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Rainbow Warriors 2017 Season Preview

NCAA Football: Hawaii Bowl-Hawaii at Middle Tennessee
Rolovich changing the culture at Hawaii?
Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors football can be characterized by extremes. From 1996-1998, Hawai’i won 5 games over the course of three seasons. Knowing that they needed to rectify the gloomy disaster that was the Fred Von Appen era, Hawai’i made a big splash and hired June Jones. The rest is history. Experiencing the best era of football in its history, UH capped a golden regime with a Sugar Bowl visit in early 2008 after an undefeated 2007 season. Sure, June Jones promptly left and Hawai’i was overwhelmed by Georgia, but the program was still as strong as ever. Even after Jones left, it wasn’t long before promoted defensive coordinator Greg McMackin had Hawai’i winning big again in 2010, finishing with a 10-4 record. What would follow in 2011 proved to be a pivotal moment. After a disappointing 6-7 season, and an off-season incident that likely played into the decision, Greg McMackin was relieved of his duties. Still in a post-Sugar Bowl mindset, Hawai’i had bigger aspirations than mediocrity.

Hawai’i then hired Norm Chow, a local coaching legend who made his fame off of his glory years at BYU in the 1980s and USC in the 2000s. Long story short: Chow won 10 games over the course four seasons. Wanting to shed the shackles of mediocrity, Hawai’i appeared to have repeated history. Much like the disastrous Von Appen era that followed the Bobby Wagner tenure, Hawai’i seemed to have undone their recent success with an ill-advised hire. After firing Chow in 2015, Hawai’i wisely went back to the Jones era well and grabbed a former QB of his: Nevada OC Nick Rolovich.

Rolovich proceeded to win 7 games in first season. It wasn’t without troubles, and it was far from perfect, but is history beginning to repeat itself at Manoa once again? Is Hawai’i following up a brutal era with another great one? Only time will tell, but considering the arduous 2016 schedule, to emerge with 7 wins and the program's first bowl win since 2006 (!!! it’s true, look it up), it’s not hard to see why Rolovich has galvanized a program and a fan base. Can they take another step forward in 2017?

Offense

Reasons for optimism: The Chow run was marred with instability at quarterback. For the first time in years, Hawai’i returns an effective starting QB in junior, Dru Brown. Totaling nearly 2800 total yards and scoring a combined 23 passing and rushing touchdowns. Standing next to him in the shotgun will be senior running back Diocemy Saint-Juste, who despite battling injuries again in 2016, averaged 6.1 yards per carry and went over 1,000 yards rushing. The offense also returns three starters across the offensive line, including all-MW performer and NFL prospect Dejon Allen.

Cause for concern: The loss of wide receiver Marcus Kemp won’t be easily negated. Totaling 1100 yards and 8 touchdowns, Kemp was the most dominant player on the offense in 2016. Hawai’i does have size and talent ready to go, but obviously losing a player of Kemp’s talents isn’t ideal.

Key stat: 79. Despite Hawai’i achieving its goal of winning a bowl game and quickly removing the stench of the Chow years in 2016, the offense finished 79th overall nationally in total offense. That number isn’t as bad as it’s been in past seasons, but you can bet offensive guru Nick Rolovich will want that number to creep into the Top 35 this fall.

Wildcard: Redshirt sophomore Fred Ulu-Perry. Perry is a former 4-star recruit who transferred back to Hawai’i from UCLA. Ulu-Perry did miss spring ball with medical and personal issues, but if he does play football for UH this fall, he could be the factor that makes a solid offensive line potentially the Mountain West’s best offensive line.

Defense

Reasons for optimism: It’s been awhile since Hawaii has fielded a formidable defense, although that hasn’t been a staple of the program since the Dick Tomey times. This season, stalwart inside linebacker Jahlani Tavai is set to return for his junior season, and some believe he’s talented enough that this might be his last season at UH before bolting to the NFL. The all-MW linebacker is joined by fellow all-MW safety Travon Henderson, who might end up being the best safety in the Mountain West. Hawai’i might be returning only five starters defensively, but this unit has some serious star power.

