Editor's Note: The Hawaii Bowl was canceled on Wednesday night. According to a statement from Hawaii, a combination of COVID, transfers and season-ending injuries left the Rainbow Warriors unable to play.
In years past, a Christmas Eve matchup between the Memphis Tigers and Hawaii Rainbow Warriors would have been must-see TV with plenty of points expected. That is far from the case this season.
The Tigers (6-6) needed a fourth-quarter comeback in the season finale against a last-place Tulane team to secure bowl eligibility for the eighth straight year. Not what was expected after a 3-1 start coming out of the gates, but Memphis struggled mightily once it got into American Athletic Conference play, finishing with a 3-5 record and a 1-4 mark on the road. While the offense turned the ball over some, that side of the ball was not the issue, averaging 435.8 yards and 30.1 points per game. Defensively, it was a struggle yet again, ranking 92nd in points allowed and 96th in total yards during the regular season.
As for the Rainbow Warriors (6-7), it was a similar path to Memphis, as they needed two wins in the final two weeks (and a waiver from the NCAA) to secure bowl eligibility. Since the finale, we've seen Hawaii's starting quarterback and running back enter the transfer portal and had a report come out regarding head coach Todd Graham and his poor treatment of the players. It's only fair to question the motivation factor for Hawaii in this game if the players are fed up with their head coach.
Bettors seem to agree, as the Vegas line has moved to nearly nine points in favor of the Tigers as we get closer to this game.
EasyPost Hawaii Bowl: Memphis (6-6) vs. Hawaii (6-7)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex (Honolulu)
Spread: Memphis -8.5
When Memphis Has the Ball
Let’s start with who is not playing, including leading receiver Calvin Austin III. He's opting out in preparation for the NFL draft. That should come as no surprise to anyone, as the senior wideout had been dealing with an ankle injury late in the year that was limiting his snaps. Austin ends his Memphis career with 2,541 receiving yards, and his 22 touchdown catches tie him for second on the school's all-time list. The cupboard won't be bare without Austin since Memphis has a bevy of talented pass catchers who stepped up late in the year, including former Rutgers transfer Eddie Lewis, who has found the end zone in three of the last four games. There's also tight end Sean Dykes, who is second only to Austin with 48 catches and seven touchdowns.
Freshman quarterback Seth Henigan is the conductor of the Memphis offense, and he has had a sensational debut with 3,322 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions. Turnovers did become a problem for Henigan once Memphis got into conference play; he had at least one interception in all but two games and has also been credited with five fumbles. Defensively, Hawaii's secondary has been a concern all season. The Rainbow Warriors are dead last in the Mountain West in passing defense, and by a significant margin, giving up 289.7 yards per game through the air. Henigan has taken on a bigger role in the offense recently, averaging more than 40 pass attempts over the past month as the Tigers' backfield has been riddled by injuries. Leading rusher Brandon Thomas, another freshman, has totaled just nine carries in the last five games, and he did not play at all in either of the last two.
When Hawaii Has the Ball
Added preparation time with bowl games help, but Graham and the coaching staff have their work cut out for them in attempts to move the ball on Friday. Not because the Memphis defense is any good, but the Rainbow Warriors will be without starting quarterback Chevan Cordeiro and No. 1 running back Dae Dae Hunter, who both entered the transfer portal after the regular season. The duo has combined for 72 percent of the team's offensive production entering this game. Running back remains in good shape even without Hunter, as other options include multi-purpose weapon Calvin Turner Jr. and senior Dedrick Parson, who is averaging more than five yards per carry with eight touchdowns.
Quarterback, on the other hand, might be an adventure. Freshman Brayden Schager received extensive playing time earlier in the year when Cordeiro was out with a shoulder injury, but the results weren’t great, throwing just two touchdowns with six interceptions. Schager also does not offer the same dual-threat element that Cordeiro does (-50 yards on 14 attempts). When Schager does look to throw, he has an array of talented pass catchers, including Turner, who leads the team with 73 receptions, along with 6-foot-6 junior Nick Mardner, who is averaging nearly 20 yards per catch.
Defensively, Memphis doesn't do anything particularly well, ranking eighth in the AAC in passing defense (250.9 ypg) and ninth against the run (167.9 ypg). Memphis' last three opponents (East Carolina, Houston, Tulane) each scored three times on the ground.
Not a ton of analysis is needed here with this pick. Hawaii lost two of its best players to the portal, including one that plays the most important position on the field. Look for Memphis to build some momentum towards 2022 with a key building block in Henigan at quarterback as the Tigers give themselves a Christmas present — a W in paradise.
Prediction: Memphis 35, Hawaii 27
Podcast: Complete Preview for Bowl Season and Predictions
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.