Troy Calhoun always has been optimistic about the future of Air Force football. He and his staff believe in the cadet-athletes, mainly because most of them followed that same path.
To the coaches and players, it's perfectly logical to envision — and even fully expect — the Falcons to have a chance against any college team in America, because that's been the prevailing mood inside AFA football for virtually its entire history. From facing and often beating the likes of Nebraska and UCLA in the early days; to knocking off Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Brigham Young, Mississippi and more during the 1980s and '90s; to standing tall against such opponents as Tennessee, Fresno State, Notre Dame, TCU and Utah in this decade, Air Force has developed and maintained its fearless personality.
But individual games don't always define successful programs. Seasons do. Especially when a team can continue to stay at a certain level, year after year, with new groups of stars and leaders stepping in when their time comes.
That's why Calhoun's three-year run at Air Force has been so impressive. He has brought back the consistency of making it to bowl games — every year. Even amid the best era yet for the still-young Mountain West Conference, Calhoun's Falcons have pushed themselves toward its top echelon.
Through it all, this AFA staff has appeared to be building something bigger. Calhoun talked about it in an interview two years ago, looking to the day when a string of solid recruiting classes would take the Falcons to becoming a senior-junior team every year, with only a smattering of freshmen and sophomores helping fill the depth chart.
Back then, Calhoun spoke hopefully — but patiently — of that moment perhaps arriving in 2010 and continuing thereafter. Then, Air Force might be in position to take another step up, to where simply going 7-5 or 8-4 and playing in any bowl wouldn't be good enough anymore.
Next season still is nearly 10 months away, but the Falcons (7-4) have reached the point where they might be ready to provide a sneak preview. On Saturday (1:30 p.m., CBS College), they wrap up the 2009 regular season at Provo, Utah, against No. 19 Brigham Young (8-2), followed by a bowl game that could take Air Force anywhere from Albuquerque to Boise or San Diego.
Two more games. Two shots for this team to lay the foundation for whatever is coming in 2010, when the AFA schedule includes a September trip to none other than Oklahoma before the Mountain West wars against TCU, Utah and BYU, plus a visit from Navy in early October.
To be ready for that, Air Force should seize this opportunity. Calhoun has beaten TCU and Utah but hasn't broken through against BYU. It won't be easy, either, mainly because the Cougars' senior quarterback, Max Hall, has owned the Falcons. Air Force has only won twice at Provo, in 2003 (when BYU was on a brief downslide) but otherwise only in 1982, a 39-38 classic that catapulted the Falcons toward four straight wins over Notre Dame and four straight bowl victories.
Hardly anybody outside the Academy thought the Falcons could pull it off in 1982, and the feeling is eerily similar now, with BYU favored by 10 points. Soph quarterback Tim Jefferson is showing more and more flashes of brilliance, Asher Clark and Savier Stephens are looking more confident at halfback, Jared Tew and Nathan Walker are providing a 1-2 punch at fullback, and the Falcons have three big-play receivers in Kevin Fogler, Kyle Halderman and Jonathan Warzeka. Oh, and did we mention that all of those offensive leaders will return next fall?
Thanks to them, and a solid offensive line, Air Force is controlling the football. And its defense hasn't worn down, as with so many AFA teams.
Of course, if the Falcons can't secure a hallmark victory at Provo, most onlookers will simply look at Air Force as still the "best of the rest" in the Mountain West, leading the "second division" behind TCU, Utah and BYU.
Is that the most Air Force should realistically expect? Or is Calhoun's program on the brink of something better?
We'll know more after Saturday.