Rugged road for Falcons 

End Zone

Check out Air Force's recently released football schedule for the 2011 season, and two points stick out immediately. They'd be enough to strike fear in practically every college team across America.

First, how often do you open your league season at home against the team that just won the Rose Bowl?

That would be Texas Christian University, coming to Falcon Stadium on Sept. 10 for an early marquee battle in the Mountain West Conference. In fact, it's a surprise that TCU, having to replace four-year quarterback Andy Dalton (who had 42 career victories for the Horned Frogs) and some key defensive players, would agree to such a dangerous road game so early in the year.

Especially at Air Force, where the dry September heat can wear down unsuspecting opponents. And especially against this upcoming group of Falcons, hoping to make the leap from 9-4 and a second straight bowl win in 2010 to even bigger accomplishments and perhaps a new level of national prominence.

But as imposing as that game is, Air Force faces an even more treacherous stretch next October — arguably as tough a four-game ordeal as any AFA team has ever encountered:

Oct. 1, Navy at Annapolis, Md., with the Middies wanting to win back the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy;

Oct. 8, Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind., with the fast-rising Fighting Irish expecting big things in coach Brian Kelly's second year;

Oct. 15, San Diego State at Falcon Stadium, as the Aztecs bring another explosive offense here after beating the Falcons and then whipping Navy in a bowl game last season;

Oct. 22, Boise State at Boise, Idaho, with the still-loaded Broncos smelling more national attention in their first Mountain West season, on top of their two earlier Bowl Championship Series victories.

All four of those teams played in bowls last year, with a 3-1 record, and all will be just as good in 2011, capable of making the national polls. And the Falcons have to visit three of them.

It helps that Air Force can pace itself before October, with two fairly easy home games — South Dakota on Sept. 3 and Tennessee State on Sept. 24 — along with a Sept. 17 open date after that TCU showdown. But it was October when the Falcons slumped in 2010, falling to San Diego State, TCU and Utah, deflating their hopes for a much better record.

Now, of course, the Falcons have even higher expectations, with senior quarterback Tim Jefferson, tailback Asher Clark and receivers Jonathan Warzeka, Mikel Hunter and Zack Kauth helped by an offensive line with seven of its top 10 players returning. And the defense, strongest at linebacker and up front, has plenty of candidates to fill its few holes (though one graduate was All-American cornerback Reggie Rembert).

Boise State and TCU will be considered the Mountain West favorites, but Air Force has to rate a close and threatening third. In fact, if the Falcons somehow could shock the Horned Frogs on Sept. 10, that Oct. 22 game at Boise could be for the MWC title.

There's one other wrinkle: Instead of finishing their regular season early, as the Falcons did last year in mid-November, this time they face a full final month: at New Mexico on Oct. 29, followed by home games against Army, Wyoming and Nevada-Las Vegas before a Nov. 26 trip to Colorado State. That gives AFA fans a chance to make the short drive to Fort Collins for the season finale, which could have huge bowl implications.

What does this all mean? Simple. Air Force, if the right players stay healthy, has an excellent chance in 2011 to be every bit as revered as the Academy's 12-1 teams of 1985 and 1998 — with the schedule not just foreboding, but potentially rewarding.

In fact, those two memorable 12-1 seasons came 13 years apart. And this fall will be 13 years after '98.

Let the anticipation begin.


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