The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors and Fresno State Bulldogs are set to finally open the 2020 college football season — hey, better late than never, right? — in a matchup between the two Mountain West programs that have combined to win the last three West Division championships. The game is also the first for two new head coaches and marks the official beginning of a new era for both programs.
Hawaii's Todd Graham is back on the sidelines for the first time since 2017, when he was fired at Arizona State. Graham inherited a team that won 10 games last season and made Nick Rolovich a sought-after candidate in the Pac-12. Kalen DeBoer has taken the reins from recently retired Jeff Tedford following a one-year stint as the offensive coordinator at Indiana. DeBoer, who was the OC at Fresno State from 2017-18 when the program was 22-6, hopes to spark another turnaround for the Bulldogs, who fell to 4-8 without him.
Hawaii at Fresno State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24, at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: KSEE24 (Fresno area NBC affiliate)/ PPV (Hawaii)
Spread: Fresno State -4
When Hawaii Has the Ball
Rolovich is gone, as is his Run-and-Shoot offense and prolific quarterback Cade McDonald. But that doesn't mean the Rainbow Warriors — who ranked fifth nationally with an average of 337.1 yards per game last year — will take a big step back offensively. Chevan Cordeiro pushed McDonald for playing time in each of the last two seasons, and finally has the quarterback job all to himself. In 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2019 (including three of his four career starts), Cordeiro completed 69 of 120 pass attempts (57.5 percent) for 907 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. His 7.6 yards per pass attempt would have ranked third in the Mountain West and among the top 50 nationally if he had thrown enough passes to qualify for official leaderboards.
Hawaii also lost a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in JoJo Ward and Cedric Byrd, but a third — Jared Smart, who caught 87 passes for 1,129 yards and two touchdowns — returns to lead a solid receiving corps that has plenty of talent. Graham tapped into his roots to lure graduate transfer Rico Bussey Jr., who posted 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns for North Texas in 2018 but played in only three games last season because of a torn ACL. Depth at the position includes junior college transfer Zion Bowens, sophomore Lincoln Victor, senior Melquise Stovall, who rejoined the program after being dismissed by Rolovich last year, and Rice transfer Aaron Cephus, who accounted for 1,187 receiving yards and 10 TDs with the Owls from 2017-18.
Miles Reed led the Rainbow Warriors with 908 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 174 carries last season and returns for what could be a heavier workload as a junior. Graham's offenses produced a 1,000-yard rusher in three of his last four seasons with the Sun Devils. Transfer Calvin Turner Jr., who started 22 games as an option quarterback at Jacksonville before the FCS program shut down and originally expected to play defense or receiver, is now listed as the No. 2 running back. The offense as a whole should benefit from one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, which returns four full-time starters and has combined for 128 career starts.
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Ronnie Rivers is one of the best running backs in the Mountain West. Last season, Rivers ran for 899 yards and led all MWC running backs with 13 touchdowns on the ground, giving him 2,122 career rushing yards and 28 touchdowns across three seasons with the Bulldogs. A highly capable pass catcher, Rivers recorded 43 receptions for 348 yards and three TDs last year. Jordan Mims, who missed all of last season because of injury, returns to add needed depth at the position. Mims ran for 436 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018. And like Reed, Rivers and Mims will run behind an offensive line with four starters back from last year's squad (though the Bulldogs have far fewer career starts with 66).
Fresno State took a step back in the passing game last season and hope head coach Kalen DoBoer's return, as well as the addition of Washington transfer quarterback Jake Haener, can help reverse the trend. Haener appeared in four games for the Huskies in 2018 and completed nine of 13 pass attempts (69.2 percent) for 107 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Unfortunately, Haener won't have last year's leading receiver, Zane Pope, who is out with an injury. But Keric Wheatfall (17 rec., 307 yds., TD) and Jalen Cropper (15, 196) are both big-play threats. Cropper was actually the second-leading rusher for the Bulldogs last season after gaining 343 yards and scoring three times on just 20 attempts — an incredible 17.2 yards per carry. Emoryie Edwards (22, 240, 2) showed promise as a freshman and Chris Coleman (9, 158, TD) is back on offense full-time after spending some time at cornerback in 2019.
Both defenses are units in transition. Hawaii struggled mightily to stop the run last season and ranked 11th in the conference and No. 111 nationally allowing an average of 202.8 rushing yards per game, which could be good news for Ronnie Rivers and the Fresno State rushing attack. The Rainbow Warriors, who return just four starters on defense, allowed 6.3 yards per play. Also, Hawaii will be undersized at both defensive end and linebacker as several players at those positions have moved from linebacker and defensive back, respectively, for new coordinator Victor Santa Cruz.
Conversely, Fresno State ranked 11th in the Mountain West and No. 107 in FBS in traditional pass defense, having allowed 259.2 yards per game in 2019. The numbers were better per play as the Bulldogs allowed 7.2 yards per pass attempt (which ranked 56th) and 5.7 yards per snap overall (74th). Nevertheless, Fresno State is similarly inexperienced with just three full-time starters returning — one at each level of the defense — and arguably the best player from last year's unit, linebacker Justin Rice, is now playing for Arkansas State as a grad transfer.
Hawaii and Fresno State are evenly matched on the field and are in a very similar situation in terms of roster experience and coaching turnover. However, Kalen DeBoer provides a smoother transition at the top, and the Bulldogs have the home-field advantage, which despite limits on fans in attendance this season still has some effect. Given those factors, we expect Fresno State to win a close game.
Prediction: Fresno State 31, Hawaii 30
(Ronnie Rivers photo courtesy of Fresno State Athletics)