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FIU Panthers vs. UCF Knights Preview and Prediction

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The first college football Thursday of the 2017 season features a Sunshine State showdown between a pair of national championship head coaches... sort of.

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Florida International head coach Butch Davis makes his debut at his new school after being out of coaching for the last six years. Davis is no stranger to South Florida after serving as defensive line coach of Miami for five years, including during the Hurricanes' 1987 national championship season. Davis was also head coach of Miami from 1995 until 2000 when he led the 'Canes to a Sugar Bowl victory and No. 2 national ranking.

Davis was most recently at North Carolina after spending time in the NFL as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Davis looks to revive an FIU program that finished just 4-8 last season (4-4 in Conference USA) and hasn't had a winning season since 2011.

Scott Frost, the starting quarterback of Nebraska's 1997 team that shared the national championship with Michigan, will enter his second season as head coach of UCF. In his first year on the job, Frost transformed an 0-12 team to a bowl team that finished 6-7. Now Frost will look to notch his first winning season as the Knights hope to be a sleeper in the American Athletic Conference's East division.

FIU at UCF

Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. ET

Network: CBS Sports Network

Spread: UCF -17

Three Things to Watch

1. Battle in the trenches

If there is one area where UCF has a distinct advantage, it appears to be in the trenches. On defense, the Knights are loaded in the front seven, with that group being led by Shaquem Griffin. The reigning American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Griffin led the conference with 11.5 sacks and was third with 20 tackles for a loss a season ago. Defensive tackle Tony Guerad also is solid. He recorded 10 tackles for a loss last season.

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As a team last season, UCF ranked 18th nationally with 38 sacks. The Knights will be facing a Florida International offensive line that yielded 30 sacks in 2016. The Panthers are expected to start four juniors and one sophomore up front. When it comes to getting to the passer, FIU finished with just 17 sacks in 2016. That placed the Panthers 111th in the country.

2. Alex Gardner

Perhaps the most decorated skill player on the field Thursday night will be FIU running back Alex Gardner. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Gardner is the definition of a workhorse and finished with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage last season.

Riding Gardner should serve as FIU's best chance of pulling an upset as he will try to eat away at a very good UCF front. When Gardner rushed for 100 yards last season, the Golden Panthers were 3-2. When he didn't, they were just 1-6.

3. Quarterback play

Thursday's contest will feature two returning quarterbacks, who both underwhelmed a season ago. For UCF, McKenzie Milton will look to build on a freshman campaign where he was forced to take over as the starter midseason. Milton is a good athlete, but averaged less than six yards per pass attempt and was often indecisive with the football. The good news for Milton is leading receiver Tre'Quan Smith (57 rec., 853 yds., 5 TDs in 2016) is back.

For FIU, Alex McGough will look to build upon two up-and-down years as the team's starter. McGough is light on his feet despite a large 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame, but tends to have a gunslinger's mentality. After taking a step back as a junior, McGough has impressed the new coaching staff entering his final season. McGough did not play in the final three games of 2016 campaign, but if he can carry the momentum from camp into the start of this season, he can be an asset for the Panthers.

Final Analysis

With Butch Davis back in South Florida, better days appear ahead for Florida International, but to start off with a win looks to be a tall task. The Golden Panthers return their quarterback and running back, but aren't great up front and ranked just 124th nationally in total defense last season and 123rd in points allowed. UCF should boast one of the better defenses in the American Athletic Conference and with its leading passer, rusher and receiver returning, should be better on offense.

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Prediction: UCF 38, FIU 12

— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the editor of The Daily Nole. Like The Daily Nole on Facebook and follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.

(Shaquem Griffin photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)