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Game Day Guide: Boise State travels to Orlando to take on the UCF Knights

Bronco Nation has been blessed with a heavy-weight bout for the 2021 season opener. But will a new Boise State coaching staff be able to win in primetime?

BOISE, Idaho — After a short and disappointing 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boise State football team is set to start the 2021 campaign this week on Sept. 2 when the Broncos travel to Orlando to play the University of Central Florida Golden Knights.

With marquee non-conference games and a strong slate of Mountain West Conference games, the 2021 season offers the Broncos a few paths ahead in 2021. 

First-year head coach Andy Avalos could repeat the miraculous efforts of previous Boise State first-year head coaches Chris Petersen and Bryan Harsin, who both won Fiesta Bowls in their first year as head coaches. The schedule certainly provides the Broncos with matchups that could vault them into contention for the Group of Five's New Years' 6 Bowl game.

However, Boise State's strong schedule could also give Avalos and Bronco Nation headaches. It's extremely unlikely for the Broncos to experience their first losing season since 1997. However, it is possible for Boise State to end the 2021 season somewhere around 8-4 and 10-2, a nightmare scenario for some in Bronco Nation but the wildest dreams of the rest of the Mountain West Conference.

Before Bronco Nation can either start daydreaming of going to Glendale, Arizona, on New Year's Day or find their go-to pillow to sob into after a heartbreaking loss, the Broncos need to take care of business against Central Florida on Sept. 2.

Central Florida, which has had more winless seasons than undefeated seasons in the 21st century, has been riding a recent wave of success but hit rough waters in 2020. The Knights ended the 2020 season 6-4, with losses against Brigham Young University, and American Conference foes Cincinnati, Memphis and Tulsa.

With two sets of brand-new coaching staff making their debut on Sept. 2, it's impossible to know how the matchup will look like when they take the field at the Bounce House. However, based on what little has been seen at Fall Camp and with what coaches have said, Bronco Nation should expect Boise State's West Coast-style offense to come out swinging and the defense to be punishing and swarm at the point of attack.

Before the Broncos and Knights face-off, dive into KTVB's Game Day Guide to find out everything that Bronco Nation needs to know about Boise State's season opener and what the 2021 season could hold in store.

GAME INFORMATION

Boise State (0-0, 0-0 MW) at UCF (0-0, 0-0 AAC)

How to watch Boise State play UCF on Thursday

ON TV

The game will be televised on ESPN, which can be found on the following channels:

  • Sparklight (formerly Cable One): Channel 133 / 1133 (HD)
  • DirecTV: Channel 206
  • Dish Network: Channel 140
  • Cox: Channel 32

ON THE RADIO

Fans can listen to the game on the Bronco Radio Network, which can be found online or on the following stations in the Boise area:

  • KBOI 670 AM in Boise
  • KTIK 93.1 FM in Boise
  • KDZY 98.3 FM in McCall
  • KSNQ 98.3 FM in Twin Falls

Here is a list of Bronco Radio Network stations outside the Boise area.

STREAMING

The game will stream live on the WatchESPN app, available in Apple and Android app stores. The service is only available to subscribers of participating cable and satellite television providers (including Cable One, Dish Network and DirecTV).

See more on how to watch the game here.

STATE OF THE BRONCOS' OFFENSE

During a press conference, Avalos confirmed that junior quarterback Hank Bachmeier would start over senior Jack Sears. 

Avalos explained that he measured both Sears and Bachmeier on consistency and who ran the offense better during the pre-snap.

"How did they perform in situations, whether it be field situations, clock situations, down-in-distance situations?" Avalos explained. "How are they responding to what the defense is giving them? Are they making the same mistake twice, or are we making new ones?"

New offensive coordinator Tim Plough explained during a press conference that Bachmeier was more consistent across the board but he did feel like he let Sears down, wondering if he did enough for him as a coach.

"I think, at the end of the day, Hank operated the offense and was able to move the team consistently make good decisions, be accurate with the football, and improved his leadership off the field, most importantly, so I think he improved in all those areas, as did Jack, but at the end of the day from a competition standpoint, he was, he was ahead of him," Plough said. "So, feel really good about the position room as a whole, but I'm excited for Hank and looking forward to seeing him do his thing."

