Instead of contending for a conference championship, the Falcons are fighting for mere bowl eligibility. Because two of its wins are against FCS opponents, Air Force (6-5, 2-4 Mountain West) must earn a seventh victory Saturday at Colorado State to have a shot at a fifth consecutive bowl bid.
"We came into this season having a lot of high hopes and high expectations," Air Force cornerback Anthony Wright said. "A lot of things didn't go our way. But it's not how you start. It's how you finish."
Air Force still has a chance to deliver the proper finish for a senior class that already has made quite an impact . A victory over Colorado State (3-7, 1-4) would give Air Force its fifth consecutive victory over the Rams and would allow its seniors to end their college careers unbeaten against their in-state rivals.
Air Force also would love to close this season with a third consecutive bowl victory. The Falcons beat Houston in the 2009 Armed Forces Bowl and defeated Georgia Tech in last season's Independence Bowl.
Of course, Air Force had reason to believe it could accomplish even more this season. Air Force had fourth-year starting quarterback Tim Jefferson and 1,000-yard rusher Asher Clark working behind a line that returned three starters. Air Force's running game has been as good as advertised, as the Falcons average 5.7 yards per carry and rank third nationally with 318.2 rushing yards per game. But injuries decimated the defensive line and caused the Falcons to give up at least 34 points to each of the first five FBS opponents they faced. Air Force has given up 219.3 rushing yards per game to rank 110th out of 120 FBS programs in run defense.
Although the Falcons haven't lived up to expectations, they did beat Army and Navy to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the second season in a row. Air Force also has come on strong down the stretch by winning three of its past four games.
What has caused the late-season surge? The Falcons gradually have gotten healthier, and the schedule got easier down the stretch. Air Force closes the regular season against a Colorado State team that has lost its last six games along with its starting quarterback. True freshman Garrett Grayson will make his second start Saturday in place of the injured Pete Thomas.
Not that the Falcons are taking anything for granted.
Colorado State has averaged 215 rushing yards over its past three games, so the Rams could have some success against Air Force's vulnerable run defense. The Falcons must pay particularly close attention to Chris Nwoke, who has rushed for 541 yards over his past four games. Grayson played well in a 34-10 loss at TCU last week, so he likely won't be fazed by the pressure of playing in a rivalry game.
"I thought last week they had exceptional balance," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "At Fort Worth, you just don't see that happen. They threw for 248, and they rushed for 160 last week. … Nwoke's going to be a huge challenge for us."
The challenge for many of these Air Force players is to make sure it's not the final game of their careers. Air Force's depth chart lists eight senior starters on offense and eight senior starters on defense.
These seniors own a 31-19 career record at Air Force and ended each of their first three seasons in bowl games. They don't want it all to end this weekend.
"It'd be difficult," Wright said about the thought of his career ending Saturday. "It'd be tough to handle. I try not to think about the negatives. I'm only thinking about getting a 'W' and getting to a postseason game."
Best matchup: Wyoming QB Brett Smith vs. Boise State's defense. Smith has emerged as the Mountain West's biggest surprise of the season, and the true freshman has been particularly effective of late. He has rushed for 215 yards and four touchdowns during Wyoming's two-game winning streak, and he has thrown eight touchdown passes without an interception over his past five games. Boise State leads the MWC in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, but the Broncos are more vulnerable now that injuries have weakened their secondary. Boise State has allowed an average of 29.5 points over its past four games. Wyoming could make this game interesting if Smith matches the success TCU's Casey Pachall and San Diego State's Ryan Lindley had against Boise State the past two weeks.
Player on the spot: Colorado State QB Garrett Grayson. Plans to redshirt Grayson were scrapped a couple of weeks ago after Pete Thomas sprained his left knee. Grayson, a true freshman, made his first career start last week and did a respectable job in a 34-10 loss at TCU. Grayson rushed for 53 yards and went 14-of-24 for 248 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Grayson could make quite a name for himself around Fort Collins by leading Colorado State to an upset that knocked Air Force out of bowl contention.
Keep an eye on: San Diego State's offensive backfield. San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman and QB Ryan Lindley are dealing with injuries as the Aztecs head into their regular-season finale. A high ankle sprain limited Hillman to three carries last week against Boise State. Lindley's throwing hand hit a helmet late in the Boise State game, though the injury reportedly didn't seem to bother him at Tuesday's practice.
