Even when the on-field product isn’t great, U.S. Air Force Academy football games are well worth the cost of admission and the drive to the foothill-backed campus north of Colorado Springs: The parachute team delivers the American flag to the 50-yard line from thousands of feet in the air. Blue-capped cadets march onto the turf for the national anthem before taking their places in the stands. At halftime, a trained falcon swoops around the stadium. And flyovers, of course, are standard, with F-16s, vintage aircraft, even stealth bombers zooming over the crowd.

This year, however, the athletic contests are poised to be just as much of a show, with the Falcons picked second in their Mountain West Conference division, matching their highest preseason ranking ever. The team went 21-5 in 2019 and 2021; senior Haaziq Daniels, who set the school record for both longest pass (92 yards) and longest run (94 yards) last season, is playing quarterback for a third year; and more than a dozen starters are returning.

Head coach Troy Calhoun, going into his 16th season at Air Force, is doing his best to downplay the hype. “We’re going to begin all over,” he told the Athletic earlier this summer. “Being at an academy, playing in a major conference, there’s no such thing as sustainability. Really, you go into this year with zero expectations.”

His hesitancy is understandable, given that some of his stars (including Daniels) are coming back from injuries and the unique recruiting challenges Air Force faces as a service academy: Players are largely expected to go into the military after graduation, not the NFL Draft. As federal employees, cadets aren’t allowed to take advantage of the new name, image, and likeness opportunities that exist elsewhere for college athletes. The school is academically rigorous. And the transfer portal changes implemented by the NCAA before the 2021 season—which removed the requirement that a player must sit for a year after transferring—only hurt Air Force, which can lose (and has lost) athletes in the process but is unlikely to gain any.

However, the characteristics that lead Air Force cadets to choose to serve their country tend to elevate their play above what they look like on paper. “I love the vigor of this group,” Calhoun told the Athletic. “They love to practice and lift, the commitment part.” The team, which led the nation in rushing yards last year, will continue to cleverly mix run schemes and deep balls (the Falcons averaged 22.7 yards per completion in 2021) into its triple-option offense—starting with the University of Northern Iowa at home on September 3.

Can’t-Miss Matchup

Air Force cadets cheering on football team
Photo courtesy of Air Force Athletics

Vs. Navy, October 1: Air Force’s home schedule is rich with marquee matchups in 2022: The University of Colorado Boulder is going to Falcon Stadium for the first time in almost 50 years on September 10, and Colorado State University will be in Colorado Springs on November 19. Either in-state rivalry game would be a great time to splurge on a primo tailgating spot ($250 for a single game) in the new Thunder Row RV Lot. But it’s hard to compete with the pageantry and camaraderie of two service academies facing off. Against Navy, the Falcons will pay homage to the U.S. Space Force, into which about 10 percent of the academy’s graduates commission, by debuting this year’s Air Power Legacy Series uniforms.

3 Players to Watch

Brad Roberts, running back: An Arvada native, Roberts averaged 104 yards per game in 2021 on 298 carries, which was the second most in the nation. The senior was one of three Falcons (along with Vince Sanford and Isaac Cochran) to be named first-team preseason All-Mountain West and is on multiple offensive player of the year watch lists. “A lot of times, Air Force is ruled out on some of the things,” Roberts told the Gazette. “I think we have a really tough and gritty team, and it shows that we’re starting to get recognized.”

Vince Sanford, linebacker: Six-foot-one-inch, 225-pound Sanford played basketball in high school in Ohio before transforming into a fearsome pass rusher at Air Force. The senior, who finished the 2021 season with 17 tackles for 118 yards of loss and 9.5 sacks, could see double teams this year now that Jordan Jackson, a 290-pound defender, has made a rare move to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.

Isaac Cochran, offensive lineman: A senior leader of Air Force’s O-line, which calls itself Diesel, Cochran was a huge part—figuratively and literally, at six-foot-five and 320 pounds—of Air Force being the only team in the nation to average over 300 rushing yards per game in 2021. The valedictorian of his high school in North Carolina is majoring in materials chemistry and hopes to go on to pilot training.