The Akron Zips and Central Florida Knights face off in their season opener for the second straight year this Thursday on ESPN3. Last year's season opener was a microcosm for the Zips' season and a sign of things to come. UCF scored early and often taking a 35-0 lead into halftime at Infocision Stadium. The few Zips faithful that did stay for the second half got to see the final score of 56-14.
The Zips finished last season at 1-11 for the third straight year and Terry Bowden is looking to turn things around. When we previewed the Zips season, this was not a game we had circled as winnable. Having said that, this game can serve as a litmus test for improvement if the Zips can improve on last year's disastrous opener.
UCF is coming off a 10-4 season capped off by a bowl win over the MAC's own Ball State in the Beef 'O' Brady bowl. They left Conference USA in order to join the AAC (the conference formerly known as the Big East) and hopes are high for the Knights to contend for the conference title.
Kyle Pohl takes over the helm at starter from the departing Dalton Williams in his first time to shine as the Zips' new starting quarterback. He will need to play like a veteran avoiding mistakes if the Zips are to avoid another 35-0 deficit. Expect him to throw a lot and spread the ball against an inexperienced Knights' defense.
Blake Bortles carved through the Zips defense last year in an efficient 13/16 168-yard three-touchdown effort in what was the beginning of a great season. Bortles should again find success against the Zips and can put up points in a hurry. It is important to not get in a shootout with the Knights as the high scoring affairs are their comfort zone.
The Zips will need to control the ball better in this year's match-up by getting plenty of touches to Jawan Chisholm. UCF did not have a stout run defense last season and the Zips did nothing to take advantage with only eight touches for Chisholm. Whether it's with the running game or in the passing game, Chisholm has to get the ball and make plays in this year's match-up.
The Zips did not have any success in last year's match-up stopping either the run or the pass while giving up 56 points. The good news is that seven starters return on the defensive side and have a year under their belt under the Chuck Amato regime. The results of the defense will be heavily dependent on the offense and special teams. The longer the defense is on the field, the worse off the Zips will be. This defense is not good enough to overcome major mistakes by the other side of the ball. Bortles will again be able to pass all over this team, but if he has to deal with a long field, the Zips may be able to force the Knights into some mistakes or at least turn touchdowns into field goals.
The Knights got after the quarterback well last year and will certainly be trying to attack the young quarterback and offensive line in Thursday's match-up. The Knights forced four turnovers in last year's match-up and if that happens again, the game will be over very quickly. UCF is young on the defensive side and there will be opportunities for big plays if Pohl can capitalize.
Terry Bowden is looking to improve on a disappointing first year and turn the program around. Wins and losses won't be the only measurement of improvement this year and especially not in this week 1 match-up. As cliche as it sounds, Akron needs to win in baby steps with drives and quarters and then games. Another embarrassing first half repeat of last year will show the Zips did not take a step forward. There are of course several factors that lead to a 56-14 defeat, but the most disconcerting was two turnovers inside their own ten. Avoiding costly mistakes like those will be the biggest win for the Zips, even if the score ends up not in their favor.
PREDICTION - UCF 49 Akron 28
I am optimistic the Zips will be able to move the ball tomorrow and expect them to put up points. I am not optimistic in their ability to stop Blake Bortles and the Knights offense. UCF is the more talented team and they will pull away in their preferred shootout style. The best way the Zips can remain competitive in this game is if they force turnovers and win the field position battle; two things they did not do very well in 2012.