Air Force, W. Michigan meet in Idaho Potato Bowl
There are a lot of similarities between Air Force and Western Michigan - two teams that have never faced each other before - and it begins with the resolve of their head coaches.
P.J. Fleck and Troy Calhoun are nearly a generation apart in age. Calhoun graduated from Air Force (1989) the year Fleck, Western Michigan's second-year coach, turned 9. But while there's a gap in age, the coaches are responsible for two of the biggest single-season turnarounds in college football this season.
So it's appropriate that the Falcons (9-3) and Broncos (8-4) will close out the year meeting in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Saturday afternoon. After a combined three wins by the schools a season ago, Western Michigan contended for the Mid-American Conference West Division title, while Air Force took down Mountain West contenders Colorado State and Boise State.
''How cool is it that two of the top turnarounds in college football get to play each other?'' Fleck said.
Western Michigan struggled in Fleck's first season, going 1-11. Air Force wasn't much better, going 2-10 in a season full of frustration and rare struggles for Calhoun.
The seven-game turnarounds by each school this season were tied for the best in the country along with TCU. Western Michigan's rebound was the best in MAC history.
''This year we had a bunch of seniors, some of whom had played quite a bit of football,'' Calhoun said about the turnaround. ''Our coaches did a heck of a job with our guys, too.''
Here are things to watch in the 18th edition of the bowl game on the blue turf:
FABULOUS FRESHMAN: Jarvion Franklin set a load of records in his first season for Western Michigan. He set the MAC record for yards rushing by a freshman with 1,525 yards. He set Western Michigan records for single-season touchdowns (25) and total points scored (150).
And Franklin became the first player in MAC history to be named freshman of the year and offensive player of the year.
Franklin's numbers for the season are more impressive considering the Broncos' run game struggled for the final three weeks. Franklin was held under 100 yards in his final three games.
''The question came down to, `Was he tough enough?' And I'm not sure where that question came from,'' Fleck said. ''You never really saw him lower his shoulder. You never really saw it because he just ran away from everybody. We knew he could do it.''
STOUT DEFENSE: Much of Air Force's trouble in 2013 can be attributed to its defense. The Falcons allowed 40 points per game, 250 yards rushing and nearly 500 total yards per game. They ranked 114th in the country or worse in all three categories.
This season, there's been a defensive resurgence. Air Force is giving up 24 points per game, just 140 yards rushing and less than 400 total yards. The Falcons stymied Colorado State in the season finale, but their best defensive performance came against Boise State when the Broncos were held to 97 yards rushing and committed seven turnovers.
EFFICIENT QB: Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell didn't put up the biggest numbers, but when he did throw he was efficient. Terrell threw for 3,146 yards and 23 touchdowns and had a pass efficiency rating of 167.0, the best in the MAC and fifth-best in the country. The quarterbacks Terrell trailed nationally: Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Colorado State's Garrett Grayson, Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and USC's Cody Kessler.
STEELHAMMER: Air Force defensive back Weston Steelhammer might have the best name in all of college football. He's pretty good, too. The sophomore was a first-team all-Mountain West selection and closed the season with an interception in each of his final three games. Steelhammer's other three interceptions this season all came in one game against Boise State, tying a single-game school record.
STICKING AROUND: Fleck, the youngest FBS coach in the country, ended any questions about whether he was going to stay at Western Michigan for only two seasons by signing a six-year contract extension on Thursday. The extension keeps Fleck under contract through the 2020 season.
''I am very excited and very eager to strengthen my commitment to Western Michigan,'' Fleck said.