GAME PREVIEW: Boise State at UCF

TV/Streaming: ESPN/Watch ESPN

Two first year head coaches clash in this Group of Five heavyweight battle. Former head coaches for Boise State in Bryan Harsin and UCF in Josh Heupel both took jobs with Southeastern Conference schools. Now, it’s Gus Malzahn for UCF and Andy Avalos for Boise State leading their teams in this contest that will go a long ways in determining the best Group of Five school and conference.

Since the start of the College Football Playoff era, the best Group of Five conference champion has had an automatic bid to one of the New Year’s Six Bowl games. And the two team’s conferences in this game have dominated that time, which began in 2014.

Of the New Year’s Six bowl participants, only once was a team representing the G5 in the biggest bowl game not from Boise State’s conference of the Mountain West or UCF’s conference of the American Athletic. In that time, Boise State has one appearance and UCF has two themselves.

Ironically, this will be the first ever meeting between these two G5 juggernauts. And also both teams are coming off subpar seasons (at least to their high standards).

Boise State did finish undefeated in Mountain West play but fell to BYU in the season, as well as to San Jose State in the MWC Championship game and elected to not play in a bowl game in the 2020 COVID-19 shorten year. UCF finished just 6-4 overall with losses in conference play to Tulsa, Memphis, and eventual AAC champion Cincinnati. The Knights also lost to BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Despite the somewhat average seasons, their coaches have moved on to Power Five jobs. The two programs are expected to be in the running for their respective conference championships once again this fall when we have a more normal season.

One thing for sure is that one streak will end after this game. Boise State has won six straight season opening games, while UCF has won five in a row. The Broncos last trip to the state of Florida was good as BSU defeated Florida State 36-31 in the season opener in Tallahassee two years ago.

Since joining the Mountain West in 2011, Boise State is 15-0 in nonconference games against schools in a Group of Five conference. That includes being 2-0 versus the AAC but both of those contests were against Connecticut, who now is no longer a member of the league.

The Knights have competed against only four of the 12 current members of the Mountain West Conference,
holding a record of 1-4 in those games. UCF’s lone win over the MWC was a 38-6 home victory
over New Mexico in 1998. Their last contest against an MWC team was its loss to Nevada in the 2005 Hawai’i Bowl.


Boise State in its two losses against BYU and San Jose State last year, they had a hard time stopping the passing games of those two teams. Overall, the defense for the Broncos finished statistically in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West. This area will be one that new Coach Avalos (who was the BSU defensive coordinator previously before having the same defensive role at Oregon the prior two seasons.

Going against UCF QB Dillon Gabriel and his high flying passing attack, the Broncos will need to see what worked for the teams that beat UCF a year ago–namely Tulsa and Cincinnati. Their keys to slowing down the Knights offense was to get pressure on him mainly with the front four down linemen with Shane Irwin and Demitri Washington needing to lead the charge upfront.

And when the line does not stop UCF, LB Riley Whimpey is probably and S Kekaula Kaniho will need to lead their groups to make sure they make sure tackles and not let big plays go.

On offense, QB Hank Bachmeier returns to the state where he began his Bronco career. He was brilliant in his freshman season in the season operner against Florida State two years ago and he might have be even better in this one.

In the game against Florida State, Bachmeier was able to stretch the field with long pass plays and was helped with a solid running game. He will need to use his most dangerous target in WR 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.

The Broncos will also need to mix in the run game with the RB duo of Andrew Van Buren and George Holani. After rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2019, Holani was banged up early last season and was not much of a factor the whole season. Van Buren is more of a power back and led the Broncos last season with eight rushing touchdowns.

Key Player: QB Hank Bachmeier

Bachmeier like he was against Florida State two years ago, will be the key to Boise State picking up another road victory in the non-conference. Playing on the road, he will need to be almost error free–meaning no lost fumbles or interceptions. If the Broncos can stay turnover-free, they can win this game as the talent levels of both squads is very similar.

UCF KNIGHTS (6-4 5-3 AAC) IN 2020

The Knights offense is great but the defense has some work to do. UCF ranked last in the AAC a year ago 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, including ranking in the top 5 a season ago.

Eriq Gilyard is the leading returning tackler and also forced a team-high three fumbles a year ago as the top LB for UCF while Auburn transfer DE Big Kat Bryant could be the line threat to opposing teams’ passing attacks.

The UCF offense though can make-up for any defensive issues it might have with the play of QB Dillion Gabriel. He passed for 3,570 yards and 32 touchdowns with just four interceptions. His 357 yards per game average led the country in 2020.

The offense though does lose its top three RBs from last year but Auburn transfer, Mark-Antony Richards, could be the main rushing threat for UCF this year.

WR Jaylon Robinson is the leading receiver back after tallying 979 yards last season. He is joined by Ryan O’Keefe as well as transfers Brandon Johnson and Nate Craig-Myers that should make-up the powerful passing receiving threats this season.

Key Player: QB Dillion Gabriel

With new parts around him, Gabriel will need to show he can trust those new pieces. He will also need to handle pressure better for the Knights to be successful. That was a key to stopping UCF last year in getting pressure on him where he might not have thrown many interceptions but the pressure halted drives for the Knights. Expect Boise State to use that game film to try to get as much pressure as they can to force misthrows. How he handles this will be a good telling how UCF will do in this game but also how other teams might try to stop UCF the remainder of the season.


This is the first game and will see a lot of national press with ESPN covering the game on an opening Thursday night. It will also be a game with a full “Bounce House” in Orlando so players that may have gotten used to no or limited fans will need to readjust to crowds being at a stadium. This game will be high scoring and be fairly tight throughout. The offense of the Knights though will come through in the fourth quarter to give UCF the victory. UCF 45 Boise State 41