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ORLANDO, Fla. — Arguably the top two Group of 5 teams in history will face off Thursday night at the Bounce House in Orlando when Boise State travels to play UCF.

Can there be a rivalry if two teams have never played? It sure seems like it in this case.

Fans of the two schools have argued about which program is better for much of the past decade. Now they finally get a fair way to settle it — on the field.

“I’d be lying if I said no,” Boise State linebacker Riley Whimpey said when asked if he has noticed the back-and-forth amongst the programs in recent years. “I feel like there’s definitely that rivalry. You always hear who is better, Boise State or UCF or the other Group of 5 teams and finally we get a chance to go out there and play UCF and we’re looking forward to that opportunity and that challenge.”

Boise State and UCF have long been considered the top two Group of 5 programs. The Broncos burst onto the scene with the famous win in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma and followed it up with two more Fiesta Bowl wins in 2010 and 2014.

UCF beat Baylor to win the Fiesta Bowl in 2013 and beat Auburn at the end of the 2017 season to win the Peach Bowl. That year the Knights finished 13-0 and declared themselves National Champions as the only undefeated team and winner of a New Year’s Six bowl.

Fans of the Knights argue the national title is legit since the Colley Matrix computer rankings, one of many recognized by the NCAA, had them No. 1 in the final poll of the season. But UCF wasn’t included in the four-team College Football Playoff, and Alabama beat Georgia to finish as the actual national champion.

The ‘self proclaimed’ title rubbed many Boise State fans the wrong way, which helped fuel the rivalry as the two teams battled it out in the rankings the past few years.

“Both teams have a great record,” Boise State tight end Riley Smith said. “It’s going to be awesome to see two similar teams that are known as the underdogs as a Group of 5 school. It’s going to be awesome to go up against a team like that.

“It will be a big game that will boost the hype for either team.”

The two teams have similar records over the past five seasons: Boise State is 48-13 while UCF is 47-15. But the Knights have two New Year’s Six appearances during that span, while the Broncos haven’t been there since the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.

UCF went undefeated during the 2018 regular season and had a 25-game winning streak before losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl.

Boise State has had more sustained success. The Broncos have won 100 games in the past decade — more than any other Group of 5 team. They are 224-43 since 2000 compared to UCF’s 151-110 record.

The Broncos have won at least eight games in every full season since 1998, while UCF had two winless seasons in 2004 and 2015.

Now the two teams finally get to battle it out on the field.

“Here we are,” Boise State coach Andy Avalos said. “This has been on the calendar for a few years and here we are with this matchup. It’s a great opportunity for both programs.”

Neither team starts the year as the top-ranked Group of 5 program in 2021. That goes to Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 8 in the AP Poll.

The American Athletic Conference, which includes Cincinnati, UCF and Memphis, has taken over the spot as the top non-Power 5 conference of late. Boise State could help make a statement for the Mountain West with a win.

Typically football games are scheduled at least five years out, but this came together recently. It was less than two years ago on Sept. 24, 2019, when the two-game series was announced. As part of the agreement UCF will make the return trip to Boise during the 2023 season.

As fans battled it out on social media, the two schools moved things around with their schedules to make the game happen as soon as possible. And now it’s here.

“We’ve been talking about it for a while,” said Smith, who is from nearby and will have more than 50 family and friends in the stands. “It’s super exciting for all of us. It’s a blessing really. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid watching college football. I’m just ready to go out there and soak it all in.”

Adding to the hype is the stage. Boise State and UCF will play on Thursday night in prime time on ESPN. The network typically picks one of the best games of the opening weekend to move to Thursday to help kick off the season with a bang — and that’s surely the case here.

All eyes of the college football world will be watching as the Broncos and Knights fight for the first resume-building win of the 2021 season.

“This is why we come here, to play in these big-time games,” safety Tyreque Jones said. “To play on TV and for our families, it’s just exciting to have this opportunity. It’s truly a blessing.”

Opening the season on the big stage is nothing new for the Broncos. They beat Oregon to start 2009, topped a top-10 Virginia Tech team in Washington D.C. in 2010 and beat Georgia in the Georgia Dome in 2001. They started at Michigan State in 2012, at Washington in 2013 and were back in the Georgia Dome in the Thursday night opener against Ole Miss in 2014.

More recently the Broncos went on the road in 2019 and topped Florida State in the opener thanks to a memorable second-half comeback.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for the guys,” wide receivers coach Matt Miller said. “It’s why you come to Boise State, to play in these types of games. It’s an awesome opportunity for them to go showcase all the work they’ve put in over the last year.”

For many on Boise State’s roster it will be the biggest game they’ve played in. Throw in an expected packed house of 45,000 fans at the Bounce House — the first time in nearly two years the Broncos will play in front of a road crowd — and the script couldn’t have been written any better.

For three hours Thursday night COVID concerns can take a back seat. It’s time for a rather massive football game.

“To be able to have this opportunity to play such a great program like UCF, it’s truly amazing,” Whimpey said. “The excitement is there.”

Both on the field and on social media.

B.J. Rains has covered Boise State athletics for the Idaho Press since 2013 and is a three-time winner of the NSMA Idaho Sportswriter of the Year Award. He appears on KTIK 93.1 FM The Ticket every Friday at 4 p.m. for the Blue Turf Sports report.

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