Say what you will about Hawaii's football team, but you know you'd rather be looking at this than I-285.
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii.
This season: As everyone now knows, the Warriors are the last remaining undefeated team in the country, having capped off an undefeated season with a come-from-behind 35-28 victory over Washington on December 1. It should be mentioned, though, that their strength of schedule is ranked 119th out of 119 D-IA teams; they played one ranked team all season (Boise State) and only three teams that earned bowl invites (BSU, Fresno State and Nevada). They also played two D-IAA opponents, Charleston Southern (5-6) and Northern Colorado (1-11).
Hate index, 1 being Tina Fey, 10 being Bill O'Reilly: Errr . . . let's say six and a half. No, make it seven. I mean, I'm thrilled for the Warriors that they've fought their way into a BCS bowl, but quite frankly, some of these folks need to act like they've been there before. Even then, though, I can only gin up so much anger toward a state that gave us "Magnum, P.I."
Associated hottie: Hawaii-born actress Kristina Anapau only attended the university for a year before embarking on her career in Hollywood, but she earned a lead role in ”Cruel Intentions 3” and provided the voice of Nicole Richie on “Celebrity Deathmatch” last year. So who’s laughing now, assface?
Incidentally, the interview that went with that Stuff magazine picture (yes, there are words!) says that Anapau is actually her middle name, which she uses as her professional name in Hollywood; it means "to dance or frolic about." My middle name is Clark, which means "clerk." All right, Hawaii, that's one point for you.
What excites me: Yes, Hawaii has an amazing offense and a better-than-you-think defense, they can throw it all over the field and they've been torching scoreboards all over the Pacific Rim ever since they first took the field back in September. But with all due respect to the Warriors and their coaches, there's a little asterisk that needs to go by those achievements, and that asterisk is known as "Easiest Schedule In All Of Division I-A." And that's not even a slight exaggeration: Jeff Sagarin says that not only did the Warriors play the easiest schedule in the Football Bowl Subdivision, they also played only the 137th toughest schedule in all of Division I. Meaning that such titans as Furman, Western Illinois, and Southern Utah all faced a more imposing gauntlet than Hawaii did.
Did you have to face Weber State this season? No? Then the SUU Thunderbirds would like to offer you a tall, refreshing glass of Shut The Fuck Up.
So yes, Hawaii can throw the ball, but they haven't exactly been throwing it against the '85 Bears. What's more, they haven't been doing much of anything besides throwing. The Warriors' 113th-ranked rushing offense averages only 79 yards a game, and they run it fewer than 22 times a contest, the most pass-biased offense in the country after Texas Tech's. And if you think about it, this puts them at a double disadvantage, because if they don't run all that much, then their defense probably doesn't see a whole lot of it in practice, either. I think it's safe to say that the UH front seven has never seen anything like Knowshon Moreno or Thomas Brown in their lives, and after New Orleans, they may never want to again. (Yes, Hawaii does have a run defense that, statistically at least, is satisfactory -- but six of their 12 opponents were ranked 50th or below nationally in rushing offense, and two more were I-AAs.)
As a number of ESPN guys pointed out while Hawaii was getting taken to overtime by San Jose State earlier in the season, the Warriors are a much different team on the mainland than they are within the friendly confines of Aloha Stadium. On average, they score nearly 10 fewer points and allow five more points per game on the road; both of their OT games this year took place in the lower 48 (at 5-7 Louisiana Tech and 5-7 San Jose State, in case you were curious). In June Jones's nine years as coach, the Warriors have won only four out-of-conference games on the mainland; three of them (Eastern Illinois, Boise State, and Navy) took place in Jones's first year, and the fourth came this year against 2-10 UNLV. In fact, in all their years of football, the Warriors have gone to only one bowl on the mainland -- a 27-17 win in the 1992 Holiday Bowl over a 6-4-1 Illinois team.
Hawaii QB Colt Brennan, whom the kids love because he is totally not a system quarterback.
What worries me: Whether or not they’ve put up their biggest numbers against joke competition, the fact remains that Hawaii’s passing attack is formidable and notoriously difficult to defend against. Nobody’s been able to hold them below 300 passing yards this season, and only four teams were able to hold them below 400. Statistically, an average passing day for the Warriors involves 450 yards and four TDs.
Quarterback Colt Brennan has gotten the lion’s share of the credit for this, and not without reason, but credit is also due to his receivers, who can go toe-to-toe with any receiving corps in the country. Three of Hawaii’s wideouts -- Davone Bess, Ryan Grice-Mullen, and Jason Rivers -- have more than 1,000 yards on the season; a fourth, C.J. Hawthorne, has 786 at a rate of 13.8 yards per catch. In previewing Kentucky earlier this season, I expressed worry that Kentucky’s across-the-board superb receiving corps would present a difficult matchup for our secondary in much the same way that Tennessee’s had in 2006; we actually ended up handling the Wildcats pretty well, but if anything, Hawaii’s passing game is even more productive (and diverse, from a receiver standpoint) than Kentucky’s. Our secondary is going to have to play lights-out, because double-covering anybody simply isn’t an option. Blanket one receiver with two guys and Brennan is simply going to throw it to somebody else.
