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Boise State vs UCF Game Preview

Three questions, a wildcard, a fun fact, and a prediction for the Broncos vs the Knights season opening clash

NCAA Football: Florida State at Boise State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports


Location: Orlando, Florida (3MG Stadium)

Date/Time: Thursday, September 2 at 7:00 p.m. (Eastern Time)

Television: ESPN

Point Spread: UCF -5.5 – Over/Under 68.5

Head-to-Head: This will be the first matchup between Boise State and UCF.

The 2021 Boise State Broncos football season has finally arrived. The Broncos have traveled to Orlando and are preparing for the much-anticipated clash against fellow Group of Five powerhouse UCF. The season opener comes at a time of change for both programs. Both teams have completely revamped coaching staffs and have star players returning from injury/COVID. The early season tilt will position the winner for a run at a NY6 bowl game and supremacy of the Group of Five.


Who Wins the Battle Up Front?

This question is the ultimate football cliché. Every coach in America and every football fan has at one point or another uttered the phrase “it all starts up front” or “the game will be won or lost in the trenches.” Well, no reason to reinvent the wheel. This game will be won or lost in the trenches, and there will be a ton of talent smashing into each other for 60 minutes on Thursday evening.

Boise State and UCF will be pitting strength against strength on both sides of the ball up front. The Knights return all five offensive linemen from last season, including 2020 All-Conference First Team members in guard Cole Schneider and center Matthew Lee. The Broncos counter with four returning starters of their own, led by 2021 Preseason All-Conference honorees John Ojukwu and Jake Stetz.

UCF will have a lot of new faces on the defensive line in 2021, but those new faces are extremely talented. Star lineman Kalia Davis returns after opting out of the 2020 season and is joined by All-American Ricky Barber who transferred from Western Kentucky and All-SEC defensive end Big Kat Bryant who followed Gus Malzahn from Auburn.

Boise State’s defensive line is talented and deep. Inside the Broncos will start Scott Matlock and Scale Igiehon and when the heat facilitates a breather will bring in any combination of talented players include Jackson Cravens, Divine Obichere, and Keeghan Freeborn. Coming off the edge, Demitri Washington returns from an early season injury in 2020 and is joined by 2020 sack leader Shane Irwin.

The combination of experience and depth on the offensive and defensive line that both teams will have on display in the 2021 season opener will be the battle to watch. The classic collision of an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force. Whoever gets the other to budge will open the season 1 – 0.

Who Can Run the Ball?

As a complimentary question to who wins the battle up front, the team that can run the ball more effectively will very likely come out on top in the Orlando heat on Thursday night. It’s a tough question to answer given all the changes that both teams made in the offseason.

For Boise State, a rebound is needed for the run game. The Broncos finished the 2020 season dead last in the Mountain West in rushing yards per game. The biggest reason for that disappointing result was an injury to George Holani. The star running back was limited to 19 carries for 108 yards in 2020 after rushing for 1,014 yards (5.3 yards per carry) in 2019. His return, and the addition of Oregon transfer Cyrus Habibi-Likio, give hope to Bronco fans that they can own the ground game against UCF.

UCF also has questions at the running back position. Question number one is how successful will the transformation from a veer and shoot style attack to the Gus Malzahn system (inside zone, power right, counter left, buck sweep – rinse, lather, repeat) be in the season opener? The Malzahn running game relies on multiple formations, motions, shifts, and misdirection to mask that they repeatedly call the same four run plays. Will UCF players adapt to the new system and terminology effectively in week one?

The second question is depth and experience in the running back room. The Knights must replace three running backs from the 2020 season. Departing seniors Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson, and Bentavious Thompson who left the team this fall, combined for 347 carries and 1,847 yards last season. To add to that challenge, potential starter RJ Harvey suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp that further muddies the waters for the UCF backfield.

In a testament to the depth that UCF is building, the cupboard is not bare at running back even with the substantial losses. The Broncos will have to contend with Auburn transfer Marc-Antony Richards, Virginia transfer Isaiah Bowser along with a trio of smaller, speedier running backs. Both Boise State and UCF are renown for their flashy passing games, but the ground game will likely tell the tale of the week one battle in the Bounce House.

Which New Staff Has Their Team Ready?

UCF and Boise State have a lot in common coming into the 2021 season. They both had disappointing years by their standards in 2020. Both teams have players returning from injury/COVID that are set to be stars this season. They both got beat by BYU (shudder), they both bring in transfers expected to make an impact right away, and most importantly, both teams open the 2021 season with new offensive and defensive coordinators and a new head coach. The team that adapts to the massive changes in scheme and culture will win the game on Thursday.

