It’s not the millions of dollars that separate athletic budgets in the Power Five and Group of Five that has Air Force players so motivated for the First Responders Bowl.
It’s a much lower number – 2.
That’s the total number of games against Power Five teams the Falcons have played since the majority of this roster has been at the academy.
No. 3 will come against Louisville in Dallas on Tuesday.
Air Force beat Colorado 30-23 in overtime in Boulder in Sept. 2019, then topped Washington State 31-21 in the Cheez-It Bowl a few months later.
Except for a few fifth-year seniors (and one sixth year) who were part of a team trip to No. 7 Michigan in 2017, those have been the only chances at a Power Five team. And even then, only a handful of current players saw action in those 2019 games.
“It’s always exciting to go against a Power Five team,” senior cornerback Tre’ Bugg said. “In the Mountain West, we’re a really underrated conference. We have a lot of good teams, a lot of talented players. Any time you get to play one of those Power Five schools you want to show out and show what the Mountain West can do.”
The difference between programs like Louisville – from the Power Five Atlantic Coast Conference – and Air Force – from the Group of Five Mountain West – is substantial from a financial perspective. According to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Louisville’s athletic expenses in 2020 were more than $138 million. Air Force’s that year were $61 million.
Those disparities are rapidly growing, too. In 2015, the same database reported Louisville spent about $58 million more on athletics than Air Force, a number that ballooned to $77 million five years later.
And opportunities for players at programs outside the Group of Five to show that they can overcome those financial differences on the field are scarce. This year only Air Force and Utah State (vs. Oregon State) drew bowl games against Power Five programs. Nationally, Cincinnati has become the story of college football this year by earning a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff – a first for Group of Five programs – but just seven other Group of Five teams earned a shot to play teams from a Power Five conference (a group that includes the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC).
Utah State won its game, by the way. So did Army on Wednesday night in a thriller against Missouri. Air Force knows how fortunate it is to be among those to have that opportunity.
“Whenever we have a chance to play those teams like going up and playing in Boulder or playing Washington State and teams like that there’s always a little more focus into it because we want to win those games,” defensive lineman Jordan Jackson said.
Air Force is 12-10 all-time against teams from the ACC.
The Falcons will get another shot at a Power Five team next year when Colorado visits Falcon Stadium in September. There are also games in 2024 (away) and 2027 (home) scheduled against Baylor.
“I don’t think it really shifts anything for us, I think either way we’re going to take the same approach with our preparation,” said senior receiver Brandon Lewis, who will suit up for the first time against a Power Five opponent in his final collegiate game. “Any team you play is going to have athletes. This team just might have a few more athletes than what we’ve seen in some other teams, but I’m really looking forward to it.”