against the University of Calgary and Oct. 12 against the U.S. under-18 national team. That opening WCHA series will be the Tigers' only regular-season games against the Gophers. ... Still at CC, the football Tigers have much reason for optimism going into 2007, with 20 returning starters and a roster of 66 players for their first season in the Division III Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference. CC opens Sept. 8 at home against Pomona-Pitzer, then plays its first SCAC game the following week at home against Sewanee.
Familiar face: John Wristen, former Pueblo South and University of Southern Colorado quarterback, has returned to his alma mater. He's head football coach at what's now called Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Lots of memories: Bill Flemming, one of the original announcers on ABC's Wide World of Sports, died last week at 80 of prostate cancer.
Airwaves reminder: KKML-AM 1300 is the local affiliate for ESPN Radio, broadcasting some national talk shows and live events.
Coming soon: Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon on Aug. 18-19, with entries long since closed.
Worth watching: Golf fans can see the world's best female players on the game's oldest course, St. Andrews, at the Women's British Open, 11:30 a.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. Sunday, on ABC.
AFA 2007 schedule
Sept. 1 South Carolina State Noon
Sept. 8 at Utah 4 p.m.
Sept. 13 TCU 6 p.m.
Sept. 22 at Brigham Young 1 p.m.
Sept. 29 at Navy 11 a.m.
Oct. 6 UNLV 7 p.m.
Oct. 13 at Colorado State 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 Wyoming noon
Oct. 25 at New Mexico 7 p.m.
Nov. 3 Army 1:30 p.m.
Nov. 10 at Notre Dame 12:30 p.m.
Nov. 17 San Diego State noon