The first night of the 2015 college football season concludes with Colorado traveling to Hawaii in a critical non-conference matchup for both teams. The Rainbow Warriors and Buffaloes combined for a 6-19 record last season, and a win in this contest would help both teams build momentum for a run at a bowl game this fall.
Optimism was the offseason storyline for both teams. Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre enters his third season at the helm in Boulder, and despite last year’s record (2-10), all signs point to the program trending in the right direction. The Buffaloes return 14 starters, including rising star quarterback Sefo Liufau and receiver Nelson Spruce. Hawaii coach Norm Chow is squarely on the hot seat in 2015, but the Rainbow Warriors could challenge for a bowl appearance if USC transfer Max Wittek solidifies the quarterback spot.
Colorado and Hawaii have met four previous times, with the all-time series tied at two victories apiece. This will be the Buffaloes first trip to Aloha Stadium since 2011. Colorado knocked off the Rainbow Warriors 21-12 last season.
Colorado at Hawaii
Kickoff: 1 a.m. ET (Friday morning)
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Colorado -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Hawaii QB Max Wittek
The Rainbow Warriors have struggled to find the right answer at quarterback over the last three seasons. Could that change in 2015? USC transfer Max Wittek was a four-star recruit in the 2011 signing class but never earned the full-time starting job in Los Angeles. With one more year of eligibility, this is Wittek’s final opportunity to impress NFL scouts. All signs point to the senior emerging as one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West this season, and the Rainbow Warriors can support their quarterback with a solid receiving corps and running back Steven Lakalaka. Will Wittek have a breakout performance on Thursday night?
2. Sefo Liufau to Nelson Spruce
Hawaii’s pass defense surrendered 26 scores last season, and this secondary will be tested against Colorado. The Rainbow Warriors return three starters in the defensive backfield, including All-Mountain West candidate Ne’Quan Phillips at cornerback. While the secondary has to eliminate some of the big plays allowed last season (14 passing plays surrendered of 40 yards or more), the pass rush has to help the coverage. Liufau is a rising star in the Pac-12 after throwing for 3,200 yards and 28 scores in 2014. Expect to see the junior target receiver Nelson Spruce frequently on Thursday, as Spruce recorded 106 receptions last season. This prolific combination should have their share of opportunities to connect on big plays. Can Hawaii keep this duo in check?
3. Jim Leavitt’s Impact at Colorado
Colorado’s defense has been a major issue since the program joined the Pac-12 in 2014. Among Pac-12 teams, the Buffaloes have ranked 11th or 12th in scoring defense in each of the last four seasons. After Kent Baer left to call the defensive signals at UNLV, MacIntyre hired former USF coach Jim Leavitt to coordinate the defense. The Buffaloes have question marks at each level, starting up front for a unit that allowed 204.8 rushing yards per game last season. What type of impact will Leavitt have in 2015? This game should be a good barometer test for Colorado.
This one isn’t slated for kickoff until 1 a.m. ET on Friday morning (or Thursday night if you are on the West Coast). Be sure to set the DVR. Both quarterbacks should make their share of plays, but Colorado is the better overall team. Liufau and Spruce open the 2015 season with a huge performance, while the Buffaloes get enough stops on defense to pull away in the second half.