When Air Force visited the White House in May, President Donald Trump phoned his friend Robert Kraft.
“I’ve got the best football team in the country here,” the President told a confused Kraft, the NFL owner who had just brought his New England Patriots for a visit a few weeks earlier. “I’ve got the Air Force Academy.”
“They just yucked it up and talked about the about Air Force Academy,” recalled Falcons athletic director Jim Knowlton, who was in the Oval Office at the time with coach Troy Calhoun, then-superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson and Trump.
"It was a great experience."
A return trip to Washington D.C. can’t happen this year. When Navy scored in the final minute to top Air Force 48-45 on Oct. 7, it ensured the Falcons could not win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy this season. Teams only visit when they win the three-way round robin outright by going 2-0.
But with Army visiting on Saturday, there remains a chance that Air Force could keep the trophy at the academy for another year.
If Air Force (4-4) beats Army (6-2) at Falcon Stadium, and the Black Knights then beat Navy for a second straight year, the trophy stays with Air Force as the defending champion.
So, the Falcons have to win and then hope for help.
It’s the same scenario in the Mountain West, where two-loss teams have played in the championship game for two straight years and Air Force still has an outside chance to make it three in a row.
The Falcons, at 3-2 in conference play, trail leader Boise State (6-2, 4-0) by 1 ½ games in the Mountain Division. They also lag one game behind Colorado State (6-3, 4-1) and are ½ game back of Wyoming (5-3, 3-1).
Should Air Force win its final three games in the league (home vs. Wyoming on Nov. 11, at Boise State on Nov. 18 and home vs. Utah State on Nov. 25), it could find itself tied for the division title with a little help, or even as its outright champion with a whole lot of help. Boise State still plays Colorado State, so one of those teams, in this scenario that assumes a Falcons’ victory over the Broncos, would have two league losses and Air Force would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Falcons can take care of Wyoming themselves and wouldn’t require outside assistance. The Cowboys also still play Colorado State, so one of those teams will add an additional loss.
There are many ways this would play out to give Air Force the title, and none are particularly far-fetched. The Falcons have defeated Boise State three straight seasons, so a fourth wouldn’t be unthinkable. Wyoming and Utah State visit Falcon Stadium, where Air Force has won 19 of 21.
Boise State figures to be the biggest obstacle in all of this, having turned around a sluggish 2-2 start with four straight convincing victories. But the Broncos close with a difficult four-game stretch that includes a have game against improved (and rested, after a bye) Nevada, then at Colorado State, vs. Air Force and at a Fresno State squad that has been the surprise of the conference.
Bowl eligibility, which would make it 10 in 11 years under Calhoun, is the other carrot still dangling out there. After upsetting the Rams 45-28 as double-digit underdogs on Saturday, Air Force must earn just a split of its final four games to qualify. And even at 5-7, the Falcons would be a good bet for the postseason considering that multiple non-qualifying teams have been needed to fill out the bowl slate every season under the current system. Dibs on replacement slots are based on Academic Progress Rate rankings, and Air Force is tied for first among FBS programs on that list.
To be requiring all this help obviously isn’t the position Air Force would have chosen. The Falcons budget money each year from the Air Force Academy Athletic Corporation for the trip to meet the President, and that's money they like to spend. Knowlton has parlayed that trip into multiple fundraising and exposure opportunities that the program had not capitalized on in the past.
But that the Falcons could lose four straight games early in the season and still at least hypothetically factor into these conversations is something of an accomplishment. And, maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising, considering this team has outscored its eight opponents by 73 points down the stretch after a series of shaky first quarters.
“We’re a second-half team,” outside linebacker Lakota Wills said. “And this is the second half of the season.”