I don't think we can overestimate the Falcons. This is a dangerous game and if the Gophers come off a win over Big East's Syracuse and are looking ahead to Cal in week 3, there is no doubt that Air Force is capable of winning this game.
First of all there needs to be a healthy dose of respect and fear of the Mountain West Conference. The MWC was 6-2 vs. Pac-10 in 2008, 10-6 vs. BCS conference teams in 2008 and 19-16 over last two seasons vs. BCS conference teams (second best record in NCAA football). Just because this isn't a BCS conference teams do not assume that this is a MAC caliber team. Bear in mind that Utah won the MWC last year and was arguably the best team in the country last year. And I have yet to mention that Air Force nearly gave them their only loss ,tied through three quarters before losing by just a touchdown.
Secondly this is a very well coached team. Troy Calhoun, like Tim Brewster, is entering his third season. But unlike our coach, Calhoun has already earned 17 wins at his current institution. His Falcons beat Utah, TCU and Notre Dame in 2007. They also rushed for over 300 yards, scoring 36 points in a loss to Cal. 2008 was supposed to be a rebuilding year but the Falcons finished 8-4 and earned a bowl bid. He has players playing his system and executing it well. Calhoun, like Brewster, will just now be getting the players he recruited into his system so there is reason to believe 2009 will be a successful season. This game is their one chance to beat a BCS level team and put a little bit of teath into their strength of schedule.
What do the Falcons return on offense?
The MWC Freshman of the Year is returning at QB, but Tim Jefferson's status as the 2009 starter seems to be in question. Due to academic questions surrounding Jefferson, Coach Calhoun moved tailback Asher Clark to quarterback during spring practices turning what was supposed to be a solidified position into a question mark heading into the 2009 season. Clark and Jefferson took over in the second half of the 2008 season and looked to really lock down the Falcon's backfield for forseable future. This will be the story to watch out of the Falcon's camp this August.
What is certain is that this team can and will run the ball. They return three starters on the offensive line and the ones asked to fill in for the departed seniors saw plenty of action in 2008. This experienced line will lead the way for a team that ran the ball 84.9% of the time last year. Ironic isn't it that Air Force is known as a grounded team. Air Force ran the ball 777 times last year out of 915 total plays run. Even with our "spread" offense the Gophers ran the ball 51.2% of the time for a much more balanced attack.
Scouting the Falcon's offense is pretty simple and if you have tickets for the stadium opener be prepared for a quicker than usual game. They will run, then run and then run again. Even when the Gophers were a dominant rushing team we did not run the ball at this rate. The 2004 Gophers which featured Barber and Maroni rushed just 68% of the time. Nearly nine out of ten plays for Air Force will be on the ground so the Gopher front 7 (or 8 or 9) will have to be ready for a physical game up front. They better be prepared to be disciplined with their assignments and they better be ready to shed blockers and get to the ball carrier.
What do the Falcons Return on Defense?
Quick answer? Seven starters including a MWC defensive player of the year candidate, Chris Thomas. The senior safety was the Falcon's 2008 MVP and was second team MWC. Assuming CB-Reggie Rembert is back from suspension by Sept. 12, the Falcons will return three in the defensive backfield, three linebackers and just one along the defensive line. Bear in mind they run a 3-4 scheme so they'll be replacing both ends while returning their starting DT.
Defensive end is the area of concern here as two-thirds of the defensive line needs to be replaced. This could bode well for the Gophers because if they are unable to put pressure on Weber he has shown the ability to find receivers and put up good numbers in the air. Reports out of spring practice is that DE's Myles Morales and Wylie Wikstrom (a St. Paul native) had solid springs and this position is not as great a concern as it was priot to practices.
Off the cuff, I would imagine that running the ball may be more challenging for the Gophers in week 2. For one, blocking assignments will be totally different vs. the 3-4 than the traditional 4-3. And secondly this Falcon defense is accustomed to defending the run so I'm going to assume their experienced line backing corp will be able to shed blockers and keep what was a weak ground game contained. These are just assumptions based on minimal research but we did struggle to run the ball in 2008 and this is the type of team that will focus heavily on keeping our run game grounded. Maybe the new physical attack will wear down the Falcons front seven, but history would suggest this is not the game we get the ground game going.
What is going to happen?
Another rock solid prediction that you can take to the bank (until I change my mind over the next 3-4 months). I think we have a big day through the air with our line showing great pass protection, our receivers finding the open areas and Weber connecting for a high percentage. We try to run the ball and with the use of Gray and/or Stoudermire we break a few big plays on non-traditional rush attempts. Air Force shows our defense what a physical rushing attack looks like and stays in this one till the end.
This game does scare me and as I mentioned at the top we should not take this game for granted. Air Force has this one circled on their calendar. The Gophers do as well but I fear it is circled for the event, not the opponent. This game sandwhiched between Syracuse and Cal but it critical to reaching a bowl game considering our brutal Big Ten schedule. If we don't come prepared to win this will be a disappointing result.
Now that I've adequatly covered my bases, I'm predicing a win. Air Force is better than Syracuse but the Gophers win the TCF Opener.
Air Force - 24
Minnesota - 27