Steve Trachsel And The Air Force Falcons

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

In 1994, a young righty named Steve Trachsel went 9-7 for the Chicago Cubs; over 146 innings, he produced a rock solid 3.21 ERA and a WAR of 3.1. In 1995, his numbers plummeted: 7-13 with a 5.15 ERA and minus-1.2 WAR. He rebounded in 1996 (13-9, 3.03 ERA, 3.3 WAR) and crumbled in 1997 (8-12, 4.51, 0.8). For a decade, he was wonderful in even-numbered years and horrid in odd-numbered years. It was one of the stranger, more random phenomena I can remember.

Yes, this is an Air Force Football profile. I bring this up because … well, look at the Falcons' recent F/+ progression:

Though they don't exactly plummet in even-numbered years, they certainly surge in the odds. We aren't in full Trachsel Territory yet, but another surge in 2011 would advance us pretty far down the road.

By the time Fisher DeBerry's long, incredibly successful tenure as Air Force head coach ended in 2006, the magic had run out. The program that went 22-4 in 1997-98 and finished in the AP Top 15 three times in 25 years (include a ranking of eighth in 1985) had won just 13 games from 2004-06. It did little to dampen DeBerry's overall legacy, but it did leave Air Force in less stable shape when Troy Calhoun took over in 2007. No worries. Calhoun immediately reestablished the Falcons' bowl credentials, and in four years, he has already directed two lovely surges in terms of overall quality of play. The AFA has won 34 games, but they have quickly hit their heads on a nine-win glass ceiling. In a new Mountain West that has added Boise State but lost BYU and Utah, can the Falcons establish themselves a bit higher up in the pecking order?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 46
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Northwestern State
65-21 W 40.0 - 32.4 W
11-Sep BYU 35-14 W 40.8 - 28.7 W
18-Sep at Oklahoma 24-27 L 39.1 - 29.0 W
25-Sep at Wyoming 20-14 W 25.3 - 33.5 L
2-Oct Navy 14-6 W 18.3 - 7.8 W
9-Oct Colorado State 49-27 W 37.5 - 35.8 W
16-Oct at San Diego State 25-27 L 33.4 - 29.7 W
23-Oct at TCU 7-38 L 27.6 - 32.4 L
30-Oct Utah 23-28 L 29.3 - 24.3 W
6-Nov at Army 42-22 W 39.4 - 24.5 W
13-Nov New Mexico 48-23 W 26.0 - 36.1 L
18-Nov at UNLV 35-20 W 30.0 - 31.6 L
27-Dec vs Georgia Tech 14-7 W 12.7 - 22.0 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 30.8 40 21.1 28
Adj. Points Per Game 30.7 36 28.3 63

Air Force was one of those teams that rarely saw its offense and defense play well at the same time. In games in which their offensive Adj. Point totals were 33 points or better, their defense 'allowed' 30.0 Adj. PPG. And when their defense 'allowed' 27 Adj. PPG or lower, the offense posted only 24.9 Adj. PPG. Only against Army did they appear to put everything together. Luckily, their offense typically produced slightly more than their defense allowed. Games against teams like Wyoming and UNLV were closer than they should have been, but they were still wins. Meanwhile, they played well enough against good teams like Oklahoma and Utah to almost pull an upset.

Despite ups and downs on both offense and defense, Air Force went 1-4 versus teams in the F/+ Top 50 (Navy was No. 43) and 8-0 versus everybody else. The flexbone is a nice equalizer, a nice underdog offense, but in the end the Falcons beat teams worse than them and lost to teams better than them.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 45 44 53
RUSHING 45 53 41 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 29 43 26 20
Standard Downs 47 41 51 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 46 43 42 12
Redzone 38 25 52
Q1 Rk 38 1st Down Rk 50
Q2 Rk 76 2nd Down Rk 54
Q3 Rk 32 3rd Down Rk 28
Q4 Rk 26

The Air Force is ... the Air Force offense, full of option, pace and flexbony goodness. They ran over 85 percent of the time on standard downs and well over two-thirds of the time on passing downs, and while they didn't run at an Oregon- or Oklahoma-level pace, they ran a lot of plays considering how much they were running the ball. Their overall variability was quite high, but that's mainly because, for all intents and purposes, they ran almost 100% of the time when they had a lead; just by passing the ball in other circumstances, their variability was skewed quite a bit. That, and they leaned on what they knew when close to either goal line.

