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2021 Hawaii Bowl Preview: Memphis Tigers vs. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

Memphis needs a victory to capture an eighth consecutive winning season and second straight bowl win.

East Carolina v Memphis Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Friday, December 24 at 8:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex — Honolulu, HI
  • Spread: Memphis (-10), per DraftKings
  • Over/under: 54.5, per DraftKings
  • Memphis moneyline: -365, per DraftKings
  • Hawaii moneyline: +280, per DraftKings
  • All-time series: No previous meetings

* Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.


Setting the scene

After a hiatus in 2020, college football’s greatest Christmas Eve tradition is back in the works. The Hawaii Bowl returns to center stage of the college football world as the sporting world’s premier Dec. 24 festivity.

For the fourth time since 2016, the Hawaii Bowl is slated to host the local Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (6-7, 3-5 Mountain West), which will battle the Memphis Tigers (6-6, 3-5 AAC) for a coveted postseason win. Hawaii gained bowl eligibility at 6-7 thanks to the creation of the Frisco Football Classic, which was designed to fulfill postseason destinations for all 83 bowl eligible teams. Thus, the Rainbow Warriors are bowling for the fourth consecutive season with their sights set on a third straight postseason victory.

Meanwhile, Memphis extended its AAC-best bowl streak to eight consecutive years. With a victory in Honolulu, the Tigers will string together their eighth winning season in a row to prolong the most prosperous stretch in program history.


Memphis Tigers outlook

Last season, Memphis snapped its five game bowl skid to defeat Florida Atlantic in the first and only edition of the Montgomery Bowl. The 2020 Tigers team featured a senior laden roster and many key members of that team did not return for 2021.

Most notably, the Tigers were forced to transition from the program’s all-time leading passer Brady White to a new quarterback to guide the 2021 team. True freshman Seth Henigan stepped into the vacancy and led Memphis to the 16th ranked passing offense just one year after graduating from Ryan High School in Denton, TX. Henigan produced a pair of 400-yard games in his first taste of the collegiate level and guided Memphis to bowl eligibility with a 336-yard, 3-touchdown performance to upend Tulane in the Tigers’ most recent outing.

Henigan will be operating without his primary target Calvin Austin III, who opted out of the season to focus on the NFL Draft. Austin, the AAC’s second leading receiver with 1,149 yards, was responsible for a bulk of the Tigers’ receiving production. This leaves Memphis’ top receiving threat as Sean Dykes from the tight end role. Dykes caught his first pass as a Tiger in 2016, but this will be his first bowl as the featured tight end. His 48 receptions, 657 yards, and seven touchdowns lead all Memphis players set to take the field in Honolulu.

Other skill position players Memphis must rely on include wide receivers Javon Ivory and Eddie Lewis. Ivory missed the regular season finale but proved crucial with 67 receiving yards and a touchdown in the Tigers’ November upset over SMU. Lewis has emerged as a viable deep threat after issuing two touchdown receptions stemming from over 70 yards this year.

The Tigers placed less emphasis on the running game as the year progressed, and the team is likely operating without Brandon Thomas who missed three of the final four games. Thus, Rodrigues Clark is set to serve as the primary tailback in this one after accumulating 387 rushing yards and four touchdowns in 2021. Marquavius Weaver and Asa Martin should be thrown in the mix, but Memphis’ recent trends suggest it will lean heavier toward the air.

Coaching turnover has been a recurring theme in Memphis over the past decade, and the Tigers lost a key staff member earlier this month. Defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre accepted the head coaching job at FIU, so defensive backs coach Charles Clark with serve as the interim. On Clark’s side of the ball, the Tigers are led by their First Team All-AAC inside linebacker J.J. Russell. Russell currently graces the FBS top 10 in total tackles with 123 on the season, but that’s not the only high-ranking statistic featured on Memphis’ defense. Cornerback Greg Rubin also marinates in the top 10 of the FBS in deflections with 14. He’ll look to provide additional pass breakups to bolster Memphis’ 102nd ranked passing defense against Hawaii’s pass-happy offense.

