The end of the college football regular season is upon us, which means time is running out for Boise State to make up ground on Wyoming in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division. The 10-1 Broncos are on the wrong end of the head-to-head tiebreaker given their 30-28 loss to the Cowboys on Oct. 29, but have won three in a row including a 42-25 victory over UNLV last week. With its conference title hopes hanging in the balance, Boise State will travel to Colorado Springs for a Friday showdown with Air Force – a team that has won two in a row over the Broncos.
The Falcons are 8-3 overall and 4-3 in Mountain West play following a tough 41-38 win at San Jose State a week ago. Air Force has now won four straight overall thanks in large part to a potent offense that has averaged 38.0 points per game over that stretch, and ranks second in the league in total offense (459.9 ypg), just behind Boise State.
Boise State at Air Force
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Boise State -9
Three Things to Watch
1. A Balanced Boise State Offense
Boise State has the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver combo in the Mountain West. Brett Rypien leads the conference with 3,025 passing yards as well as completion percentage (64.0 percent), completions (203), passer rating (163.31) and yards per attempt (9.5). He ranks second with 22 touchdown passes.
Rypien’s top target is Thomas Sperbeck, who is No. 1 in the conference with 67 receptions and 1,070 receiving yards. The pair has connected on 10 touchdown passes – nine from Rypien to Sperbeck and one from Sperbeck to Rypien – and is responsible for a total of 25 as Sperbeck has three of his own.
Running back Jeremy McNichols is tied for the national lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. He also ranks second in the Mountain West and third nationally with 1,575 rushing yards on 273 carries (5.8 ypc). He is third on the Broncos in receiving with 450 yards and four touchdowns on 32 receptions.
Given the diverse nature of the Boise State offense and the success of its three key cogs, it should be no surprise that the Broncos lead the Mountain West in total offense (487.1 ypg), yards per play (7.06), passing offense (296.1 ypg), touchdown passes (26), and total touchdowns (56).
2. A Vulnerable Air Force Pass Defense
Though the Falcons rank second in the Mountain West in total defense (366.4 ypg allowed), they will have their hands full with a diverse, explosive Boise State offense – particularly in the passing game. Air Force is 10th in the conference in pass defense (245.3 ypg), which sits No. 83 in the country. However, had the Falcons not faced three opponents that operate run-heavy, option-oriented offenses, the unit would likely rank among the nation’s worst.
Navy, New Mexico and Army averaged 138 passing yards against Air Force earlier this season, including a surprising 260 by the Midshipmen. In the other eight games the Falcons have played, opponents averaged 285.6 yards through the air. Four straight conference opponents have thrown for more than 300 yards.
But Air Force has made its share of big plays defensively. Last week, the Falcons recorded five sacks against San Jose State, and recorded six in earlier victories over Utah State and Navy. Overall, the Falcons lead the Mountain West with 28 sacks. Ryan Watson is the pacesetter with 8.0 sacks, while Haji Dunn Jr. also is among the top 10 with 5.0. Furthermore, Air Force ranks second in the conference with 14 interceptions. Weston Steelhammer leads the Mountain West and is tied for third nationally with six picks while Brodie Hikes is next with four.
3. Even With a Win, Boise State Needs Help
If the Broncos don’t beat Air Force, their quest for a Mountain West title will come to an abrupt end. But, even if Boise State beats the Falcons, it wouldn’t guarantee a spot in the conference championship game. Wyoming controls its destiny, needing just a win on Saturday night against New Mexico to claim the division title and get a rematch with San Diego State (who the Cowboys upset last week) on Dec. 3. The Cowboys got in this position because they beat the Broncos 30-28 in Laramie on Oct. 29. So for the first time in a while, Boise State needs a little help from another team to even get a chance at another Mountain West championship.
And even if the Lobos upset Wyoming while the Broncos take care of Air Force, Boise State would still need to beat the Aztecs next Saturday and then wait and see how the College Football Playoff rankings share out. Right now, Houston (9-2) is the highest ranked Group of Five team at No. 20, followed by Boise State and then undefeated Western Michigan. However, it could be said the Broncos from the MAC are in the driver’s seat for the spot in the Cotton Bowl because they still have a shot to play for their conference crown if they win on Thursday. The Cougars won’t be playing for the American Athletic Conference title as Navy won their division, while the other Broncos won’t be vying for the Mountain West crown without some help. So a lot will need to happen for Boise State to get back to a major bowl, but first Bryan Harsin's team must take care of business on the road against the Falcons.
Boise State and Air Force rank among the top three in the Mountain West in both total offense and total defense, making this an evenly matched game on paper. The Falcons rely heavily on a rushing attack that averages 323.6 yards per game – fourth best in the FBS – and should be able to move the ball on the ground against an average Broncos rush defense (167.6 ypg allowed). However, if Air Force can’t run the ball it could have problems doing anything on offense considering the Falcons average a mere 136.4 passing yards per game.
Meanwhile, Boise State boasts one of the most balanced offenses in the Mountain West, if not the nation, thanks to a dynamic trio of playmakers. The Broncos also match up particularly well against a vulnerable Air Force secondary. However, if the Falcons can come through with a big play or two defensively, as they have been apt to do this season, they will keep the game close enough to have an opportunity to win it in the fourth quarter.
Air Force has beaten Boise State two years in a row, and also holds the home-field advantage. But, with the Mountain Division still up for grabs, the Broncos have more to play for. With an edge in talent and offensive playmaking ability, expect Boise State to end its losing streak in the series and put the pressure on Wyoming to win Saturday at New Mexico.
Prediction: Boise State 35, Air Force 28
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.