The Week 1 college football schedule starts Thursday with one of the top nonconference Group of Five games we've seen in the past few seasons as Boise State takes to the the road to face rising power UCF in a nationally-televised matchup. The Thursday night tilt features two teams who are both receiving votes in the AP Top 25, though neither was ranked in the preseason poll. Follow live for updates on UCF and Boise State.
Both programs welcome in new coaching staffs after losing their young, highly-touted coaches to SEC opportunities. Former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn takes over UCF, a consistent finisher in the rankings. Boise State turns to former Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, an ex-Broncos assistant.
Despite ranking among the top Group of Five programs over the past several seasons, Boise State and UCF have never played. However, Malzahn and Avalos faced off one time previously: Malzahn's Auburn got the better of Avalos' Oregon in 2019 Allstate Kickoff Classic.
UCF vs. Boise State: Need to know
Marquee matchup: Over the last two decades, there are few Group of Five programs that match the consistent excellence of Boise State and UCF. The combo has combined for 18 finishes in the AP Top 25 since 2002, including six top 10 finishes and trips to BCS/New Year's Six bowl games. Both schools earned votes in the Preseason AP Top 25. The winner will not only have an inside track to the top 25 but will earn itself a critical tiebreaker for when the New Year's Six bowls are decided in December.
Malzahn's debut: After Josh Heupel left UCF to take the Tennessee job, the Knights nabbed former Malzahn. While Malzahn's time ultimately ran out at Auburn, he has a long track record of success dating back to his time as offensive coordinator for the national champion Tigers. In his lone year as a Group of Five coach, Malzahn led Arkansas State to an impressive 9-3 record as well. It may take some time for Malzahn to get his sea legs under him in Orlando, but the upside is high.
Homecoming at Boise State: While Malzahn is a longtime coach, Boise State's first-time athletic director Jeremiah Dickey took a chance on a first-timer. Avalos served as defensive coordinator with the Broncos from 2016-18, a stretch where the program went 31-9 with a conference championship. Under Avalos' mentorship, Oregon's defense jumped from No. 49 to No. 9 in total defense. Now, the program hopes Avalos can continue the tradition of success that Bryan Harsin sustained over the last decade.
Darkhorse Heisman Trophy contender: Remember the name Dillon Gabriel. The junior UCF quarterback threw for 7,223 yards, 61 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions over his first two seasons as one of the highest-rated quarterbacks at all levels. Malzahn's offense asks more of the quarterback than Heupel's run-and-shoot, but Gabriel's deep ball -- along with the receiver talent in Orlando -- gives Malzahn plenty of options.
Return to health: Two years ago, freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier and running back George Holani seemed poised to be the next big things at Boise State. But during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, both players missed critical time with injuries and COVID-19 complications. The combination gives up-and-coming air raid offensive coordinator Tim Plough a couple of key pieces to work with heading into the opener.
How to watch UCF vs. Boise State live
Date: Thursday, Sept. 2 | Time: 7 p.m. ET (Kickoff pushed 30 minutes due to weather)
Location: Bounce House -- Orlando, Florida
TV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
UCF vs. Boise State prediction, picks
Boise State is a strong team, but the experience gap is hard to ignore. The Broncos lose more than half of their adjusted production from a defense that already ranked outside the top 40. Adding five Power Five transfers alone at running back and wide receiver gives UCF an explosiveness that Boise State's young cornerbacks can't match. The coaching experience gap will also rear its head down the stretch. UCF cements the AAC as the frontrunner for the Group of Five bowl bid with a comfortable home win. Prediction: UCF (-5)
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