Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Preview

The Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on Tuesday, December 29th pins one branch of servicemen, the Air Force Falcons, against the California Golden Bears, who are ironically much better through the air than the Air Force themselves. California, which finished the regular season 7-5, possesses the nation’s fifth-best passing attack, averaging a whopping 368 yards per game. The Golden Bears’ success through the air is due in large part to the play of their junior quarterback Jared Goff, who many experts predict will be the first quarterback taken in the 2016 NFL draft.

While Cal’s offense thrives using a no-huddle, spread offense, the Air Force offense is based around the triple option, which the Falcons have perfected over the course of their storied history. Air Force’s ability to control the game on the ground is evidenced by their impressive 321 rushing yards per game, the second-best mark in the country. If you need a reason to sit down and watch the Armed Forces Bowl, these drastically different and potent offenses are just that. This certainly isn’t the only compelling storyline heading into Tuesday’s matchup. It might not be a new year’s six bowl game, but both teams head to Fort Worth with something to prove.

For California’s coach Sonny Dykes, a trip to the Armed Forces bowl is a chance to justify the five-year contract extension he signed with the school earlier this month. The extension follows Dykes’ best season at the school, where he has been in charge since 2013, and the Golden Bears’ first bowl birth since 2011. Considering this, most Golden Bear fans are satisfied with the team’s performance this season, but it is difficult to avoid feeling as if the team could have accomplished more. Cal sprinted out of the gate to a 5-0 start before dropping four straight and stumbling to a 7-5 finish. The Golden Bears beat the teams they were “supposed” to beat, but were not prepared for the meat of their challenging Pac-12 schedule, leaving the team hungry for a victory over the second-place finisher in the Mountain West conference, the Air Force Falcons.

The opportunity to play in the Armed Forces bowl presents a different set of opportunities for the Air Force Academy, who finished 8-5. Obviously, the pregame festivities will be done in honor of the servicemen playing on the field that day, but this ultimately is not what will motivate the Falcons to leave Texas victorious. A win on Tuesday is a chance to put a stamp on yet another successful season for the Air Force, who is largely overlooked by most in favor of the more prestigious Naval Academy. The Falcons have quietly reached a bowl game in eight of the past nine seasons under coach Troy Calhoun, an impressive streak considering some of the recruiting disadvantages the Academy must overcome. More specifically for the 2015 squad, the bowl represents an opportunity to prevent ending the season amid a three-game skid, and a chance to right the ship after falling just three points short of a conference championship. Avenging the loss and defeating California will be no easy task for the Air Force defense, which is led by safety Weston Steelhammer, who has an impressive 80 tackles (10.5 tfl) along with a team-high five interceptions this season.

Most mock drafts project Cal’s Goff or Memphis’ Paxton Lynch as being the first quarterback taken in the upcoming draft, but neither has chosen to forgive their senior season just yet. Cal fans understand, or at least are starting to come to terms with the fact that Tuesday could be a very bittersweet day for their program – it could mark the program’s first bowl victory since 2008, but it could also be the final time Bears fans see Goff suit up in the Yale Blue and California Gold. If this turns out to be true, California’s program could be thrown right back into the gutter just as soon as it began to climb out. Will Goff’s teammates rise up and give him a reason to come back one more year, or will Air Force’s stingy defense and familiarity with their surroundings (the Falcons have played in the Armed Forces Bowl four time since 2007) prevail? Only time will tell.