BOCA RATON, Fla. — College football fans who have endured a truncated, pandemic-altered season, watched as bowls have been canceled and been dismayed as team after team has opted out of postseason play should be in for a treat Tuesday night when BYU and UCF square off in the Boca Raton Bowl.

There are plenty of intriguing storylines leading up to the 5 p.m. MST kickoff on ESPN as two of the top non-Power Five programs in the land go head-to-head in the third bowl game of the season. Several best-bowl rankings lists have the Cougars-Knights clash among their top five (Yahoo! Sports and College Football News) and almost all have it in their top 10.

With clear skies, 70-degree temperatures and a coronavirus-restricted crowd of 6,000 expected at FAU Stadium, it should be a highly entertaining, shootout-type showdown in the Sunshine State, where No. 13 BYU is 0-8 all-time and eager to put an exclamation point on its best season in a couple of decades.

Bowl games “usually come down to which team wants to be there more, or is more excited to play. Because sometimes, it is easy to treat it like a vacation and not really a business trip as it should be. The key for us is to really buckle down and give it one last go and really focus and be excited to be there.” — BYU receiver Dax Milne

A big reason for the excitement surrounding the Boca Raton Bowl is the presence of two of the top quarterbacks in the country, BYU junior Zach Wilson and UCF sophomore Dillon Gabriel. Their numbers are fairly similar, but Wilson has received more publicity this season as a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate and Gabriel has his eye on stealing some of that thunder.

“Wilson is a baller,” UCF defensive line coach Shane Burnham said. “He can make every throw. He’s got a really strong arm. … And he has some wheels. He can run. He’s as good of a quarterback as we’ve seen all year. I am telling you guys, this guy is a really good football player.”

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake returned the compliment, saying Gabriel — whose father, Garrett Gabriel, led Hawaii to back-to-back wins over Ty Detmer-led BYU in 1989 and 1990 — is the best QB the Cougars’ defense will see in 2020.

Central Florida quarterback Dillon Gabriel scrambles against Cincinnati during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. | John Raoux, Associated Press

“Really impressed with their quarterback,” said Sitake, who spent his childhood in Hawaii. “I have seen him play since he was in high school. So this is going to be an exciting game. … At a time where bowl games are getting canceled and teams are opting out of playing in bowl games, we are just appreciative of the opportunity for the guys to play one more time together.”

Wilson threw for 3,267 yards and 30 touchdowns with only three interceptions in the regular season, completing 73% of his passes. 

Gabriel leads the nation in passing yards per game (372.5) and threw for 3,353 yards and 30 TDs with just four picks. The Knights are averaging 44.3 points per game, the Cougars 43.

“All the guys in the locker room are super stoked (to be playing BYU),” Gabriel said when the matchup was announced Dec. 14.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) takes the snap and spins to deliver a pass as BYU and Boise State play a college football game at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. BYU won 51-17. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Wilson, who likely will be playing his final game as a Cougar — he’s expected to turn pro shortly after the game — said billing the bowl as a duel between himself and Gabriel is “completely the wrong way to look at it” and ignores the fact that both teams have gotten to this point by playing complementary football.

“Nothing to do with him against me,” Wilson said. “For me, it is BYU vs. UCF — two explosive offenses. It is going to be about us executing, us against their defense. … He is a great player, don’t get me wrong, but I am approaching it like every other game we have played this year.”

About the only person involved in this matchup who doesn’t seem all that impressed with Wilson or the Cougars is UCF safety Derek Gainous. Asked earlier last week about what stands out about BYU, the junior from Miami went, well, in a different direction.

“Just a well, well group of guys that is mature and know the game of football,” Gainous said. “That’s about the main concern. Just the level of knowing the game, the level of being there before. The level of competing. That’s about it, in terms of any challenges. Other than that, that’s about it.”

UCF coach Josh Heupel, a former Snow College quarterback and Utah State assistant, mentioned BYU’s maturity as well in a video teleconference with reporters Sunday, but also noted Wilson’s prowess.

“He’s an experienced quarterback that is playing at a very high level, and does a great job taking care of the football, being a good decision-maker. He’s extremely accurate with the ball. So huge test for us on both sides of it,” Heupel said.

Heupel, the Heisman runner-up at Oklahoma in 2000, said there is a reason Wilson is viewed as a probable NFL first-round pick.

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“He is smart. He understands exactly what he is doing. He gets his eyes in the right place. His body is in the right position. He’s accurate,” Heupel said. “When it is off schedule, he can make plays with his feet and his arm. He’s got elite arm talent and obviously that is why he’s viewed so highly at the next level.”

It will likely come down to who has the better supporting cast.

Gabriel’s prospects were dimmed a bit when leading receiver Marlon Williams (71 catches, 1,039 yards, 10 TDs) opted out for the remainder of the season after the Knights’ 58-46 win over South Florida on Nov. 27.

Wilson’s favorite target, Dax Milne, who also happens to be his housemate, said nobody on BYU’s roster has opted out and the Cougars should be close to full strength after running back Tyler Allgeier (illness) and fellow receiver Gunner Romney (concussion) missed the 28-14 win over San Diego State on Dec. 12.

“The coaches kinda touched on it while we have been in meetings the past couple of days,” Milne said Friday. “They have said things like how they have been a part of many bowl games, and it usually comes down to which team wants to be there more, or is more excited to play. Because sometimes, it is easy to treat it like a vacation and not really a business trip as it should be. The key for us is to really buckle down and give it one last go and really focus and be excited to be there.”

BYU linebacker Kavika Fonua, who will be tasked, along with his teammates, with slowing down the second-best offense (585.6 yards per game) in the FBS, said this will be the most unusual bowl he will have participated in, due to all the circumstances brought on by the pandemic. The Cougars are trying to make amends for last year’s 38-34 loss to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl that was also like a road game. Boca Raton is less than a three-hour drive from UCF’s campus in Orlando.

“Man, it is good, just like another game.” Fonua said. “It is a business trip.”

And a matchup that should be good for the business of college football.

Cougars on the air

No. 13 BYU (10-1) vs. UCF (6-3)

Tuesday, 5 p.m. MST

FAU Stadium


Radio: 1160 AM