Which team is the best team to miss the D1-A playoffs?
When you look at that list, quickly you’ll find that only two teams that didn’t make the playoffs had records over .500 – Kutztown and Air Force. Here’s a look at one of those teams.
The Air Force Academy came into this season still under a cloud. Since winning the 2003 National Championship, Air Force spent some years struggling with their status on campus and with the administration, coaching continuity, and the loss of some outstanding players.
But, quietly, this year, they knew they were good. Head Coach Joe Muehlbauer has shut the hatch on bad behavior that gets the team in trouble, and instead concentrated on the rugby. The ultimate prize for that adjustment was their match against Utah April 14, played on the Terrazzo right in the middle of the Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs.n
The Terrazzo is a massive grass quadrangle right in the center of where everything happens as the USAFA. This was an unprecedented move by the Academy administration to give the team exposure. Air Force lost that game, but the 41-30 score was very close and, in fact, the Zoomies felt they could have won.
No other non-playoff team had the sort of record Air Force had. They won five and lost two. They averaged 46 points a game, easily the most of any non-playoff team. Only Kutztown had a better points difference per game among non-playoff teams.
Against BYU and Utah, the top teams in their conference, Air Force scored 50 points and gave up 117 for an average loss of 58.5 to 25.
The other five non-playoff teams in the West lost to Utah and BYU by an average score of 74-14.
“We went into this season feeling like we shouldn’t let any opponent get into our heads,” said Muehlbauer. “We also looked at what program we had an asked ourselves, where are we going? I am pleased with how everyone responded. And because they’re responded we’ve received more support from the school. It builds in itself.”
Air Force isn’t coming out of games against BYU or Utah making excuses; they come out of those games wondering what they could have done to win them.
“It’s been a big change,” said Muehlbauer. “We get a lot of guys at training. This year more than any year we’ve been able to get some big guys. We combined that with a lot of team speed and good fitness. And we decided to play to earn respect. I’m a hard-line guy. I look at how we’re training officers for the Air Force. Behavior off the field is a huge deal to me, and I am pleased with how the guys have behaved.”
Another big concept for Muehlbauer – trust. He trusts his players, they trust him, and they trust each other.
“We know, as rugby players and being from the US Air Force Academy, we’re under a microscope,” he said.
Next up? Sevens. Rugby 7s is becoming a bigger part of Air Force rugby, and certainly the USAFA administration recognized that. The military’s World Class Athlete Program allows service members to train in Olympic sports, and sevens is that. Look for Air Force to play a lot more 7s in the coming season.
But before they worry about that, maybe the Air Force Academy can take some pride in a strong season – maybe not the playoffs, but certainly a sign that they are among the top programs again.