Editor's note: This is the sixth in a nine-part series previewing each football team in the MWC.
For a while now, Air Force has been overshadowed by the Mountain West Conference's "Big Three" — TCU, Utah and BYU.
The Falcons have finished fourth in each of the past two seasons, and they were picked to finish fourth again in this year's preseason media poll.
Is this the year Air Force jumps into the top three?
"I definitely think that we deserve to be talked about as being one of the top three teams in the conference," said fullback Jared Tew, a Park City native who was named to the preseason All-MWC first team. "We're always competing with all of those teams. Last year, we took Utah to overtime; we lost to TCU by three. Hopefully, we can find a way to win those close games this year and be among the top programs in the conference."
For the Falcons to move up in the MWC, they will have to rebuild their depleted offensive line. While Air Force returns all of its skill position players — including Tew and quarterback Tim Jefferson — it lost all five of its starters on the O-line. But Tew has confidence in those who will fill the void.
"Offensively, I think we'll pick up where we left off last season," he said. "In the spring game, our O-line had great development. (Left guard) A.J. Wallerstein got playing time last year. We have the skill up front to be really good.
"In the backfield, all of our skill positions are returning. We have leaders at every position. We have playmakers at every position."
In 2009, Air Force boasted one of the top defenses in the MWC, finishing No. 2 in total defense and No. 3 in pass efficiency defense. Cornerbacks Reggie Rembert and Anthony Wright, who were named to the preseason All-MWC defensive team, return. But they'll be without graduated nose tackle Ben Garland, who led the Falcon defensive line with 10.5 tackles-for-loss.
"A lot of the reason we were able to do the things we did defensively was because of how forceful and dominant Ben Garland was," said coach Troy Calhoun, who has guided Air Force to bowl games in each of his first three seasons at the helm.
"There were many times last year when we only utilized a three-man pass rush. Because of that, we were able to play a little bit more zone and vary the kind of zone coverages we played."
The Falcons face a tough early schedule, hosting BYU and traveling to Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks in September.
Air Force Falcons at a glance
2010 MWC preseason poll: No. 4
2009 record: 8-5 (5-3 MWC)
Final AP ranking: —
Head coach: Troy Calhoun (25-14, fourth year at Air Force)
Players to watch
Offense: Senior running back Jared Tew, a Park City alum, ran for 970 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
Defense: Senior cornerback Reggie Rembert was a first-team All-Mountain West Conference honoree in 2009.
Special teams: Junior kicker Erik Soderberg is looking to move up after making the All-MWC second team.
Sept. 4 — N'WESTERN ST.
Sept. 11 — BYU
Sept. 18 — at Oklahoma
Sept. 25 — at Wyoming
Oct. 2 — NAVY
Oct. 9 — COLORADO ST.
Oct. 16 — at San Diego St.
Oct. 23 — at TCU
Oct. 30 — UTAH
Nov. 6 — at Army
Nov. 13 — NEW MEXICO
Nov. 18 — at UNLV