Cause for concern: Statistically, it’s hard to say the Rainbow Warriors made a significant jump on defense in 2016. They ranked 113th nationally in points allowed and rush defense. The pass was better, ranking 64th, but one could argue that’s because teams opted to run vs. UH. That said, playing the likes of Michigan, Arizona, San Diego State, and Boise State didn’t help those stats. This season, UH will break in recently-promoted defensive coordinator Legi Suiaunoa. Suiaunoa has lost defensive linemen Ka’aumoana Gifford (season long suspension) star recruit Jamie Tago (kicked off the team) before the season even begins, hurting a defensive line group that has question marks to begin with. The linebacking crew will be strong, and Travon Henderson is a star, but the defensive unit as a whole has some work to do to prove they’re not the achilles heel of this team.

Key stat: 111th. That’s where this defense ranked in turnover margin in 2016. A good way to mask shortcomings on defense is to be opportunistic. If Hawaii can move up into the middle of the pack in the Mountain West in turnover margin, that could go a long way to helping the Warriors cause.

Wildcard: True freshman Anthony Mermea. Mermea has barely broken camp with his new team, and has a lot to prove to earn playing time, but Mermea was a huge steal for UH on signing day. Picking Hawai’i over conference rivals San Jose State, New Mexico, Utah State, and even reigning Mountain West champion San Diego State, landing defensive tackles of Mermea’s caliber is a good way to put an end to defensive woes. UH might be inexperienced on the defensive line, but it’s young studs like Mermea who will begin to end their problems against the run.

Schedule Analysis

August 26 - @ Massachusetts

September 2 - WESTERN CAROLINA

September 9 - @ UCLA

September 16 - Bye

September 23 - @ Wyoming*

September 30 - COLORADO STATE*

October 7 - @ Nevada*

October 14 - SAN JOSE STATE*

October 21 - Bye

October 28 - SAN DIEGO STATE*

November 4 - @ UNLV*

November 11 - FRESNO STATE*

November 18 - @ Utah State*

November 25 - BRIGHAM YOUNG

ALL CAPS - Home game

*Conference game

Thoughts: The most recent listings at Bovada show Hawaii's over/under total at 4.5. Crazy enough, it was even lower than that back in May at o/u 4. It’s surprising, really, considering Hawaii won 6 regular season games in 2016 with a much tougher schedule. Plenty of returning star talent, easier schedule. Over on 4.5 should be easy, right? Let’s take a look at the schedule.

Despite the 2-10 record for UMass in 2016, the Minutemen gave Hawai’i all they could handle on Oahu in a 40-46 defeat. Hawai’i is the favorite in this game, but it isn’t likely to come easy. While FCS foe Western Carolina shouldn’t pose much trouble, the three-game stretch of UCLA, Wyoming, and Colorado State will be the toughest of 2017. Three losses in that stretch isn’t unlikely at all, so winning at UMass is potentially imperative. Rolovich will not want to start 2017 1-4. Following that, UH plays two teams it smoked last season in Nevada and San Jose State. Splitting those games is the minimum UH can accept, but ideally they should win both games.

After one more bye week, up comes San Diego State. The Aztecs obliterated UH in 2016 in a 0-55 loss. Yes, yes, I know. On paper, UH should probably lose again. But I remember back in 2005 when Hawai’i gave Boise State a run for their money in a 41-44 home loss to the Broncos only one season after losing 3-69 to the Broncos. It’s not impossible to think UH can flip the tables in one season. If Nick Rolovich is looking for his first signature victory as head coach, this is the game to circle.

The season closes with three Mountain West games, and a finale with long-time rival BYU. The highlight of Rolovich’s playing career came in a 2001 win to the of 72-45. You can bet fans will be jazzed for that game.

WARNING: I’m terrible at predictions, but I’ll close this articles by mapping out the possibilities, from my perspective of course.

Best case scenario: Everything comes together after winning a bowl game in 2016, belief is running through the veins of the Rainbow Warriors and they take the Mountain West by storm with a 9-3 season.

Worst case scenario: It’s 2000 all over again, as the team gets bitten by the injury bug early on and that stupid insect never lets up. UH has a sophomore slump and finishes 4-8. Lose money.

What’s probably going to happen: Hawai’i continues to improve, but has its ups and downs along the way. Much like we saw in the New Mexico and UNLV games last season, wins and losses can be determined by one or two key moments. Depending on where the ball bounces, Hawai’i should finish around 6-6 or 7-5 this fall and make another trip to the Hawai’i Bowl.