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UCF Knights vs. FIU Golden Panthers: Preview, TV, Start Time, Betting Line

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The 2015 College Football season finally begins, and UCF and FIU are set to kick it off in Orlando.

It's here.

Oh goodness, it's here.

Months wandering through a desert with no college football, and finally we have it.

And good for you Knights fans: you've been spared having to wait as long as almost everyone else. You and FIU (and UNC and SCAR . . . .) are the first to get this season started.

Start time: Thursday, September 3 at 6 PM EST.

Location: Brighthouse Networks Stadium, Orlando, FL

TV: CBS Sports Network. Sigh. Weren't Knights fans urged to embrace weekday games because the television exposure was going to be so much better?

Radio: 740-AM Orlando, Sirius 115, XM 203, UCF IMG Sports Network.

Betting Line: UCF is a 16 point or 16.5 favorite, depending on where you look.

Series: 2-1. Oh yeah, we're going to talk more about that "1." But UCF won the last meeting in 2013 in a shutout, 38-0.

What's New: It's the debut of the "Carl Black and Gold Cabana." That would be the 10,000 square foot beach-themed section of the stadium. It's an obvious addition because Orlando is famous for its miles of beaches and also knights are typically found on beaches. At the Cabana, you can buy a "frozen-mango beverage" called the Citronaut. which of course makes sense because UCF's first mascot[1] was a 50s-style spaceman crossed with a mango orange.

It's all ludicrous and we love it.

The Opponent: Even though the Knights out to win this one fairly easily, it would be wrong to think of this as a pure cupcake game for UCF.

Yes, FIU was 4-8 last year. But with four of those losses being quite close (one by two points, and three different losses by three points each), FIU was probably better than its record. FIU had the 35th best statistical defense last year and now returns almost all of its starters on the defensive side of the ball. So the Golden Panthers ought to have a pulse (obligatory cautionary note for FIU fans: your turnover margin was remarkable last year, and it feels like there should be some regression to the mean).

But on offense . . . meh. There's no proven production from the wide receivers (though there is talent). Or a number of positions on the offensive line. FIU's sophomore QB Alex McGough will need to improve to give FIU some semblance of run-pass balance this year. Do keep an eye out for early enrollee Anthony Jones - he's a fast and elusive guy who can play lots of different positions. FIU fans are hoping that he is their next T.Y. Hilton.

Finally, we can't preview FIU without picking at some nasty scabs. I've sat through some miserable UCF games in my day (e.g., the entirety of "0-and-11-O'Leary"), but the profound frustration of losing to FIU in 2011 rates as one of the worst.  There was the Jeff Godfrey fumble (I still say his arm was moving forward!) that FIU's Isame Faciane recovered ran back 50 yards for a touchdown. And Josh Robinson horrendously misplaying a punt which FIU recovered at the eight yard line. And lots and lots of penalties and general offensive ineptitude.

But no one's going to make me watch that abomination again, right?

Right?

Damn.

(Skip to 2:30 or so to relive the pain).

UCF Outlook: Credit where credit is due, FIU. But despite UCF's significant question marks, the Knights ought to take care of business on Thursday.

Last year, QB Justin Holman displayed a tremendously strong arm. And also an astonishing lack of touch. He threw the football like it needed to go through a brick wall before the receiver could catch it. But he certainly showed flashes at times and by the end of the season it seemed crazy that O'Leary had trotted out Pete DiNovo instead of Holman to start the game against Penn State in Ireland. Holman is now a year more experienced and purportedly a more active leader and can, indeed, throw a touch pass. With practices closed, this is all crystal ball stuff to a certain extent, and Knights fans will be eager to see on Thursday if Holman has truly taken a big step forward in his development.

UCF's wide receiver situation, however, is very much in flux. Sophomore Jordan Akins is the most productive returning receiver with only 12 receptions for 135 yards. Taylor OIdham, who seemed like he would be stepping up, is injured. Chris Davis Jr. also abruptly left the team. But there are some promising young players at this position, including redshirt Freshman Tre'Quan Smith (UCF's Scout Team Player of the Year in 2014). And the UCF coaching staff has converted a bunch of players to WR in an effort to plug holes - former QBs Pete DiNovo and Nick Patti (here's hoping that they are as successful a conversion project as Jeff Godfrey was) and former safety/fill-in-wherever-on-defense-guy Jordan Franks. It's going to be interesting to see who starts emerging from this group.

Fortunately for the Knights, the offensive line ought to be solidified after last year's constant shuffling. Which certainly did the running backs no favors. Look for Junior RB Will Stanback to show FIU that he is a force to be reckoned with. He suffered last year behind poor line play and was banged up at various times through the season. But I keep predicting him to have a breakout year, dang it, and I think he starts to prove me right on Thursday.

There's also some uncertainty for the Knights on defense, especially the secondary which lost every starter from last year's team to graduation or the NFL. There's talent here in terms of some young players (Kyle Gibson and Rashad Causey, among others), but not much in the way of a proven commodity. But say this for the Knights coaching staff: they worked mightily to plug holes here. Iowa State transfer T.J. Mutcherson joined the team this summer and instantly became the most experienced guy in the unit. UCF also added two JUCO transfers, Jerod and Jeremy Boykin (the second set of brothers in the UCF secondary, because of course there's also Shaquem and Shaquill Griffins).

For UCF fans, a lot of the excitement on Thursday will focus on seeing who among the unproven players emerges. Ultimately, I predict we see a heavy reliance on the ground game to put away FIU.

What do you think? The poll, and the comments, are yours.


[1] OK, so UCF was FTU then, and there was also that brief flirtation with Vinny the Vulture, but we're not going to get pedantic here.