Bachmeier first burst out into the spotlight in 2019 after he rallied the Broncos to overcome an 18-point deficit against Florida State. The game was moved from Jacksonville to Tallahassee due to an incoming hurricane and after Bachmeier threw for more than 400 yards, he was dubbed 'Hurricane' Hank.

However, 'Hurricane' Hank slowed down to a tropical storm due to injuries in 2019, which opened the door for Jaylon Henderson to step in and lead the Broncos to a Mountain West Conference Championship. In 2020, without Bachmeier or Sears under center, who were both out with injuries, the Broncos were mauled by the BYU Cougars at home on The Blue, 51-17.

In 2020, Bachmeier finished the season with a 61.5% passing completion, 1,150 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. Sears ended the season with a passing completion percentage of 85.2% and threw for 332 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Heading into the 2021 season, Bachmeier will have a lot more autonomy while leading the Broncos under Plough's offense. Plough said that during the last week of Fall Camp, he felt that Bachmeier grew as a player and that helped him earn the starting quarterback job.

"He's just operating the offense at a really high level, he's got a good understanding of what we're trying to do, he's improved some of the areas that we really want to improve," he said.

Plough added that he doesn't think Bachmeier is a totally polished quarterback either but he is looking forward to coaching the junior in the future.

It remains to be seen if Bachmeier can recapture the glory of 'Hurricane' Hank during this trip to Florida, or if the injury bug will bite him again.

Bachmeier won't be the only or biggest star when the Broncos' offense takes the field. The starting quarterback will be joined by senior wide receiver Khalil Shakir, who led the team in receiving in 2020 by nearly 375 yards and caught six of the team's 12 total receiving touchdowns.

'Y'all seen him take a hit trying to get a first down'

Senior wide receiver Octavius Evans, who is preparing for a breakout season, said Bachmeier is a great fit for the offense and a great quarterback, which will make things interesting for the wide receiving corps.

He added that Bachmeier tries to show his toughness and has always been willing to sacrifice for the team. While Evans appreciated Bachmeier's work ethic, he noted the starting quarterback could use some work taking fewer hits.

"I mean, y'all seen him take a hit trying to get a first down," Evans said. "Probably should be sliding but it's just him having that toughness and that blue-collar work ethic that's what got him where he's at now. But well deserved for him."

One of the Broncos' likely breakout players on offense is junior wide receiver Stefan Cobbs, who Bachmeier has raved about, describing him as explosive and dynamic. Cobbs ended the 2020 season with four catches for 72 yards.

Since he joined the Broncos' football program, Cobbs said he has watched and learned from some of the best wide receivers to go through the program in recent years, including John Hightower and Akilian Butler.

"I've just been getting better and better, you know, able to take what they've done and what they shown on the field and be able to apply that to my game," Cobbs said.

The junior wide receiver has racked up 129 yards and one touchdown on seven receptions in two seasons at Boise State.

Evans said Cobbs is having one of the best camps this year.

"He took huge strides in his game," Evans said.

Cobbs himself raved about the offense that new offensive coordinator Tim Plough was installing during Fall Camp and the energy that the new coaching staff has brought into the team.

Broncos' stable of running backs is finally stable

The 2020 season provided how much depth on offense matter as the season wore on, with quarterback Hank Bachmeier and sophomore running back George Holani experiencing an MCL injury in week two. Holani was sidelined with injury after 19 rushing attempts into the 2020 season.

Now heading into 2021, Holani is poised to become a leader on the Broncos' offense and will be joined by senior Oregon transfer running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio and senior running back Andrew Van Buren, who has bulked up to 240 pounds heading into the season.

In 2019, Holani made himself a known threat on offense as a true freshman when he ran the ball 192 times for 1,014 yards and seven touchdowns. While Holani was injured in 2020, Van Buren had a career year with 111 attempts for 382 yards and eight touchdowns, all career highs.

"I'm thankful to get back in this offense and get back out there running with the blues and be able to help out the running backs with some things and just be a part, be a leader in the stable," Holani said.

At the beginning of Fall Camp, Boise State running backs coach Winston Venable said it was cool to come back as a coach and see players like Holani put in their dues during the off-season.

"George is one of those guys, he was probably born with abs but those abs are really defined," he said.

'He's a special, special human'

In his three seasons at Oregon, Habibi-Likio racked up 409 yards and 21 touchdowns on 122 carries, averaging about 3.35 yards per carry.

