- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2016

Air Force overcame a season-ending injury to its quarterback last season and still reached the Mountain West title game.

Now quarterback Nate Romine is making his way back from tearing up his knee and there is every reason to believe the Falcons, with an experienced defense and plenty of playmakers returning on offense, will be in contention for another division title.

Romine was lost in the second game of last season to two torn ligaments in his right knee. Without him, it took a few games for Air Force’s triple-option offense to get back up to speed. But once it did the Falcons rolled to a six-game winning streak.

The Falcons started preseason practice still learning just how far Romine has to go to be the player he was before the injury.

“You can tell things are slowing down for him,” offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. “You can tell he’s got all the pieces, that he’s managing everybody, taking charge of getting us going tempo-wise. He’s got command of what’s going on on offense.”

Romine has eight career starts.

The Falcons don’t throw it a lot, but coach Troy Calhoun’s triple-option likes to incorporate a good dose of play-action passes and shots down field. Romine has the passing skills to make that part of the game more of a threat for Air Force.

Still, the quarterback has to be able to run to make the offense go.

The Falcons should support their quarterback well. Fullback Jacobi Owens will be looking for a third straight 1,000-yard rushing season and five other players who ran for at least 425 yards and 5.2 per carry are back. Plus, leading receiver Jalen Robinette, who averaged 24.7 yards per catch last year, is back.

The defense that ranked in the middle of the Mountain West pack last year at 5.71 yards per play allowed returns nine starters, including all-conference safety Weston Steelhammer.

SEASON OPENER: The Falcons ease into the season against FCS Abilene Christian on Sept. 3, which should be helpful as Air Force works Romine back into playing shape. Week 2 is a home game against Georgia State and then an early off week.

UP FRONT: The unit that needs the most retooling is the offense, where Air Force loses three starters, including two all-conference players. As is usually the case at the academy, there are upperclassmen ready to step in. The Falcons led the conference in yards per play last season at 6.40. The only thing likely to stand in the way of a similar showing in 2016 is the development of the line.

KEY GAMES: After the break, the Falcons get cranking with a road trip to Utah State, always a Mountain Division contender, and a home game against Navy. Air Force’s division title hopes figure to be settled in November with home games against Colorado State (Nov. 12) and Boise State (Nov. 25).

PREDICTION: With three of their toughest games at home and so much experience, the Falcons are set up to reach that finale against the Broncos with the division title in reach. Even if Boise State avenges last season’s loss to Air Force, it should be another typically successful season for Calhoun in his 10th year at the academy. The Falcons should easily match last season’s 8-4 regular season.

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