SI.com's Gennaro Filice analyzes the matchup.
No team had a more radical rise and fall than Cal. The Golden Bears started the season with five straight wins and jumped up to No. 2 in the nation, but they lost six out of their last seven (including a 20-13 defeat to Stanford in the Big Game) and barely made it to a bowl. One of the biggest reasons for Cal's collapse was the erratic play of QB Nate Longshore. After the painful regular season ended, it was revealed that Longshore had chipped a bone in his right ankle against Oregon, which would help explain the 11 interceptions over his last six games.
Longshore wasn't the only Golden Bear to suffer through a disappointing junior campaign. Wideout/kick returner DeSean Jackson came into the year as a top Heisman candidate and a spectacular, 77-yard punt return touchdown in the season-opener against Tennessee increased the hype even more. But Jackson struggled mightily with consistency and completely disappeared in a number of games. Cal's most consistent offensive threat was RB Justin Forsett, who rushed for 1,406 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Cal's defense has been mediocre at best. The Golden Bears' main problem is an ineffective defensive line. Ranking 109th in tackles for loss, Cal's front four rarely controls the trenches. The Bears boast a pair of playmakers at the next two levels of the defense: LB Zack Follett and FS Thomas DeCoud.
Following last season's 4-8 finish, legendary coach Fisher DeBerry stepped down after 23 years. Air Force hired Troy Calhoun -- making him the first former player to lead the Falcons -- and athletic director Hans Mueh gave him a ringing endorsement: "I think Troy is going to reinstall the kind of fire and passion that has been missing over the past couple of years," he said." Mueh wasn't kidding. Even though nobody expected much from this year's team, Calhoun guided Air Force to a 9-3 finish and was named Mountain West Coach of the Year.
Much like the prolific DeBerry teams of the past, Calhoun's Falcons feature an efficient ground game. The focal point of the offense is senior RB/WR Chad Hall. The Mountain West Offensive Player of the year rushed for 1,415 and 14 touchdowns and also led the Falcons with 46 catches for 488 yards. Four-year starting QB Shaun Carney runs Calhoun's no-huddle offense with notable aplomb.
Air Force employs an aggressive, blitz-happy 3-4 defense and yields just 19.3 points per game (18th nationally). Outside linebacker John Rabold is the unquestioned leader of the defense. The first-team All-MWC performer led the conference in tackles for loss (16.5). CB Carson Bird led the conference with six interceptions.
These two teams couldn't be more different. The underachieving Golden Bears can't be too excited spending their New Year's Eve in Fort Worth. On the other hand, the overachieving Falcons are taking part in their first bowl since 2002. Cal's front four could have problems against Air Force, which boasts the second-highest rushing average in the nation (298.5 yards per game)
The pick: Air Force 30, Cal 27