"I tell ya, man," offensive coordinator Tim Plough said. "That guy, not surprising how good he's been at camp. Knew he'd be a good player but he's a special, special human, I would say that."

Even the Broncos' two other running backs, sophomores Teaquan Tyler and Tyler Crowe, are ready to tout the ball, according to Avalos. Crowe had five rushing attempts for 20 yards in 2020 and Tyler has never recorded a collegiate carry.

"We got five guys that run the rock now," he said following the fall scrimmage.

Leading up to Boise State's game against UCF, Plough explained that while the coaches feel good about Holani, he won't necessarily have a goal set how many touches or carries Holani has each game.

"So I imagined that every week you'll have a number of guys that get carries. But obviously, some will get more than others, so we'll rotate it from a series by series basis sometimes," Plough explained, "sometimes it'll be more about personnel and matchups and so becomes kind of a weekly decision on how we divvy those up and who's healthy and all that."

After the Broncos' 11-year streak of 1,000-yard rushers ended in 2020, which was a tall task to accomplish during a short season even with a healthy starting running back, Boise State is looking to return to peak form in 2021. 

Bronco Nation should expect Holani to return to being the Broncos' offensive workhorse and shouldn't be surprised to see Van Buren and Habibi-Likio used in short-yardage situations and power running packages, especially near the goal-line.

THE KNIGHTS' ARMORY

Heading into their home opener, UCF will be defending the Bounce House with veteran leadership returning from 2020 but the Knights will also be breaking in a new coaching staff.

During the offseason, UCF hired the former head football coach for the Auburn Tigers, Gus Malzahn, whose replacement at Auburn is former Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin. UCF signed Malzahn for a five-year, $11.5 million contract. When Avalos signed with Boise State, his contract was five years for $7.75 million.

Malzahn was fired by Auburn after eight seasons as the Tigers' head coach. During his time in The Plains, the 55-year-old went 68-35 and 39-27 in SEC play. In the last three seasons, Malzahn went 14-12 against SEC foes.

The Knights head coach's history of prolific offenses was duly noted by Boise  State co-defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson during a press conference.

"I mean, you can't run away from the fact that coach Malzahn has been coaching great offenses for a long time, and he does a great job creating mismatches, creating one on ones, confusion, tempo, I mean there's just a lot of offense you prepare for when you go against Coach Malzahn," Danielson said.

'Coach Malzahn is going to be dialed in'

During the Knights' Fall Camp press conference, Malzahn said the is now turning its focus to Boise State, which he spoke highly of.

"They're a team that's used to winning," Malzahn said. "They're very good, traditional winning program. They got a lot of returners back there who are used to winning, playing at a high level and that's our biggest challenge."

Under center, the Knights' offense will be led by junior quarterback Dillion Gabriel. In 2020, Gabriel threw for more than 3,500 yards and 32 touchdowns to only four interceptions. Last year, one of his top targets was senior wide receiver Marlon Williams, who racked up 71 receptions for 1,039 yards and ten touchdowns, which was his best season since joining UCF in 2017.

Malzahn said that like any starting quarterback, the offense is built around their strengths and weaknesses.

"Dillon's one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football," Malzahn said. "It's just been us getting familiar with each other and getting the feel of what he likes and what he feels good about."

He added that the Knights' offense feeds off of Gabriel.

"His teammates really feed off of him," Malzahn said. "He's not one of those guys to get in their face all the time but when he talks, people listen and he does have a special gift."

Gabriel and Malzahn have individually proven they're among the nation's best at their positions in college football and 2021 will see if that coach-player tandem can click in Orlando.

"Now at UCF, you know, he's [Malzahn] got one of the best quarterbacks in the entire country coming back," Danielson said. "And he's got speed all around the field, at the receiving position, running backs tight ends and he's got all the weapons he needs to run his offense the way he wants to run it."

Boise State safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said during a press conference that the Knights' speed on offense stands out, which senior defensive tackle Divine Obichere also said, saying their quickness is something they're focusing on.

"We understand that, again, it's on the secondary standpoint that we have to be ready for them to try and take the top off our defense," Ioane said, "and so we've got to be ready to defend those as best as we can, you know that coach Malzahn is going to be dialed in for what they're doing schematically speaking and he's always going to pose challenges."

In his final press conference before the game, Boise State's Avalos agreed that the Knights have serious speed, even on the offensive line.

