AFA football's crossroads 

End Zone

Saturday afternoon, on the green carpet of Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins, arguably the worst season in Air Force football history will come to a merciful finish. If you aren't making the trip, you'll need access to ESPN 3 to see it.

Barring a turnabout of shocking proportions, Colorado State will provide the final, knockout punch, sending the Falcons to a humiliating 2-10 finish — the most losses for any AFA team ever.

CSU has the mixture of a physical ground game and offensive balance that Air Force simply hasn't been able to stop this fall, especially in losing all seven of its league games while allowing an average of 44 points in each.

Watching the AFA program's implosion this season has been both painful and exasperating. Usually through the years, when the Falcons would struggle, you could see abundant reason for hope in the future. Not this time. Also in the past, there was always that Air Force spunk, at times even a swagger, evidence of a fearless personality and spirit widely respected by even the Falcons' national-caliber opponents. Not this time.

The team's steady deterioration has become so entrenched that we don't have to wait for the post mortem. We can do that now, especially after head coach Troy Calhoun clearly lost his hope with the 41-21 home defeat to Nevada-Las Vegas last Thursday night. It was the seniors' final home game, always an inspiring occasion, yet the aimless Falcons fell behind 27-0 before showing signs of a pulse. Calhoun ripped the team afterward, something he'd never done.

(Let's pause here for one side point: Henceforth, Air Force should steadfastly refuse to move any home game beyond September to a nighttime kickoff. The crowd at Falcon Stadium for AFA-UNLV had to be the worst actual turnout for an Air Force home game, ever. ESPNU's cameras did a masterful job of hiding that fact, focusing on cadets and sideline shots, but the loss of game-day revenue hurts far worse than the national TV exposure and revenue.)

The questions that arise from this Air Force season are deep and dark, even if they don't include Calhoun's job security. He has achieved far too much, going to six straight bowls, for anyone to knee-jerk after one disastrous autumn.

They go deeper than simply whether quarterback Nate Romine can lead the Falcons to new successes in the next three years, or whether such young returnees as halfback Jon Lee, defensive linemen Alex Hansen and David Harris, linebacker Reggie Barnes and strong safety Dexter Walker can reverse the decline.

When you see how noticeably undersized Air Force's offensive and defensive lines are now, especially against every Mountain West Conference rival, you begin to wonder. Everyone else's players are bigger and faster than ever, and the physical limits of AFA cadets prevent the Falcons from keeping up.

Does this mean it's time for Air Force to seriously consider going independent and picking its spots in the future, returning to the philosophy that worked for much of longtime former coach Ben Martin's tenure (1958-77)? With games being televised on so many networks, exposure should not be an issue. Giving the Falcons their best chance at success should be.

Since 1980, Air Force has played in leagues. There was enough disparity in the Western Athletic Conference for the Falcons to compete well through 1998. But the Mountain West (1999-present) has been a different story; it now counts 12 teams with no patsies.

With a major stadium renovation being pursued, the academy can't just hope for the best. Starting now, Air Force should commission an honest, unbiased study of its football program and its options, looking into the question of whether staying in the Mountain West is worth it — or not.

The answer, I expect, might be for Air Force to go independent. And there would be no dishonor in that.



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