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Vanderbilt vs. Hawaii Football Prediction and Preview

Anfernee Orji, Vanderbilt Commodores Football

The first weekend of the 2022 college football season comes to a close with Vanderbilt taking on Hawaii on Saturday night. It's only Week 0, but considering the brutal SEC slate ahead after coach Clark Lea went 2-10 in his debut last year, the long trip to Honolulu is a must-win game for the Commodores. On the other sideline, the Rainbow Warriors will aim to play spoiler in new coach Timmy Chang's debut. It's been an offseason of change for Hawaii, as Chang takes over at his alma mater in a clear rebuilding year with just five returning starters.

There was no easy fix for Lea after he was hired at his alma mater after the '20 season. However, things got off to a rocky start with a loss to FCS East Tennessee State in the opener, and Vanderbilt finished 2-10 overall. The Commodores were largely uncompetitive in the SEC, but there's hope for improvement with an offseason of roster additions through the transfer portal and on the recruiting trail. A bowl game isn't expected at Vanderbilt this fall. However, improvement is essential to keep Lea's rebuilding effort on track.

After a high-profile split with Todd Graham, Hawaii made the smart decision to bring Chang back to Honolulu. The former record-setting quarterback for the Rainbow Warriors is inexperienced as a 40-year-old first-time head coach. However, it's not easy to win at Hawaii, so having a coach with a sustained history of the culture and challenges is a huge plus. With significant turnover on both sides of the ball, the Rainbow Warriors are picked last in the Mountain West's West Division by Athlon Sports. This year is all about Chang getting the program on the right track and showing steady improvement through '22.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 0

This is the first time Vanderbilt and Hawaii have played on the gridiron. The Rainbow Warriors have not faced an SEC opponent since Aug. 30, 2008 when they made the long trip to take on Florida in Gainesville.

Vanderbilt at Hawaii

Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 27 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Vanderbilt -8.5

When Vanderbilt Has the Ball

Vanderbilt needs improvement in all phases of the game in 2022, with the offense particularly under the spotlight after a year of struggles. The issues started last fall when David Raih was demoted from play-caller and Joey Lynch took over the role. The coaching switch was just one of many areas of concern, as the Commodores averaged just 15.8 points a game and 4.5 yards per play. This offense had just five games of more than 20 points scored and generated just seven plays of 40-plus yards. 

Lea ended any speculation about the quarterback battle between Mike Wright and Ken Seals at SEC Media Days, naming Wright as the team's starter for the opener. In 10 games last year, Wright threw for 1,042 yards and eight scores (53.1 percent completion rate) and rushed for 376 yards over 91 carries. Seals is more accurate (56.7 percent completion rate) and a better overall passer, but Wright's playmaking ability is needed on an offense looking for a spark. 

In addition to better quarterback play, Vanderbilt desperately needs marked improvement up front. The Commodores gave up 27 sacks, and rushers averaged 3.4 yards per carry in SEC play last fall. Three starters return, but major concerns remain about this group for Lea and Lynch. However, if the line can provide adequate protection, Vanderbilt's offense can take advantage of a capable group of skill players. Ray Davis' return from a season-ending injury boosts a backfield also slated to return Patrick Smith and Rocko Griffin. Freshman Jayden McGowan made noise throughout the offseason and is expected to be a key cog for Wright at receiver. 

Getting stops on defense was a challenge for Hawaii last year and big questions remain for first-year coordinator Jacob Yoro. The Rainbow Warriors ranked 11th in the Mountain West last season in points allowed (31.4 a contest), surrendered 5.8 yards per play, and gave up the most plays of 40-plus yards (20) in the conference. Eight of the unit's top 10 tacklers from '21 departed, and Chang has added a handful of Power 5 transfers to bolster the depth and talent. End Mataio Soli (Arkansas) and cornerbacks Hugh Nelson II (Georgia), Virdel Edwards (Iowa State), JoJo Forest (Oregon State), and nickel Malik Hausman (Arizona) are all expected to see major snaps on Saturday night. Linebacker Penei Pavihi and nose tackle Blessman Ta'ala – the top two players on defense for Yoro – will be crucial in slowing Vanderbilt's rushing attack. 

When Hawaii Has the Ball

The only certainty on Hawaii's offense is the uncertainty. This unit underwent a major overhaul from last season and change is prominent at every position. Chang and coordinator Ian Shoemaker plan to install the run-and-shoot offense, but quick fixes aren't likely in order for a unit that ranked sixth in the Mountain West in scoring (28.8 points a game) last fall.

The Rainbow Warriors aren't likely to announce a quarterback prior to kickoff. Three candidates – Brayden Schager, Cammon Cooper and Joey Yellen – are vying for the first snap. Schager started three contests for Hawaii last season, throwing for 615 yards and two touchdowns vs. five picks. He's a (slight) presumed favorite for the No. 1 job on Saturday night, with the two Power 5 transfers – Yellen (Pitt) and Cooper (Washington State) close behind. 

Hawaii's skill talent is also in transition with last year's leading rusher Dae Dae Hunter opting to transfer, and the receiving corps losing all-around standout Calvin Turner Jr., along with Nick Mardner and Jared Smart. Zion Bowens (12 catches), Jonah Panoke (11) and James Phillips are listed as the starters for Saturday night on the outside, and tight ends Jordan Murray and Caleb Phillips are also expected to contribute in the passing game. Although Hawaii is expected to lean on its passing game this year, running back Dedrick Parson (618 yards last year) is the team's best and most established weapon going into the opener.

Lea was one of college football's top defensive coordinators during his tenure at Notre Dame, and there's optimism the Commodores will perform better on this side of the ball after a rough '21. Last year, Lea's defense gave up 35.6 points a game, ranked 13th in the SEC against the run, allowed 29 touchdown passes, and surrendered 6.8 yards a snap. Six starters are back, including standout linebacker Anfernee Orji and linemen Elijah McAllister and Nate Clifton, while transfer additions Jeremy Lucien (CB) and Kane Patterson (LB) will provide instant help. With the scheme change and personnel turnover, Lea and his staff will have their hands full getting Vanderbilt prepared for Saturday night's matchup

Final Analysis

Week 0 is always tough to predict. And there's added difficulty projecting this matchup considering all of the changes to Hawaii's roster and coaching staff. The mystery and long travel for Vanderbilt should help the Rainbow Warriors in a game where they are nearly a 10-point underdog. Hawaii likely won't pick a starting quarterback prior to kickoff, but either Schager, Yellen or Cooper has to have a good performance through the air for Chang to emerge with a victory in his debut. Also, the Rainbow Warriors have to avoid getting in too big of a deficit early as it works through the new faces and transition on both sides of the ball. The guess here is Vanderbilt's running game and Wright's playmaking ability show up in the second half, and Lea's defense also steps up to lift the Commodores to 1-0.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 34, Hawaii 24

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