"They do have some speed on the perimeter," he said. "They are very fast."

'When we play fast, we're pretty dang good'

When the Knights and Broncos take the field, Avalos said college football fans will be watching two of the best quarterbacks in the country duel it out.

"Dude, Gabriel gets the ball out extremely quick. His release's fast, his feet are quick, when they're set, he's gonna get rid of it. So, we're gonna see, you know, two of the best quarterbacks in college football," he said.

Avalos explained that Gabriel can do it on the ground and through the air.

"He can do it with his arm, there's no question about that he's one of the most accurate quarterbacks we'll see, but he can also extend plays and create plays with his legs as well. So that being said we got to be extremely disciplined," Avalos said.

Ioane added that the Knights' quarterback can make and extend plays on his feet by escaping from the pocket and finding receivers downfield, which poses a challenge for the Broncos' secondary.

"He's got a lot of experience, game experience so it's gonna be a fun challenge to take on," Ioane said.

Ioane said the Broncos will be challenged by Gabriel in the pre-snap offense since the Knights' offense attacks where defenses are misaligned.

"This offense is set up to where they are trying to expose you if you can't get aligned right," Ioane said. "And so, for me, that's our biggest challenge going into this, is to make sure make this thing as simple as possible for our guys in order for them to be able to align quickly, get their eyes where they need to get aligned, play fast and when we play fast, we're pretty dang good."

'I think this is a great test for us'

When the Broncos take the field at the Bounce House, they'll likely be doing so in front of about 45,000 screaming Central Florida faithful and in about 80% humidity and temperatures reaching the high 80s.

"We've been simulating the effect of the noise is going to have in terms of us being able to hear verbally, so really stressed with nonverbal communication and making sure that within the pre-snap we are playing fast and efficient with our eyes so that we can get the communication that we need, non verbally," coach Avalos said during his final press conference before the season opener.

The Broncos haven't played in front of a large crowd of fans since 2019. An extremely limited number of fans were allowed in Albertsons Stadium for some of Boise State's final home games, but those crowds will pale in comparison to the Bounce House on Thursday night.

Plough said the team has been preparing for the crowd noise but a packed Bounce House should be a net positive for Boise State.

"Let's enjoy the fact that we have as many people out here watching us, whether they're booing for us or cheering for us, it's still gonna be really fun," Plough said.

Malzahn added that he has faced off against Avalos when he was still a defensive coordinator at the University of Oregon. Malzahn compared his own experience working for Auburn, leaving for another school, then returning later to Auburn, to what Avalos has experienced as Boise State's head coach.

"I think this is a great test for us but we got a lot of respect for 'em," Malzahn said.

In 2019, while Avalos was the Ducks' defensive coordinator, Oregon opened the season with a 21-27 loss against Malzahn's Auburn Tigers.

"We've coached against each other, ultimately at the end of the day its two different teams, its two different teams, two totally different personnel so that you know from obviously 2019, there's no one, you know, there personnel-wise."

BRONCO ROUNDUP GAMEDAY

KTVB's Bronco Roundup Game Day show will be live on KTVB, KTVB.COM, and on the KTVB mobile app at 4 p.m. MT on Thursday. Join Jay Tust, Will Hall for a look at all of the major storylines surrounding this matchup. KTVB's sports team will feature interviews and updates from former and current players during the show.

POST-GAME PRESS CONFERENCE

KTVB will live stream the post-game press conference on KTVB.COM, the KTVB YouTube channel, and on the KTVB mobile app.

Interviews with coach Andy Avalos and players will be posted online soon after the press conference ends, so Bronco Nation can watch the press conference whenever and wherever they want.

Stay tuned to KTVB.COM after the game for a game recap, highlights, and slideshow from the game.

COVID-19 STILL LOOMS OVER THE SEASON

While the Gem State and the Sunshine State are experiencing the worst waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, college football is continuing to chug along in 2021. The Bounce House is anticipated to be packed full of UCF faithful on Sept. 2.

According to the university, fans will only be recommended to wear face masks while indoors and to get vaccinated if they can. For Boise State home games, fans will be required to wear face masks while at Albertsons Stadium.

While COVID-19 precautions and protocols may be a minor inconvenience for fans, Boise State is going out of its way to minimize players' risk through numerous restrictions, most notably, the closure of Fall Camp to members of the Treasure Valley sports news media. 

