College Football’s bowl season is stocked with compelling storylines. College Football Playoff selection drama, star players opting out, and intriguing matchups in warm weather locations. But for the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, the script sticks mostly to football. While the game is not devoid of distractions, the difference between this bowl and others is as stark as the difference between the two teams themselves.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Preview
Baylor enters the game trying to salvage a disappointing season. At 6-6, Dave Aranda‘s Bears had hoped for more in 2022. But a surprisingly strong Big 12, two losses by less than three points, and a double-overtime loss left the Bears at even for the season. Five of their six losses were to teams ranked at the time, and three of the six losses were to teams that finished the season in the CFP Top 25.
Air Force, meanwhile, enters the game at 9-3 but finds themselves a 5 1/2 point underdog. The Falcons are looking for their second consecutive ten-win season and fifth in the past ten years. Even with nine wins and the Commander-In-Chiefs trophy, Troy Calhoun‘s squad doesn’t have a signature win on the season. They beat Colorado, possibly the worst Power 5 team in the nation, and neither Army nor Navy provided a feather in their nine-win cap. The Falcons seek a statement win to go with their potential ten-win season in this bowl game.
What: Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Where: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Ft. Worth, Texas
When: Thursday, December 22nd, 7:30 p.m. ET
Odds: Baylor -5.5, O/U 48.5
The Deciding Factor
Air Force brings the nation’s top-ranked rushing attack into the game. Running their unique version of the triple option, the Falcons average — average — 330 rushing yards per game, over 41 yards better than the second-best rushing team. The Falcons’ rushing attack is led by Fullback Brad Roberts. Roberts has 1,612 rushing yards (5.23 yards per carry) on the season and 15 touchdowns. Roberts is the third-leading rusher in the nation this season. On the edge, John Lee Eldridge is second in the nation with 7.88 yards per carry average. And quarterback Haaziq Daniels orchestrates the attack as well as any option quarterback in the country.
For Baylor, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that they get a full month and 15 practices to prepare for the flexbone-type rushing attack. The bad news is that Aranda fired the defensive coordinator and safeties/special teams coach at the end of the season, so they’re working with a limited staff. Additionally, starting safety Devin Neal will miss his second straight game.
What Baylor will worry about is not necessarily the yardage, but allowing Air Force to limit the number of drives that the Baylor offense gets in this game. And the psychological effect of playing an option offense. Which leads us to the second big factor.
It’s discussed so much in bowls that it’s almost trite at this point. But with bowls becoming more and more like exhibition games, the motivation of participating teams becomes a factor.
With Baylor looking to finish the season above .500, you would think the motivation would be there. And Neal is the only starter to opt out. But the triple option famously takes a toll on teams. The constant phone booth collisions, the cut blocking in the trenches — which is completely legal and fundamentally sound, and the long, sustained drives can drain the energy and, sometimes, the interest of the opposing players. In addition to the Xs and Os, opposing coaches have to prepare their players to mentally face the triple option as well.
Moreover, Baylor enters the game on a three-game losing streak.
Air Force players, conversely, thrive in the underdog role and cherish their bowl game opportunities. The Falcons have won three of their last four bowl games, including the last two, both against Power 5 teams. Both Washington State (2019) and Louisville (2021) entered their bowl game against Air Force in a similar situation as Baylor.
Air Force will be ready. Will Baylor?
Baylor Avoiding Mistakes
Baylor has talent on offense, but they’ll be tested by a stout Air Force rushing defense. The Falcons are ninth nationally in rushing defense, so expect the Falcons to try and stop Baylor’s, Richard Reese. Reese has almost twice as many yards (962) as the next-best Baylor rusher and has as many rushing touchdowns (14) as the next three rushing touchdown leaders for Baylor. Air Force will force Baylor quarterback Blake Shapen to beat them.
Shapen will have to avoid the mistakes that have plagued the Bears’ passing attack late in the 2022 season. Shapen is under 60% in the last three games and has more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3) in that span. The Sophomore signal caller must consistently hit receivers and avoid costly interceptions on Thursday. If he can, the Bears stand a good chance to get their seventh win.
If not, expect the Falcons’ rushing attack to squeeze the life out of a hibernating Bears team.
The Last Word
Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica. This is the type of game that the Service Academies thrive in. Baylor is tested in the Big 12, but that three-game losing streak and a disappointing season have to be haunting their thoughts leading up to the bowl game. Air Force, on the other hand, will be excited to get that signature win and that tenth win. This game might be under the radar for the rest of the nation, but it’s top of mind for the Falcons.
And if you’re looking to watch a mid-December bowl game that means something to the players playing, this is your game.
In the end, Air Force just wants it more.
Air Force 27