One of the more interesting games on the schedule for Michigan this year is Air Force. Not just because it will be Michigan's season opener, but also because it's the first time Michigan has played a service academy in years and Air Force brings in a team with varying expectations. Coach Troy Calhoun has built a respectable program at Air Force, but with key offseason losses, there are some serious questions about whether he can field a team good enough to continue its recent program success.
For Air Force, things always start with their blistering run offense. The team amassed over 4000 yards on the ground last season and had three rushers that had at least 500 yards, including leading rush Asher Clark with 1110 yards. Despite this, there are still some concerns for Air Force's offensive potential. The Falcons will be returning Mike DeWitt (2nd leading rusher), Wes Cobb (4th leading rusher), and Conner Dietz (5th leading rusher), but are losing two of their top three rushers in Asher Clark and Tim Jefferson, Jr.
Their running game should still be very capable because of the return of players like Cobb (moving to tailback) and Dietz. Along with this, DeWitt should be a stable fullback in Air Force's option offense, which needs a solid fullback to move the ball effectively. The only real questions will be whether Cobb and Dietz can replicate the production of Clark, especially given the offensive line situation. The Falcons do have some experience on the line with two starters returning on the left side and three upperclassmen lined up for the right side, but with the way Air Force relies on their offensive line, any new starters will have at least some questions.
Along with this, their rushing game will have to carry the flag for Air Force this year if they plan on doing anything significant down the stretch. Not only did they lose 3 linemen and their leading rusher, but they also lost their quarterback and top receivers over the offseason. In fact, in just early August, coach Calhoun informed the media that he had released 5 players from the team, including two receivers and one tight end. With the loss of those players, Air Force will return just 1 of its top 7 receivers from 2011, something that is absolutely astounding. I mean, the leading receiver from last year had just 101 yards and only 4 receptions. In fact, no receiver will return with at least 10 receptions in 2011.
Add in the fact that Air Force will have no tight end that caught a pass last season and it's pretty easy to see why the running game will have to carry the flag. Perhaps junior Ty MacArthur can make some noise and senior quarterback Conner Dietz does have some decent game experience, but breaking in a brand new quarterback and losing every significant receiver and tight end from last year doesn't bode any confidence. We know Air Force has relied on the run to move the chains for quite some time, but without some kind of passing threat, I just can't see Air Force replicating their recent production. They only averaged 140 yards through the air last year, but can they even reach that this year? I'm not so sure, especially if their rushing game doesn't stay nearly as good.
As we turn to the defense, one would hope things would improve at least a little bit for Air Force. Things certainly aren't as rough, especially as far as returners go, but things will need to improve if the team wants a chance to do some big things this year. The Falcons, ironically, were pretty weak in terms of rushing defense and need to improve on this for 2012. Unfortunately, they will have to do some big things during the offseason with the line to improve this problem.
The Falcons will be returning defensive end Nick Fitzgerald and end Joe Champaign, but there is a lot of uncertainty in terms of the rest of the line. Seniors Cody Miller and Nick DeJulio look like the most likely to play on the inside (Air Force runs a 3-4 defense), but neither are exactly solidified. Miller only played in 6 games last year and DeJulio played in 12, but only started in 5 of them. For most teams, this would be some decent depth, but for a team that got very little pressure and was horrible against the run, these players are going to have to show some big improvement if they want to do anything to help the question marks already on offense.
The linebacker position should be one of the stronger ones for Air Force in 2012. Senior Alex Means returns from his 77 tackle season a year ago, senior Brian Lindsay returns from his 42 tackle season, and senior James Chambers returns. Losing Jamil Cooks, who made 50 tackles with six starts last season, will hurt this unit, but having that many upperclassmen with experience should help. It will undoubtedly take a few weeks for them to click, since they didn't play together much last year, but it should only be a matter of time before this is the best unit on the defensive side. Unfortunately for the Falcons, being the best unit of their defense may not exactly be a major compliment in 2012.
The secondary, much like the defensive line, is suffering a massive flux from 2011. Not only did 3 of the 4 starters leave during the offseason, but Anthony Woodling, Jr. was also released in the beginning of August by the Falcons. He was strongly expected to start and his loss will surely be felt. Steffon Batts and Chris Miller will be the most likely players at the corner positions, but the safety position will be in complete flux until kickoff. Freshman Bobby Watkins III might be able to help make up for some of these losses, but he's still pretty small and inexperienced, despite having a solid spring practice. This should be the weakest area of the defense and expect opposing teams to target it consistently.
For the sake of Air Force and its fans, I would like to say they have some recruits that can fill their voids, but the problem in general with service academy recruiting is that its pretty limited and its almost always upperclassmen that make the contributions. A couple of recruits to keep an eye on are 3* cornerback Cody Ray, defensive end Will Hopkins, and safety Jalen Boyd, but I doubt many of these guys will get time, especially because Ray and Hopkins are pretty undersized. Boyd has a chance for some playing time with the departure of Woodling, but it's always a question mark with freshman. Tight end recruit Sam Pearce could also be a factor in a position of need, but at 230 lbs, I can't see him getting much time in Air Force's run heavy offense. Overall, there are good recruits in positions of need, but because many of them are undersized, it's doubtful they're going to get significant time.
Things are pretty up in the air for Air Force for 2012 at this point (pun intended). Yes, they have experienced and proven players scattered across the roster, but there are just way too many question marks to predict much from this team. The rushing threat will still be there, but unless they can get some passing going, teams are going to be able to cue in on the run and really shrink their production. This happened when Michigan faced Nebraska last year and we all saw the 45-17 result of that game. Like I said, they didn't pass a ton last year, but there was at least a threat, with two receivers with 31 receptions each last year.
Add on a defense that will surely struggle in 2012 and you have the makings for a team that could very likely miss a bowl game. Calhoun has done a great job building Air Force into a respectable team and program, but the combination of a weaker 2011 team and massive offseason losses are not a good recipe for success in 2012. I have listed this as a potential trap game in my earlier post here, but this should be a game that should definitely go Michigan's way, as long as they're focused. Unless Air Force becomes an absolute offensive juggernaut, expect mixed to weak results next season.
Air Force Predictions:
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: Low
Upset Status: Medium to High
Bowl Status: Weak Bowl