For the Broncos, under new rules from the Mountain West Conference, the team could be forced to forfeit a game if too many players are unable to play due to COVID-19 cases/contact tracing. Boise State had to cancel games against UNLV and San Jose State in 2020 due to COVID-19 in the Broncos' program. 

'It's still a very real situation'

Last season, canceled games were ruled a no-contest and neither team would be reprimanded. Now with multiple COVID-19 vaccines available, teams will outright forfeit the game and the game won't be postponed or rescheduled.

Under the new policy, Mountain West teams will forfeit games if they cannot play due to COVID-19-related issues and if both teams cannot play, it will be ruled a no-contest. Any forfeited games will be recorded as a loss and the scheduled opponent will be awarded the win. 

However, it will only be recorded for conference standings and determining the conference championship. NCAA rules stipulate that it will not impact the team's official season win-loss record.

"The biggest opponent we'll have this year is making sure that we handle our COVID protocols, it's still a very real situation," head coach Andy Avalos said prior to the start of Fall Camp. "The protocols and the pandemic will play a role this year in college football and how people handle that."

With COVID-19 now being able to threaten the Broncos' record this season if too many players get sick, it should be imperative for Boise State players and staff, like all other Idahoans, to get vaccinated.

The team is already in a bubble as part of several steps taken by the university to minimize the chances of COVID-19 spreading in the program. Players and coaches are now conducting media press conferences in cars, weight rooms and staircases, again, all in order to allow players and staff to physically distance.

With so many precautions already in place before Fall Camp wraps up and a history of COVID-19 issues, it's hard to ignore the virus-shaped shadow looming over Albertsons Stadium.

BRONCOS-KNIGHTS SERIES

While Boise State and UCF both joined the FBS in 1996 and have been two of the dominant powers in the Group of Five in recent years, the two teams have never previously played. 

Currently, the two teams are only in an agreement for a home-and-home series for 2021 and 2023, with the Knights traveling to Albertsons Stadium in 2023.

This Boise State-UCF matchup has been circled on both programs' calendars for years. The Broncos are the legacy team of the Group of 5, while UCF is the newest heir apparent.  The uniqueness of this first-ever game between the two teams was not lost on Andy Avalos.

"It's a great opportunity for both programs to be able to go out and compete and really show that within, the Group of 5 too, to the type of football and the type of teams they are, they're on the type of talent that is going to be on the field on Thursday night is going to be impressive," he said.

In another plane of the multi-verse, the Broncos and Knights could have been conference foes. 

Between 2011 and 2012, Boise State and several other Mountain West schools flirted with the idea of joining the Big East, which would become the modern-American Athletic Conference. It was one of the biggest moments in Boise State football history during the 2010s - the Broncos officially joined the Big East, only to back out and stay in the Mountain West 24 days later.

For future matchups between the two leaders of the Group of Five, the universities will need to agree to an extension to the series, much like how the Boise State-BYU rivalry has grown since a long-term series agreement was made, or the Broncos and Knights would have to be in the same conference, which could happen in one of several ways.

After the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns announced that they were going to leave the Big 12 Conference for the rich, green fields of the Southeastern Conference, the college football landscape has been on unstable grounds. 

As with every rumor of conference realignment in college football, Boise State is set to be one of the biggest names to be plucked from the Group of Five and into the Power Five. With the Knights' recent success in New Year's 6 Bowl games, UCF is also in a prime position to move up the college football food chain.

In one possible scenario for future games between the Broncos and the Knights, the Big 12 decides to aggressively expand out of America's heartland and into the Northwest and into the South. Here, Boise State and UCF, likely along with other teams from the Mountain West and American conference, could be offered to join the Big 12, where Boise State and UCF could possibly square off frequently in the future.

In an equally unlikely scenario, the American Conference could be the aggressor and scavenge the best teams from the Big 12 and Mountain West to finally achieve its dream of being in the "Power 6."

For more clashes between the royalty of the Group of Five, Boise State and UCF would need to make a lucrative agreement or find each other again like star-crossed lovers after the dust has settled from another round of college football conference realignment. 

Either way, it would take moving mountains of cash or the parting of oceans of TV contracts to make happen.

Editor's Note: To never miss a beat of Boise State football news this season, make sure to download the KTVB app for the latest updates, stories and scores.

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