College football is back!
The first full weekend of games is next week, but the season officially kicks off Friday night when Cal takes on Hawaii in... Australia?
Playing this game in Sydney makes more sense now than the last time two college squads from the U.S. (BYU and Colorado State in 1987) played a game down under in front of roughly 7,000 spectators. While a growing number of people in the U.S. are raising a nervous eyebrow or two at the never-any-mystery potential for brain denting that may result from playing American football, Aussies have no problem with rough sports with their love of Rugby and Australian Rules Football (think a hybrid of Rugby, Quidditch, and guys in shorty shorts beating the piss out of each other). Since the mid 1990s, American football has steadily grown in popularity in Australia. This fall the first big time professional American football league in Australia, the National Gridiron League, kicks off its inaugural season.
The kickoff of the 2016 college football season is set to be played in the 80,000+ seat Sydney Olympic Stadium at 9 p.m. central U.S. time on Friday night, but official Australian time will put the kick right at noon on Saturday. Perfect for college football. Although, with this game showcasing Mike Leach Air Raid disciple Sonny Dykes vs Nick Rolovich of the June Jones Run & Shoot coaching tree, this pass fest may take five hours to play and more closely resemble the Canadian game than the U.S variety for these Aussie fans. But hey, it's still football. May all gridiron junkies in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres rejoice in its long awaited return.
Cal Golden Bears vs Hawaii Warriors - 9 p.m. (CT), Friday, August 26, on ESPN - in Sydney, Australia
If there is a game to be played in Australia, it makes sense to send Hawaii down to play in said game. They are the closest school, geographically speaking. Though it feels a bit obscene to call the 5,000 mile trip from Honolulu to Sydney "close." Given the fact that Hawaii's closest conference rival, San Jose State, sits more than 2,400 miles away, the school gets crushed with travel costs and concerns with any away game. So what's a few thousand more miles?
The Warriors come into this game with coaching newbie and University of Hawaii alumnus Nick Rolovich. In Rolovich, the Warriors are hoping they'll get a return of the success they had when his old coach June Jones was running the show in Aloha Stadium. Six of Hawaii's total of 10 bowl appearances, and their only BCS bowl appearance, came during Jones' tenure. In the four years since Jones' former defensive coordinator and successor as head coach Greg McMackin exited, Norm Chow proceeded to run the Hawaii program right into the ground. The Warriors haven't been bowling since 2010.
After leaving Hawaii to become the Offensive Coordinator at Nevada, Rolovich learned the Pistol Offense from its creator, legendary Wolfpack coach Chris Ault. The Pistol's read option running hybrid offense mixed with the Run & Shoot principles in which Rolovich played and then coached as an assistant at Hawaii could make for an interesting experiment to watch take shape in this game. The Warriors have little time to iron out the wrinkles in whatever that offense will look like, because next weekend they've got another nearly 5,000 mile trip to take on Jim Harbaugh's 7th ranked Michigan Wolverines in the Big House in Ann Arbor.
As for Cal, the Golden Bears are coming off their first bowl season since 2011, and bowl win since 2008. When Cal fired their all time winningest coach, Jeff Tedford, after the 2012 season, his replacement, Sonny Dykes, stripped down the program and overhauled the talent to fit his Air Raid offensive scheme. The result was a horrible 1-11 debut season in 2013, the worst in the program's history.
Yet, during that long season the trigger man for his offense emerged. Jared Goff put up increasingly gaudy numbers in Dykes' offense, eventually returning Cal to bowling respectability and turning himself into the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Now Dykes has to replace all those yards and experience under center. Not unsurprisingly, Dykes went back to his old stomping ground, and holy land for the Air Raid offense, Lubbock, Texas to snag Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb. Webb put up decent numbers as a freshman and sophomore in 18 starts for the Red Raiders before the emergence of Pat Mahomes relegated him to an afterthought.
The Golden Bears' 2015 season got off to such a surprisingly great 5-0 start before stumbling to a 2-5 finish. Dykes is hoping that one more season in the Air Raid system will provide the continued improvement his program has seen in each of his first three seasons in Berkeley. Without Goff at quarterback, just like Hawaii, Dykes' Bears come into this game with a desire to see just exactly what kind of offense they might have once everyone starts flying around at game speed.
If you can stay up late enough, this game might turn out to be a fun shootout worthy of kicking off the college football season even if it's being played on the other end of the world.