College bowl season is upon us. With glad tidings of touchdowns on television and holiday surprises, fans anxiously await news on transfer portals and opt-outs. In the past, the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl’s storylines were mostly on the field. As James Madison gets set to take on Air Force in Fort Worth, it’s a little different this year. In a true sign of the times, this year’s bowl has as much news off the field as it does on the field.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Preview
The biggest storyline for this game is the tale of two teams heading in opposite directions.
At one point this season, these teams were a combined 16-0. Since that week, the first week in November, the Dukes are 3-1 with an overtime loss to Appalachian State. James Madison compiled eleven wins in its first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). It doesn’t matter what conference you’re in, that is an impressive feat.
James Madison, however, is also suffering from its success entering the game as well. Former head coach Curt Cignetti was hired away by Indiana. The Dukes will rely on interim head coach Damian Wroblewski will coach the team up to and in the bowl game. Bob Chesney, coming over from Holy Cross, is with the team but allowing Wroblewski and Cignetti’s staff to take the Dukes through the Bowl game.
The Falcons, meanwhile, have lost four straight to end the season after getting blown out by Army in week eight and losing control of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy. Opposing teams have grounded the Air Force offense during that stretch, with the Falcons averaging less than 16 points in those four games.
And then there’s the transfer portal.
James Madison currently has 15 players in the portal, although 13 of them are expected to be available for the bowl game. The big loss for the Dukes is edge rusher Mikail Kamara, who is third on the team in tackles (53), tackles for loss (18.5), and sacks (7.5). Ty Son Lawton, the Duke’s second-leading rusher, and linebacker Aiden Fisher, their leading tackler (91) are also expected to miss the game. Lawton and Kamara are both heading to Bloomington to join former coach Cignetti. Starting Quarterback Jordan McCloud has entered the transfer portal, as has top receiver Elijah Sarratt, but both are expected to play for the Dukes on Saturday. For those with more than a rooting interest in the game, it would be advisable to keep tabs on their status. That’s a boatload of production out of the game for the Dukes.
Air Force will also be without some players due to transfer. Most notably, John Lee Eldridge III, Air Force’s third-leading rusher, has entered the portal and is not expected to play. Falcons quarterback Zac Larrier is also dealing with an undisclosed injury and his status for the game is still to be determined.
What: Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Where: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Ft. Worth, Texas
When: Saturday, December 23rd, 3:30 p.m. ET
Odds: JMU -2.5, O/U 42.5
The Actual Game
Now that the off-the-field news is covered, on to the actual game. The good news for Air Force is that the Falcons are far less impacted than JMU on the personnel side. Air Force’s defense is largely in regular season form. The Falcons’ defense had a great season, holding opponents to under 18 points a game. The bad news is that the Mountain West was down a little this year and they did not play a team with a dynamic offense the caliber of James Madison. McCloud, the Sun Belt Player of the Year, will be the best player Air Force has faced all season.
The other good news is that the Falcons run a system that, by and large, is plug-and-play and not necessarily dependent upon star players for success. If Larrier can’t go in the Armed Forces Bowl, they’ll be without two of their top three rushers from the regular season. Backup quarterback Jensen Jones has plenty of experience and is getting first-team reps for much of the bowl practice sessions.
Duke It Out
It’s a different story for the Dukes. James Madison has put together a surprisingly complete season. The Dukes offense, led by McCloud, averaged over 35 points a game. The offense has a good balance, as well, averaging 143 rushing yards per game and 287 passing yards per game. Expect the Dukes to ride Kaelon Black in the running game and expect Latrele Palmer to replace Lawton’s workload. McCloud averages over seven rushes a game and has eight rushing touchdowns on the season, but one might assume that his rushes in this game might be limited.
Not to be overlooked, the Dukes’ defense held opponents to 18.5 points per game this season. Their defensive strength was big plays in the pass-rush defense. That will be negated by Air Force’s rush-oriented offense. The rush defense was statistically strong, holding opponents to 61.5 yards per game. That might be a little misleading, playing in the Sun Belt and having their opponents play from behind. The Dukes will be tested by the Falcons’ rushing offense, but don’t look for James Madison to fold under the flexbone pressure.
The biggest question coming into the game is about motivation. Air Force just hasn’t been the same team since its loss to Army. A lackluster offensive performance at Hawaii followed up by two mediocre performances against UNLV and Boise State has many questioning where it went wrong for the Falcons. In the first eight games of the season, Air Force averaged over 300 yards of rushing offense. In the last four games, it managed 226.5 yards per game less than 206 yards in three of those games.
The Dukes, conversely, are coming in riding a wave of positivity based on their first-year success. Even without their head coach and at least three key players, the mood in Harrisonburg is still positive. It’s easy to see why the players are still bought into a fairly seamless transition between coaches.
Armed Forces Bowl: The Last Word
James Madison has a dynamic offense and a better-than-you-might-think defense. Amid the turmoil of a coaching change and transfers, there’s still a sense of purpose with this Dukes team. It’s a team that wants to finish an unlikely season off with an Armed Forces Bowl win. That’s a big difference in this age of college football. The Falcons just haven’t been the same since November, and it looks like more of the same in late December. Santa delivers another exciting bowl matchup, and the Dukes get one last present for 2023.
James Madison 31
Air Force 24