Items of intrigue we'll watch as Air Force (9-3) plays Louisville (6-6) at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday in the First Responder Bowl from Southern Methodist's Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas.
Louisville’s athletic director resigned in early December, shortly after deciding to retain coach Scott Satterfield after speculation the coach would be fired after three seasons. The team let go two assistants after the season – its strength and conditioning coordinator and outside linebacker coach – and had another (special teams/tight ends) depart for Virginia Tech, this after being beaten badly by rival Kentucky in a regular-season finale that saw the Wildcats run for 362 yards and seven touchdowns. Now, the Cardinals are paired with a Group of Five team in a bowl game. There are multiple reasons to believe they will struggle to be fully dialed in, and it could be difficult facing an Air Force team that will cut block for four quarters and run a complex rushing attack that isn’t kind to defenses that aren’t entirely focused.
The athlete factor
Louisville linebacker C.J. Avery (.9133 rating as a recruit by 247sports), linebacker Yasir Abdullah (.8602), quarterback Malik Cunningham (.8555) and receiver Tyler Harrell (.8569) are among the Cardinals players whose recruiting rankings were well above anyone Air Force has signed in the dozen years 247Sports has archived those rankings. This is just one metric that illustrates the difference in sheer physical gifts for a Power Five program like Louisville and a Group of Five (and service academy) like Air Force. How might that manifest itself Tuesday? Maybe an open-field tackle in space leaves the Falcons behind the chains, or a difficult catch from a receiver earns a first down or Air Force’s defensive line can’t produce the pass rush to keep Cunningham uneasy in the pocket. Or maybe not.
The first and fourth quarters
Louisville’s season was derailed by three losses in four weeks in which Virginia, NC State and Clemson outscored the Cardinals 55-6 in the fourth quarter. Conversely, Air Force outscored opponents 61-42 in the fourth quarter this season. Granted, some of that can be attributed to the high-altitude home at Falcon Stadium, but more can be attributed to a style of play that chews clock and wears out defenses. If the First Responder Bowl goes into the fourth quarter with anything other than a sizeable Louisville lead (as Air Force is ill-equipped to score quickly), Air Force ought to like its chances. But to set up the fourth quarter, a hot start might be key. Air Force has outscored opponents 94-27 in the first quarter. Louisville has also regularly started hot, outscoring opponents 114-77 in the first quarter.