Brennan has also been helped out by a very good offensive line. Statistically, Hawaii’s 27 sacks allowed this year puts them only 74th in the nation, but that’s a phenomenal number when you consider how many times Brennan has dropped back to pass this year. Brennan gets taken down once every 23.4 times he drops back, which is just a hair better than the performance by Georgia’s O-line (that has been rightfully lauded this season). Hawaii’s O-line actually isn’t nearly as big as I thought they were -- you’ll have to forgive me some cultural stereotyping here, because I just kind of assumed they were all going to be big Samoan dudes in the area of 400 pounds each -- but they’re still going to be a challenge for a Georgia front seven that has succeeded with speed as opposed to size this year.
Hawaiian native Konishiki: Not actually on Hawaii's team, but I'm pretty sure they tried to recruit him.
Kyle King of Dawgsports has outdone even his usual exhaustive research into Georgia’s opponents with a three-part investigation into Hawaii’s passing game (here, here, and here). I won’t dare try to sum it all up in a sentence, or even a paragraph, but Kyle seems to agree with my sentiment that while the secondary obviously has to play heads-up on every single down, getting pressure on Brennan from the front four is also paramount. I don’t know how well we’ll be able to do that, but I do know one thing -- a lot of it will come down to Georgia’s motivation. That’s a “What worries me” that I’ll address a little bit later on.
Player who needs to step up: SS Kelin Johnson. A common refrain I've been reading in previews of this game is that Georgia's pass defense has "struggled" in
Willie Martinez, of course, is going to be on the spot here, being tasked with calling the kinds of defensive schemes that will put our defensive backs in position to make plays. After the debacle of the Sugar Bowl against West Virginia a couple years ago, I think he’s going to do a much better job of scouting our opponent this time around, but even then he can only do so much, given that Georgia has faced only a handful of teams that can spread the field anywhere near as well as Hawaii will. One of them (Kentucky) we handled nicely; a couple of them (Florida and Troy) piled up some points, but we were able to outscore them; and the last one, Tennessee, straight-up fucking killed us. I don’t think there’s any way we’ll come into this one looking as bad as we did in that Tennessee game, but even with a 150-percent effort, Willie’s still gonna have to coordinate his ass off.
And do so WITH! ENTHUSIASM!
What I think will happen: You read all the statistics and analysis-type stuff above, right? Think you got a pretty good handle on it? OK, great. Now throw it all right out the window. On paper, with an overwhelmingly superior running game and a lightning-fast defense, Georgia should be able to win pretty solidly, but whether they actually will depends on whether they play like the team we saw against Florida and Auburn or whether they come into this thing thinking a win is already in the bag. And I don’t think any of us can say for sure which one’s going to happen. It’s bad enough that they’ve had to hear some Dawg fans yakking for nearly a month about how Hawaii is an overrated team that plays in a crap conference; we heard similar stuff in the run-up to our Sugar Bowl date with West Virginia two years ago, and look how that turned out. But in this particular instance, we run the additional risk of contracting what I’ve come to refer to as “Kansas State Syndrome.”
Nine years ago, K-State rolled into the Big 12 title game sporting an 11-0 record and their first #1 ranking in program history, but lost to an underrated Texas A&M squad in a double-OT heartbreaker. The loss only dropped them to #4, but the bowls were worried that a fan base with such a scant postseason track record wouldn't travel well, and the Wildcats got passed over until they found themselves in the December 29 Alamo Bowl. KSU was pitted against an 8-4 Purdue team that had no ranking, no running game, and really not much to speak of other than then-sophomore Drew Brees -- but the Wildcats proceeded to pull one of the all-time postseason don't-give-a-fucks and lost, 37-34.
A lone K-State defender channels Dante from "Clerks": "I'm not even supposed to be here today."
The syndrome has been contracted by numerous other teams since then. Tennessee in the 2002 and 2003 Peach Bowls. California in the '04 Holiday Bowl. Miami in the '05 Peach Bowl. Oregon in the '05 Holiday Bowl. When the bowl season comes around, all other things being equal, you go with the team that's happier to be there. And I don't think there's any question that, in this case, that team is Hawaii.
Of course, all other things aren't equal here. Georgia has a far more balanced offense, a superior defense, and they've been battle-tested against teams far superior to anyone Hawaii has played. But none of that's going to mean anything if the Bulldogs come in expecting an easy win, or if they spend more time dwelling on being kept out of the national title game than on the opponent at hand.
