After dismal openers, both the UCF Knights and the Stanford Cardinal are eager to move on and try to get their respective seasons back on the right track. Last week, the Knights dropped the home opener in embarrassing fashion to FIU while Stanford got beaten up by underdog Northwestern.
Both teams are suffering from some of the same flaws - an inability to win the battle in the trenches and overly conservative play calling that drove their respective fan bases crazy.
There's a lot riding on this game from a psychological and fan perspective. If the Knights win, there's the excitement of beating a Power Five team (for all his achievements, something George O'Leary has failed to do consistently). And if the Knights lose, they will likely find themselves 1-3 at the start of conference play.
So uh, no pressure guys.
Start time: A late game for most Knights fans, things get underway at 10:30 p.m. ET /7:30 p.m. PT.
Location: Stanford Stadium - Stanford, California.
TV: Fox Sports 1.
Radio: 740-AM - Orlando.
Betting Line: UCF is a +17.5 underdog, the largest margin during the regular season since the Knights played Ohio State in 2012 (+18).
The Series: . . . it starts on Saturday with the first meeting between these two teams. UCF has never played a California school. Likewise, Stanford has never played a team from Florida (and the Cardinal have been around since 1891).
The Opponent: Stanford lost to Northwestern 16-6 in a game where the Cardinal fizzled out after a first promising drive. Much like UCF, a theme for Stanford last week was missed opportunities. They converted only 3 of 15 third downs, and their three trips to the red zone resulted in only two field goals. That third down conversion rate is a big problem for an offense built to batter and wear down opposing defenses.
Inconsistency plagued Stanford last week. Players dropped passes (two of which could have well been touchdowns). And guys on defense dropped interceptions. The Cardinal gave away the ball twice, including senior QB Kevin Hogan's interception in the end zone with about a minute left to seal the game.
Hogan did not impress, ending up 20-of-35 with 155 yards. His accuracy was questionable and failed to make some pre-snap reads. He was also sacked three times. And like UCF last week (though not quite as bad), Stanford's running game was an anemic 3.1 yards per carry (one of running back Christian McCaffrey's carries went for 27 yards and is the outlier here).
Stanford also seemed hampered by conservative play calling by head coach David Shaw. There were a lot of lackluster choices made, including consistently running the ball on third and long.
UCF Outlook: Right now, UCF feels like a team capable of losing to anyone. But Stanford, at least, looks vulnerable.
Against the expectations of many, the Knights' poor performance on the offensive line carried over from last year into the season. Though perhaps improved in pass protection, the line did not do a dang thing to open holes for the running game. The Knights had just 46 rushing yards on 30 attempts for an average of 1.5 yards per carry.
At least based on the loss to FIU, I seem to be wrong again on predicting Will Stanback to have a breakout year. Dontravious Wilson got the start at running back instead. And while Wilson's yards per carry were a cringe worthy 2.8, Stanback turned in an abysmal 0.6 (including losses on the last drive of the game which did ultimately blocked field goal attempt no favors).
The defense last week also disappointed. Poor tackling was epidemic. The defense line was not disruptive and FIU often got into the second level. A lot of plays had to be made by the Knights secondary, and so Shaquill Griffin ended up tied for a team-leading nine tackles (Drico Johnson was close behind with eight).
But there's some hope for UCF to beat Stanford. The emergence of Jordan Akins and Tre'Quan Smith was a revelation and demonstrates that UCF has at least two high quality wide receivers (between the two of them, they had almost all of UCF's receptions, so it's unclear who else will step up). And Holman looks improved and played largely mistake free. In other good news, the Knights were fairly disciplined with only three penalties (granted, that last false start was brutally costly).
Of course Knights fans will continue to criticize the play calling from last week, especially the devotion to an ineffective running game and the choice to play for a field goal at the end. Running the ball there resulted in lost yards, then a false start penalty, then a 47 yard attempt by Matthew Wright which was blocked (his first college attempt!). Still, many of the Knights' problems can be fixed - we're left to hope that they can be improved enough for what will be a tough game on Saturday.
For more pre-game coverage of the UCF-Stanford game, check out our "Five Questions" with Stanford blog Rule of Tree and their reciprocal piece over here.