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California Golden Bears vs. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors Preview and Prediction

Sonny Dykes

Sonny Dykes

College football’s 2016 season officially kicks off on Friday night with California and Hawaii making the long trek to Sydney, Australia for a neutral site matchup. This game marks the inaugural College Football Sydney Cup and a crowd of over 60,000 is expected in ANZ Stadium.

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California heads into 2016 looking to build off last year’s 8-5 record. After a 1-11 mark in 2013, the Golden Bears showed steady improvement under coach Sonny Dykes with a 5-7 record in 2014, followed by an 8-5 mark in 2015. The eight-win campaign last season was the program’s best since 2009. Although this program is on the right track, the path to exceeding eight wins in 2016 isn’t going to be easy. The Golden Bears must replace Jared Goff – the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft – and return only five starters from a defense that surrendered 30.7 points a game last year. Additionally, California faces a tough schedule, which features non-conference games against San Diego State and Texas and crossover matchups in league play versus USC, UCLA, Arizona State and Utah.

Related: Ranking All 128 Starting QBs for 2016

While California hopes to build off a promising 2015 campaign, Hawaii is looking to get the program back on track. The Rainbow Warriors have recorded five consecutive losing seasons and slumped to 3-10 and winless in conference play last year. Hawaii has a long climb ahead in order to compete for the Mountain West title anytime soon, but there’s hope for improvement behind new coach Nick Rolovich. The former Rainbow Warrior quarterback returns to Honolulu after spending the last four seasons as Nevada’s offensive coordinator. Rolovich is a good fit and the right hire, but it’s going to take a year or two to rebuild the roster.

These two teams have met four previous times, with the all-time series tied at two victories apiece. The Rainbow Warriors and Golden Bears last met in 1994.

Hawaii vs. California (Sydney, Australia)

Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 26 at 10 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: California -20

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Three Things to Watch

1. The Quarterbacks

Replacing Jared Goff isn’t going to be easy, but California landed a late replacement in the form of Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb. The senior played in 23 games (14 starts) and threw for 5,557 yards and 46 scores in three years with the Red Raiders. Webb should be a good fit in the Bear Raid attack, but he will be throwing to a revamped group of receivers after California lost its top six statistical pass catchers from last year. Despite the transition in the receiving corps, Hawaii’s secondary is going to have its hands full. The Rainbow Warriors surrendered 23 passing scores last year and lost top defensive back Nick Nelson to a transfer.

Hawaii’s quarterback situation was filled with uncertainty headed into fall camp, but Rolovich named senior Ikaika Woolsey as the team’s starter. Woolsey has started 19 games in his career and threw for 908 yards and five scores last year. While Woolsey has the edge in experience over redshirt freshman Aaron Zwahlen and sophomore Dru Brown, the Rainbow Warriors need more production from this position. Can Woolsey cement his status as the team’s No. 1 quarterback in this game?

Related: Ranking the Pac-12's Top 35 Players for 2016

2. California’s Run Defense versus Hawaii’s Ground Game

As mentioned above, Hawaii’s passing attack enters this matchup needing better play from its Woolsey to pull off the upset. The best way to protect a quarterback? Establish a strong ground game. The Rainbow Warriors have a solid trio of running backs, headlined by last year’s leading rusher Paul Harris (1,132 yards). However, Harris is being pushed for time by junior Diocemy Saint Juste. California ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rush defense last season and returns only three starters in the front seven. If Hawaii has a shot at the upset, it needs to control the line of scrimmage and allow Harris and Saint Juste to take the pressure off of Woosley.

Related: College Football 2016 Conference, Playoff and National Title Predictions

3. California’s Freshmen Receivers

Even though California has to replace its top six receivers from last season, Dykes and new coordinator Jake Spavital have to feel optimistic about this group. The Golden Bears added two impact freshmen in the 2016 signing class, as Melquise Stovall and Demetris Robertson are expected to see plenty of snaps on Friday night. Additionally, redshirt freshman Brandon Singleton is penciled in as a starter, while junior Chad Hansen returns after catching 19 passes for 249 yards last year. How big of an impact will Stovall and Robertson make in their first game?

Final Analysis

While there’s always plenty of anticipation and excitement surrounding the first game of the college football season, this matchup could be a one-sided affair after halftime. California is favored by nearly three touchdowns and is loaded with skill talent on offense. In addition to quarterback Davis Webb, the Golden Bears return three talented running backs and a promising group of receivers. That’s a lot for Hawaii to overcome unless its offense can control the line of scrimmage and keep California’s high-powered attack on the sidelines. The Rainbow Warriors will have some success on the ground, but the Golden Bears’ offense will be too much to handle.  

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Prediction: California 41, Hawaii 17