Tuesday | September 26, 2017
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Lewis: Opener will reveal a lot about Hawaii, UMass

It is just the first of 12 regular-season football games, but for both the University of Hawaii and its adversary, Massachusetts, Saturday’s opener already feels like a whole lot more.

Nine months to the day after they met in the 2016 regular-season finale at Aloha Stadium, the import of this one is unmistakable.

For what both want out of this young season and, indeed, what they need from it, the opener looms large.

One of the reasons both schools badly wanted this game on TV – even through the obscure Eleven Sports Network (Spectrum 257/1257) – is for the statement they each hope to make.

For the Rainbow Warriors, the opener is about reaffirming the program is advancing on the right track. It is about following up on coach Nick Rolovich’s 7-7 inaugural season and taking the first step toward the breakthrough to the program’s first winning season since 2010.

A victory over the Minutemen in Amherst, Mass., puts them on that path with the likelihood of a 2-0 start for the first time since 2009 because Western Carolina, an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision team, is on deck Sept. 2 back in Honolulu

But a Rainbow Warriors loss to the Minutemen, whom they beat in November to vault into the postseason, would be a setback in perception as well as record. After Western Carolina, UH will likely be an underdog in at least two of their next three games (UCLA, Wyoming and Colorado State), so it behooves the ‘Bows, a one-point pick on many Las Vegas betting lines, to pick up the victories where they can.

That UH will travel 5,006 miles and be a favorite, however slight, against anybody is nearly unheard of and an opening to be capitalized upon.

A loss to UMass does not eliminate the prospect of a winning season, of course. But it does immediately ramp up the degree of difficulty.

But as UH looks at UMass as a must-win game and a winnable one at that, be assured the Minutemen have the same view and an urgency of their own.

The fact that they changed defensive coordinators after the 46-40 loss to UH was your first indication they need things to be different this year. Making the UH game part of a slate to be played on campus is intended to provide a home-field advantage the Minutemen have lacked in playing away from school in larger venues.

The football program lives in the shadow of its much more accomplished men’s basketball team, and football’s move to the Football Bowl Subdivision five years ago hasn’t lived up to even modest hopes. Highly successful in the FCS, where they won a national championship under current head coach Mark Whipple in 1998 and were national runners-up in 2006, the Minutemen are just 10-50 in five years of FBS membership. In their four-year Mid-American Conference stay, they were 7-25 and never finished above fifth place.

If there is to be a “payoff,” this is the year and this veteran team is their best chance to deliver on it. But with their schedule as an independent beefed up with games against Tennessee, Mississippi State, Brigham Young, South Florida and Temple, there is little room for error. If there is to be even a .500 finish, much less a winning campaign, the Minutemen know a victory over UH to start is a must.

The Las Vegas betting site Bovada listed the preseason over-under on UH victories at 41/2, while UMass was at 3. Which tells us what both UH and UMass already know: This is game is an opportunity they can ill afford to let get away.

 

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