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Mid-Major Monday: Kaho'ali'i's Revenge

Players come and go everywhere, and coaches, too, but two teams go into the season facing a unique kind of disaster, personnel-wise: it’s probably not possible for any outfit to look as different from one fall to the next as Michigan and Hawaii will this year.

The difference, of course, is that Michigan’s forthcoming season of truth is by all appearances a temporary, circumstancial setback, a natural – albeit extreme – part of the cycle. Not so much Hawaii’s. In January, when I musically offered the day after Warriors were trashed in the Sugar Bowl that they should learn to live with what they are, I couldn’t foresee just how substantially that was about to change. At that point, UH was losing two central figures from the record-breaking offense to graduation: receiver Jason Rivers and, essentially, Colt Brennan. It still had a couple 1,000-yard receivers, and certainly more behind them, with a fifth-year quarterback who’d earned a little starting experience, a lot of garbage time cleanup and automatic entry to stat paradise in June Jones’ run-and-shoot.

Well, that was fun. Up for some duck a l’orange? I know a place.
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Within weeks, the only element of that equation still in the picture is the new quarterback, Tyler Graunke, who with Jones’ hop to SMU and the early exits of Ryan Grice-Mullen and Davone Bess looks less like the heir apparent to a deluge of touchdowns and more like the merely competent, physically limited career back-up who threw two picks apiece against Northern Colorado and Charleston Southern and almost lost to Nevada in his only full start against a I-A team. Their draft ambitions came up empty (surprise: both Bess and Grice-Mullen are listed under 5’11"), but the top four receivers accounted for 70 percent of the offense’s yards for scrimmage last year. Attrition lopped off the Warriors’ head, arm, hands and feet in one fell swoop.

For the time being, the run-and-shoot qualifies as a traditional battle technique (the Warrior tattoo of the future might be the mark of the fearsome Rip 60 Z Go), and along those lines, UH is hewing close to the tree: Jones’ replacement as boss is a career defensive guy on the staff for the last two years, David McMackin, but the new offensive coordinator, Ron Lee, signed on with Jones in 1999, and the new quarterbacks and offensive line coaches came up in the system – although Nick Rolovich and Brian Smith both graduated just three years ago, meaning they were teammates with some of the older members of the groups they’re now bossing around. But the system itself shouldn’t change on any fundamental level.

You’d have to be an insanely wild optimist to assume there won’t be an immediate dropoff from Jones’ expertise and playcalling, before the personnel losses are even taken into account. When you add it up, June Jones or not, the exiting horde – and its ringleader, specifically – was a special group even within the system:

Don’t be fooled by outrageous numbers born of sheer volume. Stripped of the inflated attempt and yardage totals that drew much attention to the likes of Timmy Chang, the passing game was only average in terms of efficiency before Brennan wafted across the Pacific. Colt was, by any realistic model, only a temporary messiah, in the right place, at the right time, with the right coach, against the right teams, to crush the hapless defenses of the WAC under his carefree, lightly-goateed, shirtless brilliance. Record-smashing draft picks don’t flee the stigma of sexual assault charges every day; Graunke, by all appearances, is just a guy, and will probably be lucky with untested receivers to match the pre-Brennan average. Scoring will fall by at least a touchdown per game, for a team that won half its game last year by a touchdown or less.

Oh, the right teams. The other crucial element of the perfect storm was the schedule, a creamy blend of vulnerability that struck the right note for a BCS run, but which is now followed by a relatively hellish slate out to collect on the debts run up by last fall’s gluttony. Hawaii does not seem to have a real "road warrior" mentality to begin with – most of its close games last year were on the mainland (Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, Nevada), as were two of three losses in 2006 – and the upcoming schedule alternates should-be-automatic home wins (Weber State, San Jose State, Louisiana Tech) with the toughest four games on the schedule, all on the road: at Florida, at Oregon State, at preseason favorite Fresno State, at co-preseason favorite Boise State, all in the first month and a half. The Warriors will be underdogs in all four, likely by a lot, and probably in the last two, as well, when Washington State and Cincinnati fly from bleak snowscapes to end their respective seasons in style. That’s a long, long way from the September stretch of Northern Colorado, UNLV and Charleston Southern that raised so many eyebrows and blogger ire through the rest of ‘07.

What goes around, comes around, I guess. You build and build and build until everything falls into place, the road is cleared and the mountain is topped at last, however briefly. Then you take the money and run. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Of course not: let the young ‘uns handle the heavy lifting this time. Spending a year or two as New Mexico State can only build character.