First-year head coaches will try to keep a couple of Group of 5 powers heading in a strong direction on Thursday night as Boise State makes the long trip to Orlando to take on UCF.
Former head coaches Bryan Harsin and Josh Heupel are now in the SEC. Now, it’s Gus Malzahn for UCF and Andy Avalos for Boise State leading their respective teams. Thursday night’s contest will be the first-ever meeting between the schools.
The 2020 season was a crazy year across the country, but for the Broncos and Knights, it was somewhat of a disappointing campaign. UCF finished 6-4 and was blown out by BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl. Following a 5-2 season, Boise State elected not to play in a bowl after falling to San Jose State in the Mountain West Championship 34-20.
Boise State has won six straight season openers, which included a 36-31 victory over Florida State two years ago in its last trip to Florida. Meanwhile, UCF has won five straight openers. One of those streaks will end on Thursday night.
Boise State at UCF
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -5
When Boise State Has the Ball
Like UCF, Boise State is very experienced at quarterback with Hank Bachmeier under center. Bachmeier is a third-year starter for Boise State and led an offense that averaged nearly 34 points per game last season — tops in the Mountain West. Joining Bachmeier in the backfield will be the duo of Andrew Van Buren and George Holani. After rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2019, Holani was banged up last season and managed just 19 carries. At 240 pounds, Van Buren is more of a power back and led the Broncos last season with eight rushing touchdowns.
The player to watch for Boise State, however, is wide receiver Khalil Shakir. In just seven games last season, Shakir finished with 867 yards of total offense and caught six touchdowns. Shakir has nearly 1,600 yards receiving over the last two seasons. And with redshirt seniors John Ojukwu and Jake Stetz up front, Boise State may also have the best offensive line in the Mountain West.
Defensively, UCF will be presented with a real challenge. While the offense racked up a lot of yards and points last season, giving them right back was no problem for the UCF defense. UCF ranked dead last in the American Athletic Conference last season in total defense and 123rd nationally. The Knights ranked eighth of 11 teams in the conference in scoring defense. The good news for UCF, however, is that it does create turnovers as well as anyone in the country. Since 2017, UCF has a +49 turnover margin and finished in the top five nationally in that department three times in the last four years.
The Knights did lose safety Richie Grant, who has been one of the nation’s most underrated defenders in recent years. Eriq Gilyard is the leading returning tackler and also forced a team-high three fumbles a year ago. He’ll head the linebacking corps for UCF while Auburn transfer Big Kat Bryant could wind up being the best player for the Knights on defense. Bryant’s ability to set the edge and get to the quarterback should make the entire UCF defense better.
When UCF Has the Ball
Few teams can go up and down and light up the scoreboard the way that UCF does. Last season, it ranked second nationally in total offense and eighth in scoring offense. In two years as starting quarterback, lefty Dillon Gabriel has lit up opposing defenses. Last season, Gabriel passed for 3,570 yards and 32 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. His 357 yards per game average led the country in 2020. There is no shortage of talent around Gabriel, but there is a bit of attrition.
Greg McCrae, Otis Anderson, and Bentavious Thompson are all gone at running back, and UCF loses one of 11 players in the country to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving in Marlon Williams. The good news is that Jaylon Robinson wasn’t far behind with 979 yards last season. Ryan O’Keefe is a dependable target, while transfers Brandon Johnson and Nate Craig-Myers are low-risk, high-reward pickups. Another Auburn transfer, Mark-Antony Richards, could be the feature back for UCF. Matthew Lee and Cole Schneider headline a solid offensive line for UCF.
Boise State was in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West in most defensive categories last season. Where the Broncos did not fare well was against talented quarterbacks. BYU’s Zach Wilson and San Jose State’s Nick Starkel lit the Broncos up last season to the tune of a combined 813 yards passing, six touchdown passes and 85 points. Those were the only two teams to beat Boise State last season. In wins, it allowed a more respectable 21 points per game. Boise State will see a real challenge from UCF in Gabriel.
Linebacker and leading tackler Riley Whimpey is probably the most recognizable name for the Boise State defense, but defensive end Shane Irwin and defensive back Kekaula Kaniho are both all-conference caliber players. Irwin was tied for second in the Mountain West last season with six sacks. Fellow defensive end Isaiah Bagnah can also get after the quarterback. Generating pressure against Gabriel will go a long way in pulling the upset.
With two coaches debuting at their new schools, it’s hard to know what to expect, but Boise State won’t have the pass rush to get to Gabriel nor quite enough offensive firepower to leave Orlando with a victory. At this point, it seems foolish to bet against either UCF or Boise State given their recent history, but unfortunately, one team has to lose on Thursday night. The key for the Broncos will be to establish the run with Holani and win the battle on third down. If this one turns into a track meet, UCF has to like its chances. It’s only Week 1, but this contest could go a long way in determining which Group of 5 school makes it to a New Year’s Six bowl. With two coaches debuting at their new schools, it’s hard to know what to expect, but Boise State won’t have the pass rush to get to Gabriel nor quite enough offensive firepower to leave Orlando with a victory.
Prediction: UCF 38, Boise State 31
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.