Presumptuous as it may seem of Air Force to bring a wishbone into Texas, you have to give the flyboys credit for nerve. The Longhorns practically invented the thing, and it stands to reason that if anyone knows how to stop it, they do.
So you can't blame Texans for scoffing at the fact that the Falcons are favored in today's Bluebonnet Bowl. First of all they come from Colorado Springs, and around here that's not football country, it's badminton territory. Second, they have maximum height and weight requirements, which means their only chance of beating the lumbering Longhorns might be to trip them.
There is some sentiment, however, that the Longhorns, who now run the I formation, aren't nearly the kind of team they used to be in 1969 and 1970, when they won back-to-back national championships under Darrell Royal. Otherwise, why would they be slumming it here in the Bluebonnet instead of the Cotton, at 8-3 trying to break back into the Top 20 with an upset of an Air Force team that is so improbably ranked 10th in the nation?
What we have here is a clearcut case of role reversal: by all rights Texas ought to have a rout and Air Force ought to be pitied. But the Longhorns have gone 0-3 in bowls the last three years, an astonishing state of affairs in Austin. In contrast, the Falcons have won three straight postseason appearances.
There is something fascinating about this Air Force team that adopted the triple option just three years ago and has gone 11-1 to leap into the rankings with such flair. If the Falcons had not lost to Brigham Young, 28-21, they would be contenders for the national championship. That is quite a climb for a team that consists of players who are not allowed to be more than 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds.
"We kind of got used to being favorites this year," said Air Force defensive back Scott Thomas. "We always used to be the underdogs and had to prove ourselves all the time."
The Falcons' statistics are convincing: they are averaging 37.2 points and 421.8 yards a game total offense, while limiting opponents to 316.2 yards and 13.6 points. They have perhaps the slickest wishbone operator in the country in quarterback Bart Weiss, who has rushed for 1,032 yards and completed 90 of 141 passes for 1,449 more, becoming only the third player in NCAA history to gain more than 1,000 yards in both categories.
No matter how much tradition Texas has on its side, the Longhorns may have trouble stopping that attack. Still, Air Force is not completely proven yet. The Falcons' Western Athletic Conference schedule included just one team of note in BYU, and most of them were unused to seeing the triple option. The Falcons may be surprised by the combined size and speed of the Longhorns.
"I feel like we're going to have a big game and we're going to win big," Texas defensive end James McKinney said. "Air Force played a lot of teams that haven't seen much option football. But we play the wishbone fairly well."
Air Force will be at a distinct disadvantage on defense simply because the Falcons will be so outsized. And Texas is no slouch offensively, averaging 23.1 points and 361.2 yards a game, split almost evenly between the run and the pass. Tailback Edwin Simmons leads a rushing attack that averages 191.2 yards.
"We'll close our eyes and get him down somehow," said Thomas, who was originally recruited but then dropped by Texas, perhaps because of his relatively slow 4.6 speed in the 40. "Even if we have to jump on his back and ride him downfield."
If there is an intangible element to this game it is probably the ever-unpredictable pride factor. Air Force is convinced it should have beaten Brigham Young and is eager to show it should have been invited to a more prestigious bowl.
"Sure, we are a little disappointed we aren't going to a New Year's Day Bowl," Weiss said. "But I think the bigger disappointment is that we see teams with worse records that are in a New Year's Day game."
Texas may have more to prove simply because of the Longhorns' disappointing record in bowls the last three years. Last year's 55-17 loss to Iowa in the Freedom Bowl was downright humiliating, as was their 42-10 loss to Texas A&M Thanksgiving night that cost them a Cotton Bowl berth.
"We are not very used to being an underdog," said Texas center Gene Chilton. "More than anything, we're going to recognize this as a chance to gain back some recognition that we've lost and get back where we belong -- on top."