Just when the 2019 sports year for Colorado Springs appeared to be ending on a soft note, the tables turned on the first Sunday of December.
As the college football season climaxed and bowl matchups fell into place, Air Force received an early Christmas present. Instead of a third-tier opponent for a low-profile bowl game, the Falcons rose into the Cheez-It Bowl at Phoenix on Friday, Dec. 27, against Washington State of the Pac-12 Conference.
Air Force built a 10-2 record and a No. 24 national ranking in an entertaining regular season, so it’s appropriate to draw a quality opponent. But this game offers more. Much more.
So here we are, and with 2019 ending, it makes sense to focus on the Springs’ biggest sports story. Our region has had its usual share of sports headlines, among them Colorado College hockey’s uptick, groundbreaking on the new downtown stadium and CC’s campus arena, the Rocky Mountain Vibes trying to fill the baseball void left by the Sky Sox’s departure, Pine Creek and Palmer Ridge winning state football titles, Air Force hockey coach Frank Serratore reaching 400 wins with the Falcons, and more.
Air Force football tops the list after the program’s best regular season in two decades. The only losses came at Boise State and Navy, both still nationally ranked, and the Falcons led both games deep into the second half. They also won four road games, including at Colorado, and they defeated three teams going to bowl games (Wyoming, Hawaii and Utah State) by a combined margin of 107-39.
This was one of the best seasons in AFA head coach Troy Calhoun’s 13-year tenure, which means his staff shares that credit. Having stability and experience among the assistants, with many former Falcons sprinkled throughout the group, might be the program’s best-kept secret sauce.
On the field, this Air Force team has made the most of its ample ingredients. The offense, led by quarterback Donald Hammond and a first-rate line, has been balanced and explosive. The defense, keyed by all-league linebackers Kyle Johnson and Demonte Meeks, was aggressive and swarming, also including standouts such as nose guard Mosese Fifita, cornerback Zane Lewis and safety Jeremy Fejedelem.
Air Force can solidify its ranking against Washington State in a game likely to attract more attention than you might think. First, it’s a prime-time matchup of the nation’s No. 1 passing team (WSU) against the No. 3 rushing team (AFA), easily capable of producing a 48-45 score. It’s also on ESPN, which knows how to promote scrumptious games. Sounds like the network might bill it as Air Raid (the nickname for Washington State’s offense) vs. Air Force.
Most of all, though, the Cheez-It Bowl — Air Force played in it 24 years ago as the Copper Bowl, then in Tucson, losing to Texas Tech — is now played in downtown Phoenix at Chase Field, only a few miles from where Ohio State will face Clemson in the national semifinals just 22 hours later.
With legions of fans flocking to Arizona for that huge Dec. 28 showdown between the Buckeyes and Tigers, also on ESPN, it’s a safe bet that many spectators and the media surely will want to enjoy such a tantalizing night-before bowl appetizer. (If you’re following Air Force to the bowl, you might have to be creative with your travel accommodations.)
On that stage, Air Force has the opportunity to make a resounding statement against a Power Five opponent and finish with 11 wins, which would put this team among the best in Falcon history.
It also might inspire the Academy to promote its program more and re-cultivate the fan base, which has eroded in recent years. Not so long ago, Air Force football owned Colorado Springs, regularly drawing big crowds of 40,000-plus at Falcon Stadium. This year, with a 10-2 team, the Falcons topped 25,000 at home only twice.
But that’s a column for another day.