Analysis: BYU players, coaches are thrilled with Boca Raton Bowl opponent UCF, and fans should be too
Central Florida Knights aren’t ranked and aren’t in a Power Five conference, but they will give the 10-1 Cougars all they want three days before Christmas in sunny, warm Florida
When news leaked Sunday night that 10-1 BYU’s No. 14-ranked football team had accepted an invitation to play 6-3 and unranked UCF in the 2020 Boca Raton Bowl a week from Tuesday, a few Cougar fans took to social media to voice their displeasure.
We’re sure they meant no offense to the Knights, who have emerged as the premier Group of Five program in the country the past five years. But they wanted to see the Cougars face a Power Five opponent in their bowl game. Nothing wrong with that, after the magical season BYU has had.
They should be careful, however, because UCF — much like BYU — has a better program than at least half of the P5 teams in the land and is entirely capable of embarrassing the Cougars on a national stage in prime time (5 p.m. MST, ESPN), a quick review of its game film shows.
“When you look at the film, you can’t deny that they got players all over the place,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Monday in a Zoom meeting with reporters.
“We played in some cold weather conditions this past weekend and it kinda reminds you why you don’t play football in Provo in December. So although we had a lot of fun with it, we are looking forward to playing in Florida against a fine team that has tons of athletes.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
Said linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi, after a short film review: “That Florida talent is incredible.”
It is the kind of fast, athletic team with a mobile quarterback — sophomore Dillon Gabriel — known to give BYU fits in the past.
Added BYU’s own outstanding quarterback, Zach Wilson: “I think this is the best thing we can have, and what a great team to play against as well. … We are going to need to have everything put together to play well against these guys. They are a good team.”
Wishing for a different opponent comes off as arrogance, in some circles. No need to give the Knights bulletin-board material, as some fans and local media members gave Coastal Carolina two weeks ago. As Sitake noted after the Cougars’ only loss, Coastal players were motivated by those perceived slights, even if they didn’t come from within BYU’s program.
BYU faithful can be forgiven for feeling a bit underwhelmed with the cards they were dealt this postseason. That’s understandable. After all, two weeks ago BYU was 9-0, ranked No. 8 in the country in both major polls and No. 13 in the College Football Playoff rankings and dreaming of an at-large invitation to a New Year’s Six Bowl game.
After BYU lost 22-17 to Coastal on Dec. 5 in a hastily arranged game it absolutely had to take, even on two days notice, those NY6 hopes were gone.
Consensus among national college football observers: Not playing Coastal wouldn’t have done the trick. A 10-0 BYU team would probably still be on the outside looking in. The cartel that pretty much runs college football was going to see to that, even if the Cougars had routed San Diego State — which they didn’t.
BYU won 28-14, but was again exposed as being too soft defensively — a weakness that UCF’s explosive offense will look to exploit, and has the weapons to carry out those objectives. And the Knights will be playing a three-hour’s drive from their Orlando, Florida, campus. Of the 6,000 fans allowed into the stadium on Florida Atlantic University’s campus, most will be rooting for UCF.
Don’t look now, but the Knights are No. 2 in total offense, No. 2 in passing offense and No. 6 in scoring offense and have one of the top up-and-coming quarterbacks around, Gabriel, looking to show he’s as good as Wilson.
The Hawaiian’s numbers are almost as good as Wilson’s, but against arguably better competition.
“UCF is a well-coached team and top-tier football program that’s had a lot of success,” Sitake said. “I am really impressed with their quarterback.”
There’s a sentiment in South Florida that Gabriel deserves the kind of Heisman Trophy hype that Wilson has received.
So get over yourselves, BYU fans. Don’t make the same mistake the Ty Detmer-led Cougars did back in 1990, when they were unhappy with their bowl opponent — Texas A&M — and were humiliated 65-14 in the Holiday Bowl.
“The only thing we heard about when we got here was how good BYU was, and how we were lucky to be here,” Texas A&M linebacker William Thomas told the Los Angeles Times. “Well, we wanted to prove that a team like BYU doesn’t belong on the same field as Texas A&M. I think we proved that, don’t you?”
Besides, this three-days-before-Christmas game will be played in an excellent locale — high temperature was 84 degrees in Boca Raton on Monday, with a low of 67. Two and three days after conference championship games, only two college football games will be on national television that day — the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise at 1:30 p.m. pitting Nevada and Tulane and the third meeting between BYU and UCF at 5.
“We played in some cold weather conditions this past weekend and it kinda reminds you why you don’t play football in Provo in December,” Sitake said, chuckling. “So although we had a lot of fun with it, we are looking forward to playing in Florida against a fine team that has tons of athletes.”
BYU’s players agreed. Boca Raton any day beats Boise in December, every day of the week.
“That’s a pretty good matchup for such an early bowl,” tweeted noted BYU-needler Stewart Mandel of The Athletic.
That's a pretty good matchup for such an early bowl.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 14, 2020
Note: Boca was going to be an ACC bowl this year, but BC/Pitt/UVA already opted out. https://t.co/RmfKSYGzLa
One of those highly entertaining shootouts — like the Cougars used to play in at the Holiday Bowl before they ran into the fired-up Aggies — could be in the offing. The Knights have the sixth-highest scoring team in the country (44.3 ppg.) and are averaging 585.6 yards per game, second-best in the country.
The Cougars expressed again Monday how grateful they’ve been to play 11 games this season, when few other teams have matched that total. A 12th game in a tropical paradise against an outstanding program — P5 or not — a few days before Christmas so players can be home for the holidays after a long, patience-testing season, is icing on the cake, Kaufusi said.
“Yeah, I think it hits the sweet spot,” he said.
Cougar fans should readily agree. Complaining about any game, or any opponent, is not a good look in 2020.
Especially when the Cougars are winless in eight tries in the Sunshine State — against a lot of teams not nearly as good, or nationally prominent, as UCF.