Los Angeles and Nebraska.
Indianapolis and New York.
Seattle and Iowa.
Miami and Cleveland.
Vermont and Tennessee.
Many culturally opposite places exist in the United States. In the Mountain West Conference, only one subgroup of schools could form a “Cultural Opposite Final Four.”
Air Force and UNLV would meet in one cultural semifinal, pitting the discipline of a service academy located in Colorado Springs against the “let it live” mentality of Vegas (Baby!). In the other semifinal would be Wyoming and Hawaii, the rugged, cold vastness of inland America’s Mountain time zone against the “hang loose” world of island time, hula dancing, and the tropical wonders of our 50th state, surrounded by water and all sorts of exotic creatures, great and small.
Hawaii and Wyoming — culturally and geographically — exist worlds apart. Though sharing the same conference, these universities and football programs inhabit dramatically different environments. Yet, from these starkly contrasting roots, noticeable commonalities emerge.
Both programs are remote — different kinds of remoteness, but far removed from the spotlight not just in the FBS, but the Mountain West itself. Hawaii earned one taste of the big time in the 2008 Sugar Bowl against Georgia. The Rainbow Warriors were torn to shreds in New Orleans, and haven’t made a peep since. It’s very hard to sustain success in each of these locations — from that standpoint, the two programs are brothers more than strangers to each other.
In 2016, the Rainbow Warriors and the Cowboys are growing closer in a more specific way.
Remember late August, when 126 other FBS teams watched Hawaii and California open the season in Australia? Cal had not yet beaten Texas and Utah. The Golden Bears did not seem likely to be much of a factor this season, so when Hawaii onside kicked to start that game in Sydney, a lot of fans watching on television laughed at new head coach Nick Rolovich. Some viewed him as inappropriately desperate, while others simply lamented the situation he had inherited after four years on the UH staff (from 2008 through 2011) and four years as Nevada’s offensive coordinator (from 2012 through 2015).
Coaching any FBS program is a good gig with decent pay, but Hawaii and Wyoming exist much closer to the bottom of the pay scale than the top. Hawaii’s budgetary situation had become so dire that the possibility of the program either shutting down or moving to the FCS became very real in recent years.
When Hawaii was run off the field by Cal on that late-August afternoon Down Under, it was hard to find optimism on the radar screen on the plane flight back to the islands. The middle of the Pacific Ocean was the perfect metaphor for Hawaii — drowning in deficiencies and awash in a sea of inadequacy. Forget about winning a game; could Hawaii even play remotely acceptable defense for any sustained length of time?
Arizona’s offense has struggled mightily this season, but when the Wildcats hung 47 on Hawaii on Sept. 17. Hawaii even allowed 36 points at home to an FCS team, Tennessee-Martin. The Warriors won that game with a 41-point performance on offense, but the stats could not have been much worse through four games. Rolovich’s roster allowed an average of 49.25 points per game. Hawaii — having started its season in August — entered October without a win versus an FBS team.
Surely, this journey was going to get worse before it got better.
Surely, the conventional wisdom was wrong.
Late Saturday night, when the rest of America was in bed, Hawaii woke up.
The Rainbow Warriors didn’t merely beat Nevada; they beat up the Wolf Pack. Hawaii kept its guests from Reno out of the end zone until it had built a 35-point fourth-quarter lead. That’s right — Hawaii established a 38-3 lead before Nevada scored two garbage touchdowns.
Critics are free to say that this result is much more a negative reflection on Nevada than a positive reflection on Hawaii, but given that UH couldn’t stop an FCS team from scoring, it’s clear that a light went on for the home team in Aloha Stadium.
It’s also clear that with Cal moving up the ladder, not down, in the college football world, that opener in Australia should be viewed in a kinder and gentler light.
No, Hawaii shouldn’t be seen as a favorite in the Mountain West, but what once might have seemed like a surefire 2-10 or 3-8 season could now — very realistically — become a 6-6 campaign. Hawaii really could make a bowl game. Merely coming close would represent substantial progress for Rolovich in his first season as an FBS head coach.
No one’s laughing at Hawaii now.
Then consider Wyoming.
The only team Eastern Michigan defeated a year ago was Wyoming. The Cowboys crashed and burned, lending an extra measure of urgency to coach Craig Bohl’s third season in Laramie. The Cowboys didn’t need to figure everything out, but they had to be able to land their fair share of punches and move from the basement of the Mountain West to the league’s middle tier.
When Wyoming — unlike Hawaii — opened its season with a victory, and did the deed against a Group of Five powerhouse from Northern Illinois, it seemed that the (Big) Sky was the limit for the Pokes. Northern Illinois had merely won six straight MAC West Division titles, multiple conference championships, and had made the 2013 Orange Bowl over the previous six seasons. NIU has been the best team this side of Boise State in the Group of Five since 2010. Taking down the Huskies felt like a transformative moment for Wyoming.
Then, however, came Eastern Michigan again.
The Eagles evidently have Wyoming’s number. Despite the thirst for revenge on the part of the Cowboys, EMU parried every thrust by Bohl’s boys in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on Sept. 23, winning 27-24. The EMU defeat in 2015 was such a profound psychic blow, and it’s reasonable to say that the Cowboys never recovered from it.
One month into the 2016 season, the Cowboys gained a second chance — not to beat the Eagles, but to respond positively to a loss against them. It was hard to be too optimistic following that result, however, and the first quarter of this past Saturday’s game against Colorado State seemed to affirm a low-confidence assessment of Wyoming.
Colorado State jumped on the Cowboys, 14-3, in the battle for the Bronze Boot. CSU had been humiliated by Colorado in one rivalry game this season, so the Rams didn’t want to endure a second round of embarrassment. Wyoming was locked in the doldrums, and at that moment — trailing by 11 and floundering — it was difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel.
The Cowboys — in a manner which made their fans proud — dusted themselves up, regained their equilibrium, and proceeded to kick the snot out of their hosts in Fort Collins.
Wyoming finished the game by scoring 35 of the final 38 points, turning a long night of misery into a longer night of celebration, the Bronze Boot secured and headed to Laramie.
Young athletes can be trapped in the fog of failure and frustration, such that one week’s shortcomings bleed into the following week, the trance unable to be broken. Wyoming’s players — with a big assist from Bohl and the coaches — fought through that fog and snapped the spell. Abruptly, this season feels entirely different. The goal of mid-tier status in the MWC now seems eminently attainable.
Hawaii and Wyoming might as well be in different universes, but both programs have changed minds and altered the trajectories of their own seasons near the midway points of their journeys. We’ll see if they can continue to draw from the well of resilience in the second half of the college football season.