Are the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors for Real This Time?

Last season, the ‘Bows got a lot of press for their 6-1 start, for several reasons.

One was head coach Nick Rolovich, who was an unapologetic risk-taker and always ensured that a UH game would be an interesting one, especially with the full return of the run-and-shoot offense to the islands.

Another was the equally brazen quarterback pairing of Cole MacDonald and Chevan Cordeiro, who were fun to watch play and beloved by their fans, even when they made the occasional “what the hell” throw.

Oh whoops, those were this season.

Anyways, we who followed the team more closely knew that while 6-1 was exciting for a team that had two bowl appearances and one winning season in the last decade, there was still much to prove.

The season had been somewhat front-loaded with easier opponents; a Navy team we knew was in for a down year, a flat-out bad San Jose State, an equally bad Rice team and FCS Duquesne.

Heck, they needed quintuple overtime to take down SJSU.

As surprising as it was to see Hawai’i open October with a win over a relatively strong Wyoming team, it was equally unsurprising that when they hit the meat of their schedule, the Rainbow Warriors went 0-4 at home against BYU and Fresno on the road and Utah State and Nevada at home.

I’m still not sure what happened against Nevada. I can only assume that finishing -3 in turnover margin at home and still losing by 18 points was karma for the surprise win over Wyoming.

Still, if you look back, it was a predictably average season for a team that was often leaning on outscoring teams.

A Hawai’i squad who finished the season 103rd in overall S&P+ and 118th in defensive S&P+ finished the season 2-6 against teams in the S&P+ top 100. They also managed to go 4-0 in one-possession games, which was part of the reason they beat better-ranked (but under-performing) Wyoming and San Diego State teams on the way to sneaking out a winning season.

Now that the Warriors are off to another hot start at 4-1, their first bye week is a great time to take a look at whether this season could have a different end result.

It’s a bit unfair to compare this season’s S&P+ rankings to last season since it takes about half a season to cook last season’s data from the formula and have meaningful same-season info.

That said, it’s meant as a predictive tool, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. Hawaii currently sits at an overall S&P+ ranking of 83 (up from 103), an offensive ranking of 36 (up from 63) and a defensive ranking of 109 (up from 118). Special teams have gone off the cliff so far (from 81st to 120th).

If 2018 schedule was a tale of two halves – go 6-1 against an extremely easy schedule, then go 2-4 against a decidedly harder slate – then this season has been much more challenging out of the gate, based solely on their opponents’ S&P+ rankings (Off/Def/ST).

  • #36 Arizona  (10/85/95)
  • #71 Oregon State   (21/112/107)
  • #11 Washington (13/28/6)
  • #111 Nevada (106/93/52)

Part of Hawai’i’s early-season struggles on defense has been the teams they’ve played. The Pac-12 only has two offenses that rank outside the top 50 in S&P+ and UH hasn’t played either of them. The one bad, quarterback-less, wandering-in-the-wilderness offense they have faced, they shut down last weekend.

So they got dominated by a UW team that should have done so, had the opposite results against Nevada, and won races to the finish against two Pac-12 opponents who have the same offense/defense profile that they do. They’ve still been tested much earlier in the season than the year prior.

What comes next? Let’s run out those same numbers for the rest of the season.

  • #50 Boise (63/48/65)
  • #52 Air Force (40/68/30)
  • #121 New Mexico (97/128/15)
  • #75 Fresno (87/57/73)
  • #112 San Jose State (101/104/103)
  • #117 UNLV (108/111/100)
  • #77 San Diego State (124/15/23)
  • #57 Army (82/50/35)

So based on that information, early returns would suggest that the schedule is flipped from last season, in that they’ve got their weakest opponents still to come when they hit the halfway point of the season.

They’ve also got what appears to be a tougher schedule than last season, though obviously there are a lot of games to be played.

If the existing numbers are to believed, there are no offenses left that are even top 30, let alone as good as any of the Pac12 offenses that averaged almost 40 points per game.

There are also only a few bad defenses, but only one that is in the same conversation as the Washington offense that was the only one to hold Hawai’i under 30 points.

That sort of landscape would suggest that back-to-back bowl games for the first time since June Jones left town is a strong possibility. But to do more than that, to really compete, the Warriors have one obvious fix.

Turnover margin by game:

  • Arizona +4
  • Oregon State +2
  • Washington +3
  • Central Arkansas +4
  • Nevada -3

It’s a testament to the team’s resilience that they went 3-1 in four games where they committed so many turnovers, but you have to hope that the showing against Nevada is just as much a poor opponent as it is the Rainbow Warriors finally turning that corner.

The offense is better even with the rash of turnovers, and the defense may have improved just enough to be complementary instead of contradictory. The next couple of games will give us an excellent idea of just how much that carries over to the program’s growth as a whole.

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