The pre-Christmas part of the bowl season comes to an end with the SoFi Hawaii Bowl between the independent BYU Cougars and the Hawaii Fighting Rainbows of the Mountain West. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:00 EST on Tuesday, December 24 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii. Fans can watch all of the action on ESPN.
According to this year’s bowl game betting odds, the Cougars are favored by 1.5 points in what amounts to a road game for them. There is also an over/under for the game set at 64 points.
This season was a huge step forward for Hawaii. Head coach Nick Rolovich has now taken the Rainbow Warriors to a bowl game in three of his first four seasons. Hawaii made significant strides this year, knocking off a pair of Pac-12 teams in Arizona and Oregon State to begin the season. More importantly, the Rainbow Warriors played in the Mountain West Championship Game for the first time. Despite losing to Boise State in the conference title game, Hawaii has a chance to win 10 games for the first time since 2010.
It’s been a similar situation for BYU, who suffered through a disappointing 4-9 season in 2017 but is now slowly working their way back up the ranks. The Cougars have endured a wild season, knocking off Tennessee and USC early in the year, only to suffer a three-game losing streak to drop to 2-4. However, BYU would rally the second half of the season, using an upset win over Boise State as a springboard to five straight wins that helped the Cougars finish 7-5. They are now playing in their 14th bowl game in the last 15 years, going 8-5 during that span, including last year’s win over Western Michigan.
This will be the first bowl meeting between BYU and Hawaii, but the two programs are by no means strangers. The two sides had a home-and-home series in 2017 and 2018. The Cougars won both games, including a 30-20 on a trip to Honolulu two years ago. BYU also swept a two-game series from Hawaii in 2011 and 2012. The Cougars have won five straight meetings against the Rainbow Warriors overall, with Hawaii’s last win over BYU coming in 2001.
Hawaii has had a great year, but I think they’ll fall a little short of 10 wins. Keep in mind that the Rainbow Warriors were just 1-4 against bowl-eligible teams this season whereas BYU was 5-3. Hawaii’s balance between offense and defense doesn’t quite compare to the Cougars. With the small line essentially making this a PK, I’ll side with BYU to win a de facto road game.
Despite winning nine games this year, Hawaii’s defense still has a long way to go. When the competition level kicked up a notch or two this season, the Rainbow Warriors had a hard time on that side of the ball. In nine of their 14 games, Hawaii gave up at least 31 points, conceding over 50 points on three separate occasions. It was only against the worst offensive teams in the Mountain West that the Hawaii defense looked anywhere close to viable.
Admittedly, BYU doesn’t have the most dynamic offense in the country. However, the Cougars lost running back Ty’Son Williams to injury early in the season and struggled to find a permanent replacement. Freshman running back Sione Finau was also lost to an injury late in the year after starting to establish himself as a productive runner. They also lost quarterback Zach Wilson to a thumb injury for a significant chunk of the season, which threw them for a loop despite getting decent play from a couple of backups.
The good news for BYU is that Wilson returned from injury in November and didn’t seem to miss a beat. In fairness, he struggled against an excellent San Diego State defense in the season finale. But I don’t think he’ll have much trouble against the Hawaii defense. After getting a little extra practice time ahead of the bowl game, Wilson should be at his best in the bowl game.
On the other side of the ball, there’s no denying that Hawaii is capable of some special things offensively behind quarterback Cole McDonald. With four quality receivers around him and a productive rushing attack, McDonald is capable of putting up big numbers. The Rainbow Warriors have a chance to turn this game into a track meet, which would suit them more so than BYU.
However, we’ve seen the Hawaii offense struggle against quality defensive teams, and the Cougars are no pushover on that side of the ball. BYU is strong enough on the defensive line to win in the trenches and put McDonald under pressure, throwing off his time and rhythm. If the Rainbow Warriors aren’t clicking on all cylinders offensively, it’s tough for them to win given the struggles of their defense.
Ultimately, the BYU defense should be able to get stops against the Hawaii offense. However, I don’t have nearly as much confidence in the Hawaii defense. As the spread indicates, I’m expecting a close game. But I think the Cougars are a safer bet to pull out a close game and win by at least a field goal to cover the spread.