Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the rankings.
Trouble Spot No. 5 – Air Force2010 saw nine wins for the Air Force Academy for the second time in four seasons and the first since 2007 when the Falcons whipped a poor Irish team in South Bend, 41-24.
Air Force played 18 true freshmen last year – the highest number in the nation. They return the bulk of the nation's second-ranked pass defense, the triggerman of its second-ranked rush offense, and as a group, gained confidence and big game game experience in match-ups vs. a handful of top foes, losing 27-24 vs. Oklahoma, 28-23 to Utah, and 27-25 to ranked San Diego State. Air Force beat Navy – holding the Midshipmen to a single touchdown – BYU, and Georgia Tech (Independence Bowl) during its 9-4 campaign.
Head coach Troy Calhoun is 2-2 vs. recent national power TCU in his four career meetings as the Falcons head man.
I consider this matchup the Trap Game of the Season for Notre Dame, as explained below.
Situation (date, time, location): Saturday, October 8, (Game Six/Week Six) with kick-off set for 3:30 ET in South Bend.
Air Force/Irish Game Slot: The Falcons travel first to Navy for an October 1 battle before their second road game of the season at Notre Dame. Air Force must turn around and play San Diego State five days after their matchup with the Irish.
Notre Dame returns home from a two-game road trip (Pittsburgh and Purdue) to entertain the Falcons. The Irish enjoy the season's Bye Week following their matchup with the Academy.
National View of Air ForceAthlon's forecasts a third-place finish for the Falcons in the Mountain West (behind recent college powers Boise State and TCU), but with a #29 national ranking. Lindy's ranks them similarly: third in the MWC and #35 nationally, while Phil Steele predicts the Falcons could win as many as 10 games, finish third in the MWC, and ranks Air Force as the nation's 30th-best entering the season.
Stat of the day: Air Force is one of just 12 conference schools that has won at least eight games and played in a bowl game in four straight years (Air Force, Boise State, LSU, Missouri, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, TCU, Utah, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and UConn).
My View of the Falcons: Easily the most overlooked Trouble Spot on the schedule, but hey, that's why I'm here…to give you something else to worry about in the off-season.
Coaching ElementA finalist for the 2010 national coach of the year, Troy Calhoun enters his fifth season at the Air Force Academy following his second nine-win season, back-to-back bowl victories, and 34-18 overall mark. He served as the Houston Texans offensive coordinator in 2006 and as an assistant for the Denver Broncos from 2003-05. He's the first AFA graduate to be named its head coach.
Calhoun is the first coach in school history to win eight or more games and to take his team to a post-season bowl in each of his first four years. He's 13-7 in non-conference games and the Falcons won the Commander-in-Chief 's Trophy for the first time since 2002, beating solid Army and Navy teams last fall. Calhoun's 2010 Falcons were ranked among the top 25 for the first time in seven seasons.
Co-Coordinators Clay Hendrix and Blane Morgan (an Air Force quarterback in the late 90s) run the show offensively, with Hendrix on the field and Morgan in the press box,. Matt Wallerstedt coordinates the defense with help from secondary coach Charlton Warren.
The staff has guided Air Force to more total yards than its opponent in 17 of the last 20 games.
Trap Game PotentialOff the charts, and the highest in several seasons, with my previously predicted home traps giving the program ample cause for pause: 2010 Tulsa (28-27 loss) and 2009 Boston College (20-16 win).
In college football, a contest's date/schedule slot (in this case for Notre Dame, two road contests and a bye week) both preceding and following landmark, rivalry, or emotionally-fueled contests, often dictate a team's week of practice and game preparation/mindset.
Consider Notre Dame and it five-week challenge leading up to Air Force: At what point can the Irish defense begin planning for the Falcons varied option attack? Certainly not during a two-week road stint that precedes the contest. And how many Irish players (or fans) will give Air Force a second thought when the 2010 season starts, with Notre Dame taking on three Big 10 rivals, five BCS conference foes, and playing at least two (if not three) prime time games leading up to this innocuous Week Six matchup with a Service Academy?
A natural look-ahead toward the season's bye week is likely for the players, if not the staff – so too are wandering thoughts of the season's highest profile game that follows: the first prime time kickoff in South Bend in two decades, vs. arch-rival USC.
In other words, Week Six: Air Force at Notre Dame suggests more family than frenzy; more appetizer than main course. It is, in betting parlance, the ultimate "sandwich game," and the Irish better be ready to self-motivate, because the South Bend crowd will need a reason to cheer entering this obvious trap.
Unique Aspects of the Falcons' Defense/OffenseThe defense returns eight starters from a unit that held Navy and Georgia Tech to a combined two touchdowns last season, yet somehow also ranked second nationally in pass defense – playing in a conference, the Mountain West, that features high-powered passing attacks.
Each of the defense's three units (DL, LB, DB) lost but one player, while an experienced secondary ranks as a team strength.
A quick and undersized defensive front seven matches up well vs. the read-option, though a determined Irish power game could give the Falcons issues for 60 minutes, should Notre Dame commit to the tactic in early 2011 as it did late last fall.
Senior Quarterback Tim Jefferson keys an option attack that produced 306.5 rushing yards per game last season – good for second in the nation. Jefferson is 21-10 as a starter, and produced his best rushing effort vs. national power Oklahoma, rambling for 96 yards and a touchdown in a 27-24 road loss, and accounted for 25 touchdowns (15 rushing) last season.
Jefferson helped the methodical Falcons convert an impressive 18 of 30 4th down opportunities into first downs (and a 94 of 186 effort on 3rd down conversions). He's among the top two dual-threat quarterbacks the Irish will face next fall (or top 3 if you include Stanford's Andrew Luck in that category).
Aiding Jefferson in the backfield is tailback Asher Clark, who enters the season sixth on the program's career rushing list (2,484) and has produced seven career 100-yard games.
Advantage Irish? Though the programs' in-line blocking schemes reportedly differ greatly, Air Force represents the third true option team the Irish will have faced in less than a calendar year (ND has prepared for both Navy and Army since late October 2010). Additionally, Air Force enters South Bend following what should be a tight, taxing battle at Service Academy rival Navy.
Relevant StorylinesNot many, another reason why it ranks as my top Trap Game of the 2011 season. Most Irish fans barely remember the Falcons controlled the Irish in 2007, simply because every opponent had its way with Charlie Weis' third-season squad. No current Notre Dame player took part in the contest, with only a handful on campus.
Puncher's Chance for an upset? The Irish will likely be favored by more than a touchdown in five contests next season (South Florida, Air Force, Navy, Wake Forest, Boston College): of those five contests, this is my first, admittedly surprising choice, to involve a one-score spread midway through the final quarter.
The Falcons solid pass defense and ball control offense exacerbates the issue should the Irish find themselves behind during the second stanza.