On the UCF side, Gus Malzahn was hired after being fired by Auburn in the offseason. The veteran head coach has proven throughout his career that he can have immediate success at a new school. Most famously, he went 12-2 his first year at Auburn after the Tigers went 3-9 the previous season. Although Malzahn will run the offense and call plays, he is joined by co-offensive coordinators Tim Harris Jr. (Florida International) and G.J. Kinne (Hawaii). On defense, the Knights tabbed Travis Williams (Auburn) as their defensive coordinator.

Boise State replaced Bryan Harsin with Andy Avalos at head coach. Avalos has strong ties to the Broncos having played college football on The Blue and spending time at Boise as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator before a two-year stint as the defensive coordinator at Oregon. The Broncos have further continuity on the defensive side of the ball as Spencer Danielson was promoted to defensive coordinator after spending the 2020 season as a co-defensive coordinator.

The big change for the Broncos comes on offense. Boise State hired offensive coordinator Tim Plough from UC Davis and he brings a whole new offense with him. Plough’s offense will include a more hurry-up, no-huddle tempo than the Broncos have used in the past, and the terminology and quarterback expectations are completely different under Plough. Like the Knights, Boise State underwent a complete overhaul on the offensive side of the ball in the offseason.

Both fanbases have high expectations for the new coaching staffs, and both fanbases are justified in their excitement. However, the question for gameday isn’t about which of these new coaching staffs is the most successful long term or even who has the most success in 2021. The question is which new coaching staff was best able to install their new system in the limited amount of time since they showed up on campus?


Dynamic Quarterbacks

Modern football is all about quarterback play. As the signal caller goes, so does the scoreboard. Luckily for both UCF and Boise State, they return experience and talent under center. The Broncos named Hank Bachmeier the starter after a camp battle with Jack Sears and UCF returns the dynamic Dillon Gabriel.

Boise State is asking more of their quarterbacks than ever before under Tim Plough. The newly installed offensive coordinator has repeatedly stressed that the quarterback position makes his offense go. Bachmeier will be asked to read the defense pre-snap to get the Broncos into the best play, to call his own protections at the line of scrimmage, and to make post snap reads in the run-pass option game. How he responds to the added responsibility in his first game orchestrating the new offense is an unknown wildcard that will unfold in Orlando on Thursday evening.

UCF returns a proven gunslinger of their own in Dillon Gabriel. The Heisman hopeful quarterback has thrown for over 7,000 yards in 23 career games with an impressive 61 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions. He enters the season opener with a talented group of speedy receivers and a reputation for throwing a masterful deep ball. The biggest question about Gabriel is his 59.7% career completion percentage. That stems from the reliance on throwing downfield with high frequency under the outgoing four-verts passing attack, but the wildcard is seeing how accurate the veteran quarterback is when he is asked to use the whole entire field in the passing game.


Group of Five Dominance

Boise State’s record in regular season non-conference Go5 matchups is mind-boggling. They just don't lose. The Broncos joined the Big West in 1996 and got their FBS run off to a rocky start. They went 2 – 10 and lost to several Go5 teams and an FCS team. The 1997 team was better, improving to 5-6 with just one non-conference Go5 loss (Central Michigan). In 1998 they continued the trend and lost one more non-conference Go5 game (La. Tech) in the regular season. In 1999 Boise State would suffer their last regular season non-conference loss to a Go5 team, losing to Hawaii on the island.

Beginning with the 2000 season, Boise State has played in three conferences across 21 regular seasons and have not lost a single game to a non-conference Group of Five school. They will receive their biggest test from a Go5 team tomorrow. If they keep the streak alive there will be parties in the streets of Boise and a renewed energy in Bronco Nation.


This should be an exciting and closely fought game. Both teams are talented up and down the roster and both teams come in hungry after disappointing seasons in the COVID influenced 2020 campaign. Week one college football games are often hard to predict, and this one is made more difficult due to the complete overhaul of each team’s coaching staffs. It will come down to which squad has come closer to perfecting the changes in scheme and terminology.

As mentioned throughout the preview, UCF and Boise State have a lot of similarities. Their strengths and weaknesses are mostly the same. Both teams have an experienced offensive line and both teams have a talented defensive front. Both teams are skilled at wide receiver and both teams have question marks at corner. UCF has the advantage of playing in front of a packed crowd of rabid fans, but the Broncos have more continuity on offense and defense whereas UCF is building team chemistry with an awful lot of transfers.

Ultimately, Boise State is going to pull off the slight upset in Orlando. Beyond the fact that UCF is the 5.5 point home favorite, Gus Malzahn is also a perfect 9-0 in season opening games as a head coach. However, Boise State hasn't lost an opening season game since 2014 either.

The game will be a close back-and-forth affair, but the difference will be the Bronco defense doing just enough late in the game to hold off Gabriel and the UCF Knights. Final score: Boise State 33 UCF 31.