Field Position Std. Downs
Run %
Pass. Downs
Run %
Air Force 1-25 92.0% 65.9%
Air Force 26-50 79.9% 57.4%
Opponent 26-49 78.5% 73.2%
Opponent 1-25 93.2% 80.8%

The Falcons never exactly aired it out, but they definitely felt more in the mood to take risks more toward the middle of the field, when they were safer from disaster (either in the form of handing opponents easy points or taking points off the board). You can tell they valued points and opportunities, and when they sniffed out a chance to score, they leaned on what they knew.

With the departure of Navy's Ricky Dobbs, Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson (1,459 passing yards, 9.2 per pass, 52% completion rate, 10 TD, 6 INT; 794 pre-sack rushing yards, +9.4 Adj. POE, 15 TD) now assumes the "Most proven Flexbone quarterback" throne. If it seems like he's been around forever, he kind of has. He won the starting job during his true freshman season in 2008, and despite some issues with academics and injuries, he's been running the show most of the time ever since. The senior from Atlanta has racked up 2,962 career passing yards and 1,435 career rushing yards. Granted, that's one season's output for Cam Newton, but in this offense, that is particularly impressive and effective.

Jefferson is joined by a semi-effective running back and a few key pieces from last year's extremely effective line. Asher Clark (1,031 yards, 5.7 per carry, -7.8 Adj. POE, 5 TD) racked up the rushing yards last year, and he certainly seems like a solid back, but he did a good majority of his damage against bad defenses -- he rushed for 625 yards (6.0 per carry) and four touchdowns against Northwestern State, Wyoming, Navy, Colorado State, Army, New Mexico and UNLV. He still averaged 5.3 per carry against better defense, but the numbers appear to give a good portion of the credit to an offensive line that ranked in the Top 20 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate. Three second-year starters return up front: tackle Jason Kons, guard A.J. Wallerstein and center Michael Hester.

Other tidbits:

  • The Flexbone that Air Force employs tends to remove talent from the equation to a certain extent. Defending the persistent option is all about assignments and preparation, and both good and bad teams can either defeat or be defeated by it. Air Force's Covariance ranking (a way to look at which teams play up or down to their level of competition) was dead in the middle, meaning they didn't tend to do particularly well against good or bad teams -- every game was a bit of an unknown.
  • Balance is everything in this offense. Air Force was at their most effective when they were getting to the edge -- receiver Jonathan Warzeka (406 receiving yards, 22.6 per catch, 69% catch rate, 3 TD; 312 rushing yards, 7.6 per carry, +8.6 Adj. POE, 4 TD) was by far the most explosive player on the field for the Falcons, but he can only be so effective without the offense constantly pounding away at the body of the defense. They weren't just amazing at body blows, but they still had to do it enough to keep attention off of Warzeka, whose per-target rate of 15.6 yards was incredible (and would sink like a stone without the threat of Jefferson and Clark). He returns in 2011, along with another effective receiving weapon in Zack Kauth (274 receiving yards, 17.1 per catch, 67% catch rate, 4 TD).

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 53 62 50
RUSHING 79 80 77 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 41 59 33 106
Standard Downs 65 75 64 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 65 66 64 109
Redzone 72 82 68
Q1 Rk 97 1st Down Rk 66
Q2 Rk 44 2nd Down Rk 39
Q3 Rk 72 3rd Down Rk 98
Q4 Rk 50

Despite some obvious limitations, the Air Force offense was consistently decent in 2010, "allowing" between 24.3 and 33.5 Adj. Points in 10 of 13 games. They played poorly against poor offenses, and they regressed from where they were in 2009, but their 3-4 was still tricky enough without departed defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter (now in his second year at Texas A&M) to remain at least an average unit.

