Hawaii hasn't had a monarchy since the late 1800s, but University of Hawaii football coach June Jones thinks a change could be afoot. 'He could get anything that he wanted to win on this island right now," Jones says. 'He could be governor, he could be speaker of the House. If you go back to the royal times, he could be king."
Jones is referring to Hawaii's record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan, a California native who has brought the Warriors to unprecedented heights and become as celebrated a part of the 50th state as poi, pineapple and Magnum P.I.
In perhaps the most intriguing match-up in Sugar Bowl history, the undefeated upstart Hawaii Warriors, champions of the Cinderella Western Athletic Conference, will face the University of Georgia Bulldogs, from the traditionally powerful Southeastern Conference, at 7:30 p.m. on New Year's Day in the Superdome. The game will be a study in contrasts in terms of football as well as cultural styles.
To the Warriors, merely qualifying for the Sugar Bowl is a landmark event. Hawaii is one of only three teams from a non-Bowl Championship Series conference ever to play in a BCS bowl game. This Sugar Bowl is, without question, the biggest game in the history of Hawaii football and a milestone for the Aloha State.
'This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal for this whole state," Jones says. 'I've said this forever. This isn't the University of Hawaii, this is the state's team."
Georgia, ranked fourth in the BCS standings, comes to the Sugar Bowl from a vastly different place. One of the hottest teams in the nation, the 10-2 Bulldogs closed out the regular season with six straight victories and had designs on playing for the national championship. Instead, seventh-ranked LSU leapfrogged them in the BCS standings in the final weekend of the season, allowing the Tigers to play Ohio State for the national title.
The news initially sparked disbelief and frustration among the Bulldogs and their fans " emotions, they say, that have since dissipated. 'We're definitely over it, I can promise you," Georgia head coach Mark Richt says. 'The rules of engagement in this BCS are the teams that get to play for the national championship have to win a beauty contest."
Now in his ninth season at the University of Hawaii, former Atlanta Falcons head coach Jones has the Warriors running his trademark run-and-shoot offense with the precision of a Swiss chronograph. They're the highest scoring team in the nation, averaging 46.2 points per game.
Even though Hawaii, ranked 10th in the BCS, plays in a different time zone than every other major college football team, 6-foot-3 quarterback Colt Brennan's amazing statistics are impossible to ignore. As a senior, he has completed 71 percent of his passes for 4,174 yards and 38 touchdowns. His exploits aren't just impressive by Hawaii's standards " he has tied or broken 29 NCAA records. This season he finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
'He's one of the most accurate passers I've ever been around and I've been around some great ones," Jones says. 'He has the gift to be a leader and a quarterback."
Critics have called Brennan a 'system quarterback," meaning anyone playing the position in Jones' pass-happy offense would put up similarly heady numbers, especially in the WAC. But Georgia coach Mark Richt says Brennan could play and thrive in the ultra-competitive SEC as well.
'Brennan is pinpoint accurate and as tough as you can be," Richt says. 'He knows exactly what to do with the ball in that system and he would do great. In fact, if he was inserted into certain teams that might have struggled at the quarterback position, he probably would have led them to a championship."
As much as Hawaii throws the ball, the Warriors need more than one primary receiver " Brennan has four, three of whom have more than 1,000 yards receiving this season.
Junior Davone Bess, a Third Team Associated Press All-American, leads the team with 101 receptions. Junior Ryan Grice-Mullen, a member of the All-WAC First Team, caught 100 passes for a team-best 1,335 yards. At 6-foot-2, Jason Rivers is the tallest of the bunch " he has 82 catches. Biloxi, Miss., native C.J. Hawthorne is the fourth option. He has caught 57 passes, which is more than Georgia's top receiver. 'The way they work together, this is by far, without a doubt, the best receiver corps in the nation " and it's not even close," Brennan says.
Hawaii has passed the ball more than 600 times this season, which doesn't leave much room for a running game. Freshman running back Kealoha Pilares leads the team with 362 rushing yards. Jones offers a wry assessment about his Warriors' rushing attack: 'We throw the ball, catch it and then we run after the catch. That's probably our running game."
Hawaii's best offensive lineman is 6-foot-2, 293-pound senior guard Hercules Satele, a First Team All-WAC selection. He's the cornerstone of a line that has improved in each of the previous three seasons. The 20 sacks the team has allowed this year are the fewest since Brennan arrived on campus.
As you might expect, all this success breeds confidence. 'I really haven't seen a team come out and stop us in the three years I've been here," Brennan says.
The potency of the Warriors' offense is unassailable, but the team wouldn't be playing in the school's first BCS bowl game if it weren't for a vastly improved defense. Under the direction of defensive coordinator Greg McMackin, the unit ranks 33rd in the nation in total defense. The defensive line, anchored by First Team All-WAC tackle Michael Lafaele, will face its biggest challenge of the season in the Sugar Bowl. Georgia's offensive line has a size advantage and is adept at creating huge holes for its talented tandem of running backs.
The strength of the Warriors' defense is its set of linebackers, which features a pair of All-Conference players. Junior middle linebacker Solomon Elimimian is a tackling machine who posted 132 tackles for the season, with 20 of those coming in a single game against Utah State.
