The 2021 college football season kicks off early in Westwood with a veteran UCLA team hosting a dark-horse Mountain West contender, Hawaii.
This campaign is an especially pivotal one for UCLA under head coach Chip Kelly. The Bruins have shown flashes of brilliance in Kelly's first three seasons at the helm but failed to sustain them long enough to meet expectations. Reaching the program's first bowl game since 2017 is the bare minimum milestone UCLA aims to reach; doing that starts with vast improvement in the non-conference.
The Bruins are 0-6 in non-conference games under Kelly, including an 0-2 mark against the Mountain West. UCLA's last matchup with MW competition ended with San Diego State scoring a historic win at the Rose Bowl.
Hawaii seeks similar history, coming in 0-3 all-time against the Bruins. But the Rainbow Warriors won two games against Pac-12 competition in 2019, and second-year head coach Todd Graham had several Pac-12 championship contenders in his time at Arizona State.
Hawaii at UCLA
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCLA -18
When Hawaii Has the Ball
With a change in coaching staff a season ago, Hawaii transitioned from Nick Rolovich's take on the Run-and-Shoot to a spin on the spread Graham's overseen since his days at Rice. In fact, the Rainbow Warriors' offensive coordinator was G.J. Kinne, a standout quarterback in Graham's system at Tulsa.
Kinne left in the offseason for the same post at UCF, and Todd Graham's son Bo takes over the offense. He's working with a veteran group, which includes quarterback Chevan Cordeiro. Cordeiro passed for 2,083 yards and passed for 14 touchdowns in nine games a season ago.
Continuing in a trend for Todd Graham-coached teams, Cordeiro doubled as a leading rusher. His 483 yards and seven scores were tops among all Rainbow Warriors in 2020.
Coordinator Jerry Azzinaro's defenses at UCLA have often struggled to contain dual-threat quarterbacks. The collective experience of this year's defense will be put to the test, but the ability of veterans Mitchell Agude and Caleb Johnson to get into the backfield could reverse the Bruins' fortunes.
Their presence on the blitz is necessary not only to limit Cordeiro's explosiveness but to keep the versatile Calvin Turner Jr. in check. Turner thrives in space as a pass-catcher, forcing a defense to stretch across the sidelines, in turn opening the middle of the field for Hawaii's electric, running quarterback.
When UCLA Has the Ball
So much of UCLA's outlook in 2021 hinges on fourth-year quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. A highly-touted recruit in 2018, Thompson-Robinson looked like the perfect playmaker for the kind of offense Kelly oversaw while at Oregon. And when he's been healthy, Thompson-Robinson has grown into the expectations, despite the UCLA scheme looking different than the Oregon spread of last decade.
Keeping Thompson-Robinson on the field all season is a top priority because when he's behind center, he's a force. Thompson-Robinson rushed for 5.6 yards per carry a season ago and averaged more than eight yards per pass attempt. Improved passing accuracy has made him all the more dangerous, and if it continues to progress in 2021, could be what carries UCLA to a Pac-12 South title.
He's throwing to a solid group of pass catchers, starting with tight end Greg Dulcich. The tight end spot has been critical to the UCLA passing attack throughout Kelly's tenure, and Dulcich stepped up to the standard with an average of almost 20 yards per catch and five touchdowns.
Hawaii counters with an outstanding secondary, starting with cornerback Cortez Davis. The Decatur, Georgia, native promises to be one of the best coverage corners in the nation in 2021.
The most pressing question mark for UCLA is its replacement of do-everything running back Demetric Felton. Brittain Brown is a stout ball-carrier who should thrive as the every-down back, rushing with a style reminiscent of former teammate and current Los Angeles Charger Joshua Kelley.
However, Felton's shiftiness and two-way ability as a pass catcher gave UCLA an ace-in-the-hole whose presence is tough to emulate.
A strong start for UCLA is critical in establishing the tone this season — particularly with a marquee matchup against LSU looming. Hawaii is no pushover in Week 0, with the Rainbow Warriors coming in off their first true offseason under Todd Graham and returning a ton of talent.
Hawaii will be a contender for the MW West division and could boast one of the most exciting offenses in the nation. The Rainbow Warriors will test the Bruins, but the lumps UCLA has taken in recent years have built up to this possibly being the breakout year.
Prediction: UCLA 38, Hawaii 27
Podcast: Week 0 Preview, Final Predictions, the Alliance and Latest Preseason News and Notes
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.