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A ridiculously way-too-early preview: Arizona vs. Hawaii

arizona-wildcats-hawaii-rainbow-warriors-college-football-2019-preview Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Already jonesing for college football to come back? Well, the bad news is it’s going to be a while.

The good news is, when the 2019 season begins on Aug. 24—a scant 227 days from now—the Arizona Wildcats will be carrying the flag for all of us who had to suffer through seven-plus months of boredom.

As it stands, Arizona’s game at the Hawaii Warriors is the first official contest of the 2019 slate. No other games are currently scheduled for Aug. 24, also known as “Week Zero,” though that could change. NCAA rules allow for any team that’s set to visit Hawaii to be able to play that weekend, one of two incentives given for traveling to Honolulu along with being able to add a 13th game.

Arizona opted not to take advantage of that inducement, sticking with the standard 12-game schedule for 2019, but because of the Hawaii game being played a week early it means the Wildcats will have three bye weeks on the schedule for the first time in program history.

So, what kind of a game should we expect in a little more than 32 weeks? Here’s our best guess at this point:

How will Arizona look?

Arizona is expected to return at least seven starters on offense, most notably quarterback Khalil Tate, who had been rumored to be looking to transfer or even turn pro. He’s coming off a 2018 season in which he entered as a fringe Heisman candidate but quickly got forgotten after a scheme change (and a left ankle injury) wiped away his running ability.

Tate instead grew into his arm, throwing for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns. Nearly all of those TD passes when to a trio of receivers (Shawn Poindexter, Shun Brown and Tony Ellison) who won’t be back, however, so identifying new go-to targets will be key this offseason.

The run game figures to be a strong point once again with the return of J.J. Taylor, who as a redshirt sophomore ran for 1,434 yards and six scores. He’ll be running behind an offensive line that loses only one starter (left tackle Layth Friekh) and could be enhanced by the arrival of a pair of junior college linemen in Josh Donovan and Paiton Fears.

Arizona’s defense should bring back nine starters, losing only defensive tackle Dereck Boles and safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. Linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II will be entering their junior (read: NFL Draft-eligible) seasons, while a young secondary should only get better after gaining plenty of experience in 2018.

Then again, those returners are from a unit that allowed 32.6 points per game.

Where the Wildcats could see the biggest leap forward on defense is up front. Aside from the return of monster PJ Johnson, JUCO signees Trevon Mason and Myles Tapusoa should provide a huge boost to the pass rush and run defense.

How will Hawaii look?

Hawaii is coming off a 8-6 season in which it started 6-1 before sliding late, losing 31-14 at home to Louisiana Tech in the Hawaii Bowl. And pending transfers or other departures, the Rainbow Warriors could be returning as many as 17 starters from that squad.

Who starts at quarterback is very uncertain, as Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro traded off at the position down the stretch. McDonald threw for 3,875 yards and 36 TDs but struggled late, throwing six of his 10 interceptions in Hawaii’s final four games.

The Warriors don’t run much, but their top three gainers (including McDonald) are expected to be back. The same can’t be said for Hawaii’s receiving corps, as John Ursua has entered the NFL draft after a junior year in which he had 89 catches for 1,343 yards and 16 scores. There are three other guys set to come back who had at least 50 receptions, though, so it’s not like the cupboard will be as bare as Arizona’s.

Defensively, Hawaii is set to return its top three tacklers, its top sack (Kaimana Padello, who had 8.5 along with 13 tackles for loss) and nearly all its secondary. Like Arizona, though, those defensive returnees should be considered with a grain of salt since the Warriors allowed 35.1 points per game.

Who will win?

Making a prediction in this game is almost pointless, but what the heck. If we’re wrong there are plenty of excuses to fall back on, while if we’re right …

Arizona is 5-0 all-time against Hawaii, including 3-0 on the island. Its last trip there, in 1998, set in motion the greatest season in program history. Wouldn’t that be nice if that happened again?

Hawaii has a built-in home field advantage because of the travel, and it’s had a tendency to knock off Pac-12 teams in Aloha Stadium. The last victim was Colorado, to open the 2015 season.

Now for the complete blind stab in the dark: Arizona wins 37-27.