So . . . is that what they're gonna do? Well, honestly I'm not as worried about that now as I was a couple weeks ago. Yeah, I heard a lot more than I wanted to from the players about how bummed they were to not be playing for the national title, but that seems to have died down somewhat -- and in a weird way, I think the relative youth of our team might work in our favor as far as team attitude is concerned. The seniors and more experienced guys might come into it ticked off that they came so close to a national-title shot and were denied, but consider the underclassmen -- last year they struggled through a rough season and played in a December bowl, this year they're playing in a BCS bowl on network TV. As far as they’re concerned, this might as well be the Super Bowl. And with most of them knowing they may have a shot at a national title next year or the year after that, I doubt many of them will be spending an inordinate amount of time wondering what might have been in '07.
Watch if you're just not pissed off enough at Mark May yet.
Obviously Mark Richt doesn't need any advice on motivational tactics from me, but if I were him I'd take the David-vs.-Goliath angle everybody's been talking about for this game and flip the script a little: "Guys, everyone's been talking about how Hawaii is David and we're Goliath, but as far as I'm concerned, we're the David here, and the Goliath we're going up against is the media. Those guys don't want a good game, they just want a good story, and the story they want to write is about how Hawaii beat us. They want to write about how we came into this game flat and underestimating the Warriors, and how those guys jumped up and beat the Georgia Bulldogs, one of the best teams in the country. I'll bet you most of those guys already have that story written in their heads -- they're just waiting to put it down on paper. Well, there's only one group of guys who can keep them from writing that story, and guess what: You're it. If you want them to write about how good our passing game is instead of how good Hawaii's passing game is, then you've got to catch those passes. If you want them to write about how tough we are instead of how tough Hawaii is, then you've got to wrap up those tackles and play to the whistle on every single down. And if you want them to write about how Georgia was the only team that managed to beat Hawaii this year, instead of about how Hawaii pulled off the biggest upset of the bowl season, you've got to play hard and win this game. Nobody's gonna hand you a single thing tonight -- not the other team, not the media, nobody. The hard work that you put in and the heart that you show out there on the field is gonna determine how this story gets written."
In the end, I think Georgia will come out swinging, but so will Hawaii, and they're going to put some points on the board, one way or another. The key, as Kirk Herbstreit and a couple others have pointed out, is Georgia's power running game, for the longer Georgia's offense stays on the field and grinds out clock, the less time that leaves for Colt Brennan to be chucking the ball all over the place. Hawaii's offense can indeed strike quickly -- their average offensive scoring drive was only 2:27, and their average drive (excluding OT possessions and the final possessions before the end of a half) was only 2:05. (Hawaii is 112th in the nation this season in time of possession, which just shows to go you how misleading that stat can be.) On the other hand, behind Moreno and Brown, Georgia's average scoring drive lasted nearly three minutes, and their average drive overall was right at 2:30. It sounds strange to say that taking longer to score might be an advantage, but that aspect will have the dual effect of 1) keeping Brennan on the sideline and 2) wearing down a Hawaii defense that, as we've discussed, has yet to see a power running attack anything like Georgia's. And, as Matt Stafford proved in the Florida and Auburn games, it's not like we can't put up a quick scoring strike when we need to.
Because of all that, I think we could very well be in for a tense first half but should see the Dawgs pull away slowly but surely in the second. But again, it all comes down to how much our players want to get up for it. If go into it with our 2005 attitude -- or Kansas State's 1998 attitude -- then it's going to be a long and unpleasant night with nothing more to show for it than yet another Sugar Bowl Runner-Up trophy. But if we're as pumped up as we should be about playing in New Orleans, if Richt can get our guys motivated the way he did before Florida and Auburn, then we go into halftime with a small lead and build on it the rest of the way, ultimately winning by 10-14 points. Just to be on the safe side, I'll say we win by a single touchdown; with an offense that can strike as quickly as Hawaii’s can, no lead is safe, and even if we have a two-TD lead with two minutes left, I’m still going to be nervous. As Paul Westerdawg said in an earlier look at the Sugar Bowl, we’ve got to put our foot on the gas early and never, ever let up.
Mele kalikimaka, kids . . . and go Dawgs.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia holds the Warriors to 20 or fewer points. It hasn’t happened this season, of course, but it can be done -- it’s happened 23 times in June Jones’s tenure at Hawaii, and the Warriors only won two of those games. Even then, I'm not betting any money it'll happen, but if it did, well, that'd save us eight or 10 months of having to hear about how OMG AW3SOM3 Jones's offensive system is. And it'd be a hell of a momentum-builder as Georgia heads into a 2008 season in which they may very well be on the shortlist for a national-title shot.