Numbers game: Boise State's biggest concern at the start of the season was how it would replace second-round pick Titus Young and third-round selection Austin Pettis in the receiving corps. Young and Pettis had combined to catch 142 passes for 2,166 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Tyler Shoemaker put those concerns to rest and has emerged as one of the nation's most productive receivers as a senior. Shoemaker's three touchdown catches last week against San Diego State gave him 14, tying the school single-season school record Pettis set in 2009. Shoemaker has scored 8.4 points per game, the highest average among all FBS wide receivers. The only receiver with more touchdown catches this season is Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon with 15. Oklahoma State already has played 11 games, while Boise State has its 11th game this week.
Quotes of the week
"As you look at it now, I think we have the talent on this roster to compete for the conference championship. I think there's enough here now as we developed through this year. It was developing this year. I think it's ready now." - Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild
"We went out and found the best field-goal kicker we could possibly get our hands on, brought him in here and he's not better than the other two guys - right now." - Boise State coach Chris Petersen, explaining to The Idaho Statesman why the Broncos decided to redshirt true freshman Jake Van Ginkel, the team's only scholarship kicker
"You don't really remember he's a freshman sometimes on tape. He's made great decisions. Certainly he's got some wheels to complement the arm. He does a great job. He was a great find for them." - Boise State QB Kellen Moore, discussing Wyoming QB Brett Smith with The Idaho Statesman
"I honestly believe that we have yet to mature on 'big games.' I think we're still treating them like big games. We emotionally go into the game excited. Instead of going into the game to play ball, we go into the game to run around and go crazy. After a while, we settle in and play well. I think maybe we are a little too emotional before the game." - San Diego State coach Rocky Long, to AztecSportsReport.com. San Diego State fell behind 21-0 in a 52-35 loss to Boise State last week. The Aztecs have been outscored 186-129 in the first half of games this season, but are outscoring opponents 162-65 in the second half
"I have a whole different perspective on what college football is, what my role as the head coach is. I am not going to panic. I'm not going to be afraid to lose a game if that might keep us from building a solid foundation. I'm going to take my time. I'm going to do this step by step." - Bob Davie, after being introduced as New Mexico's next coach. Davie, currently an ESPN broadcaster, was discussing how his time away from coaching has changed him. Davie hasn't coached since being fired by Notre Dame at the end of the 2001 season
Poll watch: Boise State is seventh in the BCS standings, up three spots from last week. The Broncos moved ahead of Oklahoma, Oregon and Clemson after all three teams lost last week. TCU moved down one spot - from No. 19 to No. 20 - despite beating Colorado State 34-10 last week.
Etc.: Air Force owns a 12-4 record in November since Troy Calhoun took over as coach in 2007. Three of Air Force's four November losses during that stretch came against ranked teams. … Boise State will stick with K Michael Frisina for Saturday's game with Wyoming. Frisina made a 30-yard field goal last week after taking over from Dan Goodale, who missed a 39-yarder as time expired two weeks ago against TCU. … Boise State QB Kellen Moore was named a finalist for the Maxwell Award given annually to the nation's top overall player, but he wasn't one of the finalists for the Davey O'Brien Award that goes to the best quarterback. The other Maxwell finalists are Stanford QB Andrew Luck and Alabama RB Trent Richardson. Luck, Baylor's Robert Griffin III and Houston's Case Keenum are the O'Brien finalists. ... By handing the offense to Grayson while Thomas recovers from an injury, Colorado State became one of four FBS programs to start a true freshman quarterback each of the past two seasons. The others are Memphis, Rutgers and Tennessee. … UNLV ranks 110th or worse in most offensive categories, but he Rebels at least have established an effective rushing attack. For the first time since 2002, UNLV has rushed for at least 150 yards in five consecutive games. … New Mexico LB Carmen Messina had 11 tackles against Wyoming last week to give him a career total of 433, matching the MWC career record. Adam Seward made 433 career tackles for UNLV from 2001-04. … San Diego State CB Larry Parker picked off his sixth pass of the year last week. He needs one more interception to match the MWC single-season record shared by UNLV's Kevin Thomas (2001), Utah's Eric Weddle (2006) and Air Force's Anthony Wright (2009). … If TCU beats UNLV next week and wins its bowl game, Gary Patterson would tie the school record for career wins by the end of this season. Patterson owns a 107-30 record at TCU. Dutch Meyer went 107-79-13 from 1934-52. … Only three FBS teams have improved upon their 2010 records more than Wyoming, which is 7-3 after going 3-9 last season. The three teams that have upgraded their records even more are Houston (from 5-7 to 11-0), Arkansas State (from 4-8 to 9-2) and Louisiana-Lafayette (from 3-9 to 8-3). … Wyoming QB Brett Smith threw for 212 yards and ran for 140 yards against New Mexico last week to set the Mountain West freshman record for total offense in a season. Smith has 2,744 total yards to break the record formerly held by Andy Dalton, who racked up 2,691 yards in total offense in 2007.