There is no more time for talk or speculation: the Gus Malzahn era launches tonight in the UCF Bounce House.
UCF Football begins its journey to a much-anticipated season against the Boise State University Broncos today. The game will air on ESPN at 7 p.m.
Over the past 15 seasons, the Knights and the Broncos have emerged as two premier Group of Five programs, combining for six BCS bowl/New Year’s Six appearances, according to UCF Athletics.
“I think they’re a Top 25 team,” Malzahn said in a press conference on Monday. “There’s no doubt they’ve earned that over a long period of time.”
The Broncos finished 5-2 last season and 5-0 in the Mountain West Conference, including a loss to San Jose State University in the Mountain West championship game.
Andy Avalos, first-time head coach for the Broncos, will replace Bryan Harsin, who went 69-19 over seven seasons as head coach, according to CBS Sports. The former Oregon defensive coordinator played linebacker for the Broncos from 2000-2004 and was a coach from 2012-2018, according to Boise State University Atheltics.
Avalos inherits an experienced Boise State roster that features returners like Khalil Shakir, a big part of the Broncos’ offense last season. The Biletnikoff Award Watch List recipient caught 52 passes for 719 yards and six touchdowns last year. Avalos had nothing but positive things to say when asked about Shakir’s progression on and off the field.
“The guy is a tremendous leader, selfless as they come,” Avalos said in a press conference early last month. “He is about the team in every single way you would want from a guy in his position.”
For the Knights, this season marks their first year under Malzahn, who previous served as head coach for the Auburn University Tigers.
Last season, UCF finished 6-4 and 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference, with two home-game losses against the University of Tulsa and the University of Cincinnati.
Coach Malzahn said he and his players understand the importance of winning such a game to gain momentum heading into the season.
“It’ll be a good test to see where we’re at,” Malzahn said in a press conference on Monday. “Our guys understand that. The good thing for me is that I’m inheriting a group that's used to winning too.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Knights allowed a blistering 491.8 yards per game and finished among the top five worst defensive units in the country, ranking at No. 123, according to the NCAA.
UCF hired new defensive coordinator Travis Williams to a two-year deal in February. Williams has previous experience working under Malzahn as a linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator. Williams said he has a tremendous amount of respect for the toughness and winning culture of Boise State.
“They’re not afraid to play whoever, wherever,” Williams said during a press conference last month. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us."
The Knights’ defense will be without junior defensive lineman Tre’mon Morris-Brash, as he was arrested on campus early Saturday on a charge of driving under the influence, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The junior lineman appeared in all 10 games last season, starting four times at defensive end. He totaled 26 tackles with 19 solo stops during the season, according to UCF Athletics.
“He’s won a lot of games," Malzahn said in a press conference on Monday. “He’s a guy that can do a lot of different things. There’s nothing like experience, especially at that position."
For the offense, the Knights return with junior quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who threw for 3,570 passing yards with 32 touchdowns last season.
Gabriel earned second-team all-conference accolades from the American Athletic Conference and led the nation with 357 passing yards per game, according to UCF Athletics.
A Hawaii native, Kaniho, has appeared in every game for Boise State the past two years. Kaniho and Gabriel share a Hawaii connection, having played each other in high school.
"..Of course, a favorite of mine (is) Kekaula," Gabriel said in a press conference on Monday. "He's an elite-level defender (who) has a lot of experience playing the game. And most of all, being able to play him in Hawaii, I know what kind of player he is."
UCF opens the season to a full-capacity Bounce House stadium. Due to COVID-19 restrictions last season, the Knights opened the 2020 season to just 11,000 fans in their October home game against the University of Tulsa.
"We want to put out for Knight nation," Gabriel said in a press conference on Monday. "There's a lot of pride on our side. Just having that strength behind us and knowing people have our back is a great feeling."