Junior Adam Leonard ranks second on the team in tackles with 100, including 11 and a half tackles for a loss. For Leonard and his teammates, playing defense for Hawaii is like being the opening act for the Beatles.
'Our offense gets national headlines," says Leonard. 'When there's highlights played on ESPN of our game, there's rarely " in fact there's no defensive highlights. It's strictly offense and Colt Brennan. But down here, our true fans know how important it is for our defense to play well and how we won some games on defense even though the score may not (indicate) it."
Case in point: Facing Washington in the regular season finale, Hawaii held the Huskies scoreless in the second half and intercepted a pass in the end zone to secure a 35-28 comeback victory. It was a clutch, late-game victory to be sure, but Washington, the worst team in the Pac-10, bears little resemblance to Georgia's Bulldogs.
'They're by far the best team we've played since I've been here in nine years," Coach Jones says. 'They've got a lot of great athletes, a lot of team speed. We'll have to play the perfect game to hang with them."
Georgia freshman Knowshon Moreno will certainly be the finest running back the Warriors have faced all season. He turned in one of the best seasons for a first-year tailback in the history of the SEC, rushing for 1,273 yards and 12 touchdowns, making him an obvious choice for the Associated Press SEC Freshman of the Year.
While Hawaii is about as one-dimensional a team as you'll find in college football, Georgia works diligently to strike a balance. When the Bulldogs aren't handing the ball off to Moreno or senior Thomas Brown (who racked up 706 rushing yards of his own), sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford is leading an effective, if not awe-inspiring passing attack.
Stafford completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,348 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. He has been sacked only 15 times, which is a credit to an offensive line that includes three freshmen starters. That same line also helped produce 100 rushing yards in eight games this season.
While Sean Bailey's 37 receptions wouldn't be enough to crack the top four at Hawaii, the senior split end is Stafford's favorite target. And he makes his catches count, averaging 16 yards per reception. Junior flanker Mohamed Massaquoi is the Bulldogs' other outside receiving threat with 27 catches. And 6-foot-6, 263-pound junior tight end Tripp Chandler is a big target in the middle of the field.
With Colt Brennan taking almost every Hawaii snap out of the shotgun formation, the Georgia defensive line can follow a simple defensive scheme: rush the quarterback. Defensive end Marcus Howard should have an opportunity to add to his team-leading seven sacks. 'The whole defensive front is licking their chops because we don't like to play against the run," Howard says. 'We want to play against the pass " the whole defensive front."
Junior middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbee is the anchor of the Bulldogs' defense. He leads the team with 85 tackles, including 11 for a loss.
Senior strong safety Kelin Johnson is the most experienced player in the Georgia secondary. His four interceptions are tops for the team. He says any defense can be vulnerable to Hawaii's prolific passing attack. 'If we don't go in as a team and if we're not in shape, if we don't have a positive attitude and play like chickens with our heads cut off, it's going to be a long night for us," Johnson says.
As members of the SEC, Georgia's regular season schedule was infinitely more difficult than that of Hawaii, which had nonconference games against punching bags Northern Colorado and Charleston Southern. The Bulldogs' two losses came against South Carolina and Tennessee. But Bulldogs coach Mark Richt is adamant that his team is not taking the Warriors lightly.
'When you turn the film on and you watch them, our guys are smart enough to know when they see a good football team," Richt says. 'It's undeniable when you look at the film. There will be no complacency."
If Hawaii is seeking to draw some inspiration from recent precedent, the Warriors need look no further than last season's Fiesta Bowl. Undefeated Boise State, also a member of the WAC, shocked the college football world by beating Big 12 power Oklahoma 43-42 in overtime. The BCS-busting Broncos finished the season as the only unbeaten team in major college football " a feat that is still within reach for the Warriors.
'I don't feel we have the pressure as much as Georgia," says Hawaii linebacker Adam Leonard, 'with them being the big-time school in this game and them representing their conference. I know they don't want to lose to a WAC team, so they have added pressure on them. Nobody believed we'd be in this situation at the beginning of the year or during the middle of the season."
Georgia has won 23 bowl games in its storied history, while the Sugar Bowl will be only the second time Hawaii has played in a bowl game on the U.S. Mainland.
Richt disputes the notion that Georgia doesn't have much to gain from beating Hawaii. 'Everyone wants to be considered champions, and we were not able to be Southeastern Conference champions " but we could be Sugar Bowl champions," Richt says. 'I think that means a lot. Eleven wins in a season would be a tremendous accomplishment."
And while it certainly would be meaningful to the Bulldog players, coaches and fans, it simply couldn't compare to what a Hawaii victory would do for that state's success-starved football program.
'We're kind of out here in our own little world, and so anytime you're in a high school sport or anything that represents Hawaii and you go off and have success and bring national attention, the island just goes crazy," Colt Brennan says. 'And they take so much pride in it."
Indeed, that would be a crowning achievement for the man who would be king.
- Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan has tied or broken 29 NCAA records and this year has completed 71 percent of his passes for 4,174 yards and 38 touchdowns.
- University of Georgia
- Georgia Bulldogs freshman Knowshon Moreno turned in one of the best seasons for a first-year tailback in SEC history, rushing for 1,273 yards and 12 touchdowns.