Sept. 9, The Rose Bowl
2016 Record: 7-7 (4-4)
2016 Recap: Hawaii was a massively improved team in 2016 in the first year under new head coach Nick Rolovich. Taking over for Norm Chow, Rolovich helped improve the team by four wins, and sent the Rainbow Warriors to their first bowl game since 2010. Hawaii even won its bowl game, beating Middle Tennessee State to finish with a .500 record.
The season actually started off fairly poorly, with Hawaii having to travel a ton (to Australia to play Cal, to Ann Arbor to play Michigan, and to Tucson to play Arizona in the first four weeks of the season), and it's not coincidental that they started the season 1-3. About midway through the year, though, Hawaii made a quarterback change, which drastically improved the quality of the offense. Dru Brown was much better suited for running Rolovich's spread option attack, and that seemed to ignite the offense, allowing the team to go 6-4 over the final ten games of the season and 3-0 in the final three.
Returning Starters: 14 (eight on offense, six on defense)
2017 Projection: The offense should be very potent this year, with eight starters returning, including quarterback Brown, running back Diocemy Saint Juste, three starting offensive linemen, and nine of the team's top 11 receivers. Toward the end of last year, Rolovich seemed to finally be finding a rhythm with the offense, and it wouldn't be a shock to see this team explode offensively the way one of those June Jones teams from the early 2000s did. There are certainly enough pieces there for the Rainbow Warriors to have a good offense. A Bruin note of interest: former UCLA offensive lineman Fred Ulu-Perry is expected to compete for the starting center job by fall after missing spring practice due to injuries and personal reasons.
Defensively, it'll be a bit more of a rebuild. Last year's secondary was actually pretty good, but Hawaii needs to replace three starters. The defensive line has also seen some significant turnover, and it wasn't great to begin with. The linebacker corps has some stability, though, with the return of Jahlani Tavai, who is great at getting into the backfield and disrupting offenses. Hawaii has added some good talent (for Hawaii) with a class made up primarily of three-stars, and there are some solid additions to the defense in that group who might help this year (including Tago, the JC defensive end listed above).
So, basically, we're talking about a vintage Hawaii team. The offense could potentially be very good, but the defense is probably going to be the big limiting factor. If Rolovich can find a way to either have the offense perform at a top 15 level, or have the defense gel in a significant way, the Rainbow Warriors could build a little bit on last year's solid 7-7 season. Even if the offense is just good, though, Hawaii has a pretty decent chance of going bowling for the second year in a row.
Looking at the schedule, Hawaii still has a tough road in the non-conference with all of the travel, but it's better than last year. Hawaii should be able to beat UMass on the road to open the season, and then Western Carolina at home shouldn't prove to be much of a challenge. Because Hawaii plays a 13 game regular season, though, the Rainbow Warriors need to find five other wins to ensure bowl eligibility (with the growing number of bowl games, of course, six wins will usually do the trick even for a 6-7 team). Looking at the Mountain West, four wins seems doable, but five might take some improvement. Again, though, at 6-7, Hawaii would be likely to play in a bowl game anyway since there always seems to be a shortage of eligible teams.
Outlook for UCLA: This game does come just six days after Texas A&M, and it's a bit early in the season to be playing on shortened rest. That said, there's a significant enough talent differential here that the Bruins shouldn't have too much difficulty. Hawaii's offense might present a slightly different challenge from the Aggies, but UCLA's defense should be the strength of the team and the Bruins should be able to keep the Rainbow Warriors from getting too explosive at the Rose Bowl.
Offensively, the Bruins should (read: should) be able to take advantage of an inexperienced and under-talented Hawaii defense. Again, we're not going to know if this offense is as inept as last year until we're into the season, but if we're just judging talent, UCLA should be able to do what it wants to do against this team. If the Bruins are, say, unable to run on Hawaii to a significant extent, that is a pretty solid indication that UCLA will struggle to run on anyone in the 2017 season -- and that'll mean we're looking at a pretty long season.
So, this one should be a win -- if it's not, you might as well find a new hobby for the fall. But this will be a nice opportunity to assess a win qualitatively. If the Bruins can really put their stamp on this game, and dictate to Hawaii with both the run and the pass offensively, that'll be a good sign for the remainder of the season. But if UCLA struggles significantly in either area offensively, that spells major trouble.
Next up: Memphis