How is it that the Air Force Academy is undefeated with this coach named like a cartoon character, Fisher DeBerry, who talks as though he has a mouthful of tobacco and fiddle music? And what is this antiquated wishbone routine, when there should be more footballs in the air than F-15s?

Once you get past DeBerry's dadgummits and hot diggitys, which he learned growing up in Cheraw, S.C., he is really a very sophisticated, high-tech guy. He is so football smart that former coach Ken Hatfield pulled him out of Appalachian State four years ago and brought him up to Colorado Springs to put in the wishbone. It was DeBerry's job -- initially as an advisor, then as offensive coordinator -- to teach the offense to the Falcons, who at first couldn't stop giggling when he told them they weren't going to "tho" the ball anymore.

"Yeah, they thought I talked funny," he said wearily.

Air Force's athletic director, Col. John Clune, learned about DeBerry the day he poked his head into Hatfield's office four years ago and saw the coaching staff intently watching film. Hatfield introduced DeBerry, who mumbled something about going with a dadgum 'bone, and Clune walked back to his office in a funk.

"Ken said he had brought this guy in from Appalachian State. I said 'Where's that?' Then he said he was going to put in a wishbone. I said 'What?' Then I walked back to my office and started writing a resume. I was looking for a job."

What DeBerry did was buy himself a horse and a hat and some boots so everybody would think he was a real leather-slappin' Colorado cowboy -- "that's the first thing you need to be a native," he said -- then he settled down to teach the fly boys about the triple option and how to play hide the football. Two seasons, one Hall of Fame Bowl and one Independence Bowl victory later, Hatfield went to Arkansas and Clune took a chance and gave DeBerry the head job.

"I guess there was nobody else to give the job to," DeBerry said. "But it's not like the wishbone was my idea. Everything we have we stole from someone else."

Wherever it came from, the wishbone took DeBerry and the Falcons to the Independence Bowl again last season, his first as head coach, and they defeated Virginia Tech. Now here the Falcons are again, aiming for a fourth straight postseason appearance. Only this time they don't want a Hall of Fame or an Independence; they've already got three of those trophies. They're talking a major bowl on New Year's Day, and the Falcons are halfway there with a 5-0 record, a ranking that says they're 12th in the nation and an offense that just might steal the Western Athletic Conference title from Brigham Young.

Air Force meets Navy Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (2 p.m.). The Falcons have won eight straight games, dating to last season, which gives them the longest winning streak in the nation. They made it past one considerable obstacle last week in a wild, 21-15 victory over Notre Dame when linebacker Terry Maki blocked a field goal attempt and safety A.J. Scott returned it 77 yards for a touchdown. It smacked of the kind of strange magic that sometimes means a team can go undefeated.

"I don't know about skill, but we have the intangible quality as good as any team I've ever had," DeBerry said.

Safety Scott Thomas said, "I never thought we'd lose to Notre Dame, even when they were on the two . . . To tell you the truth, I can't see us losing to anyone."

If there was ever a spoiler on Air Force's schedule, however, it is Navy. The Midshipmen are 1-3, but they have lost their three games by a total of eight points. Their first victory came two weeks ago over Virginia, ranked 20th at the time.

Then there is this service rivalry thing, which has a way of making favorites into underdogs. What is at stake is not just records here, but a hunk of prestige called the Commander in Chief's Trophy.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy when I say this," Clune said, "But I'd trade the Notre Dame win to beat Navy, and I'd trade a win over Brigham Young for a win over Army."

Air Force perhaps has more at stake than the other service academies when it comes to the rivalries. The youngest of the three, the school didn't open until 1955, and despite its three straight bowl victories, not until this season did it earn much attention.

"We know Air Force is never going to surpass the Army-Navy thing," said Clune, who went to the Naval Academy. "Let's face it. That's a fact of life."

The Falcons' idea of how to make up for the tradition gap is to dominate the Commander in Chief's Trophy, which they won two consecutive years before giving it up to Army last year. Their wishbone was so effective that Army copied it, Coach Jim Young recognizing a good thing when he saw it, as the Falcons will tell you with no small amount of pride.

The Falcons have the second-ranked scoring offense in the nation, averaging 45.2 points a game, and the fourth-ranked rushing offense in the nation, averaging 310 yards. One thing inherent in the scramble wishbone is that it can somewhat neutralize size disadvantages on the offensive line, a perennial problem for service academies.

"The scrambling and the low blocking ties you up," Navy Coach Gary Tranquill said. "It neutralizes you more than anything else because you have to be so precise."

The lead scrambler for Air Force is quarterback Bart Weiss, an aspiring fighter pilot who is 10th on the academy's all-time career scoring list with 112 points. A slick operator with a natural feel for the offense, he has 432 yards on 72 carries, with an average of six yards a crack and eight touchdowns. Although he is not a passer of great flair, he has completed 40 of 63 attempts for 756 yards, four more touchdowns, and only one interception.

"He's so smart he overcomes his coaching," DeBerry said. "He keeps me from looking bad."

Air Force's victory over Notre Dame has catapulted the Falcons into the role of the favorite. One thing about being the team to beat: it targets you for an upset, something the Falcons are just beginning to learn about.

"We're out of the frying pan and into the fire," DeBerry said.