Holding opponents on third downs was not an area of expertise for Memphis. Only four FBS teams allow teams to convert at a higher rate than the 48 percent yielded by the Tigers. Memphis resides in the bottom 20 of the FBS in defensive fourth down conversion percentage, so preventing Hawaii from gaining new life on critical downs is of utmost importance.


Hawaii Rainbow Warriors outlook

Hawaii stands one win away from completing its fourth consecutive season finishing .500 or better. The Rainbow Warriors disposed of an AAC team as underdogs in last year’s postseason, defeating Houston 28-14 in the New Mexico Bowl, and they’ll look to do the same once again.

The MVP of last year’s bowl was running back/wide receiver hybrid Calvin Turner Jr., who is set to play his final collegiate game this Christmas Eve. Turner scored a pair of home run touchdowns in the victory, acting as the recipient of a 75-yard pass in the first quarter and a 92-yard kickoff return in the third quarter. Turner’s role should only amplify in the Hawaii Bowl due to the absence of running back Dae Dae Hunter, who already completed a transfer to Liberty. The versatile Turner serves as a rusher, a receiver, and a kick returner, and he’ll look to build on his 316 rushing yards and 876 receiving yards in his sendoff performance as a Rainbow Warrior.

Hunter is one of two key Hawaii offensive starters to already announce a transfer. The Rainbow Warriors’ starting quarterback Chevan Cordeiro is also unavailable after declaring a transfer to San Jose State. Cordeiro’s decision promotes true freshman Brayden Schager to No. 1 on the depth chart. Similar to Henigan, Schager is one year removed from his high school career in the Dallas area. He received ample playing time in his first year, firing 107 passes for 615 yards in the regular season. Schager delivered a pair of touchdowns as the architect to the Rainbow Warriors’ signature upset over Fresno State in October.

Schager will aim to shatter his career-high of 219 passing yards while operating with a multitude of options. Receivers lining up alongside Turner include Nick Mardner, who leads the team with 913 yards on an average of 19.8 yards per reception, and Jared Smart, who showcases 414 receiving yards on the season.

On the other side of the ball, Hawaii must correct its pass defense issues in order to pull off the upset. The Rainbow Warriors rank in the basement of the FBS at 125th in passing yards allowed per game. If there is any silver lining to the secondary, it’s that the unit produces turnovers at a high rate. Only four FBS teams have collected more takeaways this season than Hawaii’s 27.

The ringleader of the turnover generation is strong safety Khoury Bethley, who is tied for second in the country in interceptions. Bethley converted those picks into 120 return yards, which is third in the FBS. The junior produced plenty of havoc plays in addition to interceptions, totaling four sacks and two forced fumbles this year. Such game-changing plays are vital to Hawaii as it seeks to improve the Mountain West’s perfect 4-0 bowl record.


Prediction

Don’t underestimate the power of Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. The Rainbow Warriors are 2-1 in the event since 2016, and in both of their wins, they were pegged as underdogs by Vegas. Hawaii is operating under a true freshman quarterback in Brayden Schager, but Schager was also the starter of the Rainbow Warriors’ most impressive win of 2021, a 27-24 triumph over Fresno State. Hawaii has notable playmakers including Calvin Turner Jr. and Khoury Bethley scattered across both sides of the ball, so the lack of Chevan Cordeiro and Dae Dae Hunter shouldn’t hurt too much.

Memphis presents plenty of offensive talent as well, even without the team’s primary superstar in Calvin Austin III. The Tigers can score with ease, but defending opponents’ passing attacks doesn’t always come easy for Memphis. However, the Tigers’ lack of rushing prowess late in the season suggests that Hawaii’s offense will be more multi-dimensional. Still, this game is bound for shootout territory, and the virtual home team has enough firepower to pull off the upset in Honolulu.

Prediction: Hawaii 38, Memphis 33