For the first month of the season, the Colorado Buffaloes captivated the collective gaze of the college football world. With a top-20 ranking, two of the sport’s most exciting players, and a swaggering force of nature as the team’s fairy godfather, CU seemed poised to pull off the ultimate Cinderella story: securing one of the sport’s biggest, most prestigious bowl games in Deion Sanders’ first season.

Nearly two months later, that dream of gridiron glory remains alive for a program from Colorado—but it’s not Coach Prime’s team.

Undefeated and ranked number 19 in both of the major national polls, Air Force has emerged as one of the most enthralling underdog stories in college football this season. At 7-0, the Falcons are off to the best start by a service academy since 1997 and have achieved their highest ranking since 2002. They’ve won their past 12 games dating back to last season, giving them the fourth-longest active win streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).

Entering its game Saturday against Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Air Force is the highest-ranked team from outside of college football’s Power Five conferences: the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. If they retain that distinction in the final College Football Playoff rankings in early December, the Falcons will automatically qualify for one of the New Year’s Six bowl games (either the Fiesta, Orange, Peach or Cotton Bowl). For any program outside of the sport’s most moneyed conferences, let alone a service academy, it’s a significant achievement.

Those feats, notable as they are, aren’t an unprecedented development for the program located just north of Colorado Springs. Air Force was nationally relevant for much of former head coach Fisher DeBerry’s 23-year tenure at the school, even ranking eighth in the final Associated Press poll in 1985. Troy Calhoun, DeBerry’s successor who’s in his 17th season as the Falcons’ coach, has continued the momentum, leading Air Force to a bowl game 12 times in the past 16 years.

The team’s achievements this season, however, are occurring as the college sports landscape undergoes a rapid transformation—with some of the most notable changes hampering teams like the Falcons. As a service academy, Air Force doesn’t have the ability to reshape its roster through the transfer portal. Its athletes are not eligible to profit off their name, image, and likeness. And Congress passed a law in December that forbids athletes at service academies from deferring their post-graduation military service requirement to play professional sports, making it difficult for service academies to recruit top-tier talent.

Still, the Falcons are clawing their way up the polls right alongside the heavy hitters. So, what’s their secret sauce?

Any assessment of Air Force’s success this year begins with its defense.

The Falcons are allowing just 13.4 points per game, ranking them fourth among FBS teams behind only Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State. They haven’t just been beating up on hapless offenses, either. Two of their seven wins this season have come against teams—Utah State and San Jose State—that rank among the top 40 scoring teams in the 133-member FBS. Six of the seven opponents Air Force has bested this season scored at least 11 points below their season average when squaring off against the Falcons.

Offensively, they’re pretty good, too.

Calhoun’s more varied and modern take on the triple-option offense has yielded one of the nation’s most productive rushing attacks. Air Force is first among FBS teams in rushing, averaging 306 yards per game on the ground. Only one team, Liberty, is within 70 yards per game of the Falcons. And they don’t just compile yards, but are productive doing so, as they average 5.3 yards per carry as a team. Four of their players—fullback Emmanuel Michel, quarterback Zac Larrier, and running backs John Lee Eldridge III and Owen Burk—have rushed for more than 300 yards this season, making Air Force the only FBS program entering the week that can make that claim.

All of those yards have come despite another apparent obstacle. Over the offseason, the NCAA adopted a new rule preventing players from being blocked below the waist outside of the tackle box, a change that had a disproportionate impact on service academies and teams that run option-based offenses.

Air Force has shown it can fly over such hurdles. Though it removes some of the Cinderella sheen from their story, the Falcons didn’t just become good in 2023. Coming into this season, the team was one of just seven FBS programs to win at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons. During that stretch, they have the fifth-best win percentage in college football, behind only Georgia, Michigan, Alabama, and Ohio State.

If anything, the Falcons’ impressive start this season is a reminder of what the program has been building for years. And although they haven’t been generating the same buzz as the Buffs, this is one princess that looks as if it won’t be turning back into a pumpkin this season.

Craig Meyer
Craig Meyer
Craig Meyer is a Denver-based freelance writer. Before moving to Colorado in June 2022, he spent the previous 10 years as a sports writer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, primarily covering college basketball and football.