Nothing is normal about senior day for Air Force football this year.
First, there are abnormally large stakes. The Falcons could emerge from the 1:30 p.m. game against UNLV as the Mountain Division champions, advancing to the Dec. 4 conference title game that could be held at Falcon Stadium under certain circumstances.
Then, there’s the absence of the on-break cadet wing. This has become the norm, but it’s still strange to see the large section lacking the rowdy fan base.
But most unique is the makeup of this senior class of 29 players who took differing paths to arrive at this moment.
“You’re never going to find a brotherhood like this,” said senior center Ben Mercer.
Six of the seniors took turn-backs last year in the midst of the pandemic. That group, including longtime starters cornerback Tre’ Bugg, defensive tackle Jordan Jackson and linebacker Demonte Meeks, missed the 2020 season, returned for the spring semester and is now set to graduate in three weeks.
“Saying it out loud definitely sounds a little crazy, because when you’re a freshman you can’t see that far,” Bugg said of his rapidly closing time. “But it’s definitely a cool thing to experience.”
Those who stayed with the team last year endured the strangest season in decades, maybe ever, that included a schedule pared down to six games and more than a month spent together at a hotel during the season.
Unlike players elsewhere in college football who were able to utilize the NCAA’s COVID-19 hardship year, the 23 players who stayed as juniors won’t be able to make up that lost time.
“Obviously I didn’t get to play as much football as I would have wanted,” said senior guard Hawk Wimmer, the lone lineman to start every game this season.
But it wasn’t all negative.
“I got opportunities and lessons learned that I’ll never be able to imitate in my life,” tight end Dalton King said. “Last year, being put up at a team hotel, not being able to leave campus, being with your guys for like four or five months straight, those are things you can never take back and just opportunities that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
“The opportunity to play football for another year would be awesome, but I wouldn’t trade what I did for the world.”
There is, potentially, a chance for this group to add one more game to its career – potentially even at home.
The Falcons (8-3, 5-2 Mountain West) enter Friday’s game in a three-way tie with Boise State and Utah State in the Mountain Division. Air Force would win a three-way tie, so if all three win or lose (Boise State plays at No. 21 San Diego State; Utah State faces New Mexico) the Falcons would play in the title game. The Falcons would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Utah State but win in a tie with Boise State, so an Air Force win coupled with a Boise State win or a Utah State loss puts the Falcons in another game.
The team is, of course, aware of the combinations. And that’s where this deep senior class has leveraged its leadership position to keep things in perspective.
“We’ve got a lot of young players on the team, so a lot of time people can get wrapped up in what bowl game we’re going and all the X, Y, Z that needs to happen for us to go to a championship,” Bugg said. “But at the same time we have a lot of senior leaders on the team that know if you get caught up in those types of things you could easily lose the next one that’s in front of you.
So just keeping everyone’s focus on that. There’s a lot of drive with everybody, just being senior night and everything. A lot of drive to help all of us leave with a win.”
The drive is unlikely to come from the home crowd without the 4,000 cadets on hand, but the Falcons have dealt with that successfully in the past. Since adopting a division format with a championship game, the conference has required teams to play the week before the title game in order to prevent anyone from gaining the advantage of extra rest. The Falcons have played at home five times on that week when cadets are gone for Thanksgiving and have won all five. Included in that were epic wins over No. 21 Colorado State in 2014 and No. 19 Boise State in 2016 that came down to the final moments.
UNLV (2-9, 2-5) doesn’t quite fall into that category, but the team has won 2 of its past 3 and has dropped six of its games by one score.
Air Force doesn’t expect a clean, simple finish to the regular-season, and such ease would not be in keeping with the path this senior class has traveled.
“You look at how many games we’ve been in that have come right down the last couple of minutes,” said coach Troy Calhoun, whose team has played into overtime in two of its past three games. “All indications are this very well could be another game like that.”
Air Force seniors
James Jones IV