More than a few times the previous Saturday, you had to question whether the Air Force Falcons truly were ready for the 2011 football season.
In their season-opening win against lightly regarded South Dakota, the Falcons made big plays but lacked the kind of dominating consistency that must be the hallmark of a special season. Based on that conclusion, this longtime AFA observer feared the worst for Air Force last Saturday against Texas Christian University.
And the worst was exactly what happened, a 35-19 loss that wasn't anywhere near that close. Instead of standing up to the defending Rose Bowl and Mountain West Conference champions, Air Force never had a chance on offense or defense, and worse, didn't play smart.
What doomed the Falcons? Perhaps overconfidence, maybe a faulty game plan without enough variety, all combined with catching the Horned Frogs at the worst possible moment after their opening loss at Baylor. TCU didn't even have the services of its best running back, Ed Wesley, who shredded the AFA defense last year but was injured late against Baylor. It still didn't matter.
As the long and painful afternoon wore on, it underscored a few other points that I've noticed through the years covering and watching AFA football.
• You simply cannot expect the Falcons to make huge leaps from an already-successful season (like the 9-4 record of 2010), even with plenty of returning veterans. Maintaining that high level of performance, which for them actually equates to overachieving against opponents that often have more raw talent, has to be good enough. Yes, my prediction for this season ranged from 9-3 to 11-1, but that was based in part on the idea that talented younger players could make a difference rapidly, adding depth as well as a few unexpected top-level contributors. So far, that hasn't been the case.
• The same goes for individual players. Air Force isn't like the nation's elite football factories, bringing in players who can focus almost entirely on athletics and show marked progress in development with each passing year. More often than not, the Falcons' best players — even including the likes of quarterback Tim Jefferson and tailback Asher Clark — peak as sophomores and juniors. From there, the best hope usually is that they plateau as seniors, while dealing with an academic load that's more and more demanding.
• When opponents with superior talent realize they have to take Air Force seriously, that's when it becomes tougher and tougher for the Falcons to pull surprises. They might have a chance at Notre Dame, because they haven't played the Irish since head coach Brian Kelly took over there. And they could have a better shot against San Diego State, with its new coaching staff, and even at Boise State, since the two programs will be meeting for the first time. But TCU won't be fooled again after its loss here in 2007, just as Brigham Young always was ready to play Air Force after the Falcons' unforgettable 39-38 upset win at Provo in 1982.
This doesn't mean Air Force will be mediocre in 2011. After being humbled at home by TCU, the Falcons have time to recover psychologically with an open date and then an easy home game against Tennessee State before that October stretch of Navy, Notre Dame, San Diego State and Boise State. Navy will be torqued when Air Force goes to Annapolis on Oct. 1, and that game will be crucial.
Notice that word "psychologically," because it's there intentionally. Losing a big game at home, on national TV, can be damaging to any ambitious team's pysche, and Air Force is no exception. So far, the Falcons haven't played well yet.
One last point worth mentioning: That AFA-TCU game should make another point clear, that the Falcons don't belong in any conversation about possible new members for the Big 12 Conference. Air Force's proper place is the Mountain West, with plenty of challenges and a few huge tests each season. Head coach Troy Calhoun has said as much, that the Falcons do not need to be in a league with every game more like a TCU and no equals like Colorado State, Wyoming and San Diego State.
For now, though, Air Force has to recover quickly. Because it's no sin to get crunched by TCU.