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Air Force: 9-3 at the least 

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Troy Calhoun, from the Air Force Academy's class of 1989, returned in 2007 to revive the football program and lead the Falcons back to the heights of consistent success they reached in the Fisher DeBerry era.

Today, heading into his fifth season as the AFA head coach, it's safe to say Calhoun has accomplished that mission. Air Force has played in four consecutive bowl games, winning the past two; has achieved a cumulative record of 34-18; and last year recaptured the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

From this view, no college coach anywhere has done a better job during that time frame.

Now, in 2011, Calhoun and the Falcons have a chance for more. Never has the AFA program reached bowls in five straight seasons. Never has one starting quarterback guided the Falcons to three consecutive bowls.

This team, with senior quarterback Tim Jefferson at the helm, can achieve all that. But not just because of Jefferson, tailback Asher Clark, big-play receiver/returner Jonathan Warzeka or any other single player. Air Force never has had the personality of riding one or two stars to prominence.

It's all about depth, balance and leadership at Air Force. Calhoun and his staff slowly have raised the overall levels of ability, size and speed on the team. Every year, including this one, upperclassmen have looked at incoming freshmen in awe, seeing how much more competitive each new group of newcomers has been.

What will be the result of that recruiting and development? We're about to find out.

If there is to be a breakthrough, now is the time. Even in the Mountain West Conference, with the likes of Boise State and Texas Christian University, and facing a nonleague schedule that includes Notre Dame and Navy, the Falcons haven't made anybody's preseason Top 25. Yet they're acknowledged as a legitimate sleeper with a chance to beat anybody they play.

Yes, this could become an extraordinary season. But that means avoiding major injuries, getting some big breaks, and building early momentum.

One game will set the course for the Falcons, toward a possible 11-1 regular season or another still-superb 9-3 record.

They have to beat Texas Christian, the game that could open the door to an extraordinary autumn. After the AFA opener Saturday against South Dakota, TCU comes to Falcon Stadium on Sept. 10 with a 1:30 p.m. kickoff on national TV (Versus). Win that, no matter what the score, and the Falcons can start dreaming about an amazing October against Navy, Notre Dame, San Diego State and Boise State.

Lose to TCU, the team that won the Rose Bowl in January, and Air Force will have to lower its sights. (You can catch TCU facing Baylor, 6 p.m. Friday on ESPN.)

Something tells me that schedule will become the Falcons' biggest enemy. Asking this team to run the table against all those opponents, and to survive that many top-level teams without any costly injuries, is simply not realistic. It's also expecting too much from the AFA defense, which couldn't stop San Diego State's superb freshman runner Ronnie Hillman last year, and will have a tough time slowing down Boise State's superlative quarterback, Kellen Moore.

Assuming the defensive depth is somewhat better, the Falcons could beat Navy and Notre Dame, even playing both on the road. More likely, though, this year will put Air Force in position for years to come, even in 2012 with a new quarterback and a road trip in September to none other than Michigan, at the Big House. Those Falcons will not have to face Boise State in 2012 or 2013, because the Mountain West isn't requiring all of its 10 members (as of next year) to face each other.

If these Falcons were facing next year's schedule, they'd have a shot at 12-0. As it is, even if they manage to knock off TCU, the best anyone should hope for is 10-2 or, my prediction, 9-3.

Of course, that schedule might become an ally — showcasing arguably the most talented Air Force team ever. It's possible that the Falcons, if everything falls right, could go to Boise on Oct. 23 with a Bowl Championship Series berth on the line.

Really. That could happen. But even with this team, it'll have to come as a surprise.

routon@csindy.com

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