That they remained decent is a huge compliment to the secondary and the pass defense as a whole -- they got absolutely nothing from an out-manned defensive line that ranked worse than 105th in both primary line categories (Adj. Line Yards, Adj. Sack Rate). They were as ineffective as their offensive line was effective. This probably won't change in 2011; returning tackle Ryan Gardner is just 260 pounds, and his backups are 255 and 245 pounds. For all intents and purposes, the Falcons line up three defensive ends on the line, and against a big, effective offensive line, they will be at a severe disadvantage.

The further you get from the line of scrimmage, however, the better the Air Force defense becomes. The secondary was particularly strong in 2010 and returns most of its weapons. Only cornerback Reggie Rembert (41.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 10 PBU) departs from a unit that ranked near the Top 40 in Passing S&P+ despite no semblance of a pass rush. Anthony Wright (40.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 6 PBU) takes over as the No. 1 corner, and presumably Austin Niklas (28.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU) assumes No. 2. Free safety Jon Davis (75.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF, 4 PBU) is quite strong, as are two strong safeties: Brian Lindsay (27.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU in seven games) and Anthony Wooding (20.0 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU as a freshman). You would be smart to just run and run and run on Air Force because passing is a lot more difficult.

Other tidbits:

  • With the new Army staff in place, the service academies seem to have figured out the most effective "underdog strategies" route now; all three run some variation of an option attack and a 3-4. Army's front seven is even smaller than Air Force's, but this approach is clearly rather effective -- all three programs made bowls last season.
  • A 3-4 is only going to be as effective as its linebackers, and Air Force has three interesting ones, if little else. Inside backers Jordan Walwalole (71.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU) and Brady Amack (65.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU) are strong, especially considering the porous line, and Pat Hennessey (46.5 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks) is a strong attacker from the outside, but only four linebackers got any significant playing time last year, so more options will need to emerge with the departure of Andre Morris (42.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU).

Air Force's 2010 Season Set to Music

Even-numbered years and all...

"Ain't Even Done with the Night," by John Mellencamp
"Even Better Than the Real Thing," by U2
"Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," by Gaslight Anthem
"Even Flow," by Pearl Jam
"Even the Losers," by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
"Even When Yer Blue," by Joseph Arthur
"Even You," by Dinosaur Jr.
"I Don't Even Know Myself," by The Who
"Nothing Even Matters," by Lauryn Hill
"You Never Even Called Me By My Name," by David Allan Coe

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Recruiting rankings are a crapshoot once you get to the non-BCS level, but we still learn something, I think, by comparing recruiting to performance. Here are all of your non-BCS teams, ranked by how much their on-field performance has outpaced their recruiting rankings.

Team 4-Yr F/+ 4-Yr
F/+ Rk
5-Yr
Recruiting
Rk
Conference BCS? Difference
Boise State +18.9% 9 81 WAC Non-BCS 72
Navy +1.5% 53 118 Independents Non-BCS 65
TCU +21.1% 5 60 Mountain West Non-BCS 55
Air Force +2.7% 49 102 Mountain West Non-BCS 53
Nevada -0.7% 63 99 WAC Non-BCS 36
Central Michigan -4.1% 71 97 MAC Non-BCS 26
Northern Illinois -6.3% 78 104 MAC Non-BCS 26
Bowling Green -8.6% 86 112 MAC Non-BCS 26
Utah +10.9% 26 52 Mountain West Non-BCS 26
Buffalo -11.5% 96 120 MAC Non-BCS 24
BYU +8.5% 35 59 Mountain West Non-BCS 24
East Carolina +0.8% 55 75 Conference USA Non-BCS 20
Ball State -9.7% 89 107 MAC Non-BCS 18
Troy -0.5% 61 79 Sun Belt Non-BCS 18
Florida Atlantic -11.9% 97 115 Sun Belt Non-BCS 18
UL-Lafayette -14.4% 106 119 Sun Belt Non-BCS 13
Fresno State -3.5% 70 83 WAC Non-BCS 13
Army -14.2% 105 117 Independents Non-BCS 12
Middle Tennessee -9.9% 90 101 Sun Belt Non-BCS 11
Tulsa -0.4% 60 70 Conference USA Non-BCS 10
Temple -7.9% 83 93 MAC Non-BCS 10
Hawaii -4.5% 74 84 WAC Non-BCS 10
UL-Monroe -14.5% 108 116 Sun Belt Non-BCS 8
Western Michigan -8.5% 85 90 MAC Non-BCS 5
Ohio -9.2% 87 92 MAC Non-BCS 5
Houston -0.8% 64 67 Conference USA Non-BCS 3
New Mexico -12.8% 100 103 Mountain West Non-BCS 3
UTEP -11.0% 93 95 Conference USA Non-BCS 2
Arkansas State -10.9% 92 94 Sun Belt Non-BCS 2
Central Florida +0.4% 57 58 Conference USA Non-BCS 1
San Jose State -17.1% 113 113 WAC Non-BCS 0
Utah State -14.4% 107 105 WAC Non-BCS -2
Western Kentucky -19.1% 118 114 Sun Belt Non-BCS -4
Tulane -17.5% 115 110 Conference USA Non-BCS -5
SMU -7.9% 82 76 Conference USA Non-BCS -6
Rice -14.2% 104 98 Conference USA Non-BCS -6
Idaho -18.4% 117 111 WAC Non-BCS -6
Colorado State -11.1% 94 87 Mountain West Non-BCS -7
Wyoming -12.7% 99 91 Mountain West Non-BCS -8
UAB -12.3% 98 89 Conference USA Non-BCS -9
UNLV -14.5% 109 100 Mountain West Non-BCS -9
North Texas -17.6% 116 106 Sun Belt Non-BCS -10
Marshall -8.1% 84 73 Conference USA Non-BCS -11
Eastern Michigan -19.4% 119 108 MAC Non-BCS -11
Louisiana Tech -9.2% 88 77 WAC Non-BCS -11
New Mexico State -23.4% 120 109 WAC Non-BCS -11
Miami-OH -15.5% 110 96 MAC Non-BCS -14
Kent State -13.2% 103 88 MAC Non-BCS -15
Southern Miss -1.1% 67 51 Conference USA Non-BCS -16
Florida International -13.0% 101 85 Sun Belt Non-BCS -16
San Diego State -11.3% 95 74 Mountain West Non-BCS -21
Akron -15.5% 111 86 MAC Non-BCS -25
Memphis -15.9% 112 78 Conference USA Non-BCS -34
Toledo -13.1% 102 68 MAC Non-BCS -34

The top four teams should be no surprise whatsoever.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 49
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 102
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +5 / +7.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (6, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.8

With BYU and Utah leaving the Mountain West and TCU getting ready to do the same, the conference is in the market for a new No. 2 (after clear No. 1 Boise State). Looking at recent performance, the clear, obvious candidate is Air Force, even considering incoming programs like Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii. The Falcons are the only non-Boise team in the Future MWC to rank in the Top 50 in Four-Year F/+. And just think where they might rank if they were allowed to play only in odd-numbered years, eh?

Air Force returns an average number of starters and had average results, both in terms of fumble recoveries and Yards Per Point margin. They should certainly be as good as they were last year, though their odds of making another odd-numbered surge have to be considered pretty low. They are what they are right now: an eight- or nine-win mid-major team who can be pushed around but is a major pain to play ("Major Paine"). The Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 has them projected at 8-4 with a Proj. F/+ of 56th. Really daring pick there, eh?

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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