The early game of the opening Saturday of the 2014 college football season features a pair of unranked teams that could surprise people this season with the Penn St. Nittany Lions of the Big 10 under new head coach James Franklin traveling to Croke Park in Dublin Ireland to take on the University of Central Florida (UCF) Knights of the American Athletic Conference at 8:30 AM ET. New Penn St. head coach James Franklin will be making his debut after coming over from Vanderbilt to replace the departed Bill O’Brien. The Knights will be led by longtime coach George O’Leary who led the Knights to a 34-31 win over the Nittany Lions last year in Beaver Stadium behind departed star quarterback Blake Bortles.
The Nittany Lions, who finished 7-5 last season and closed out their season with a win against a strong Wisconsin squad in Madison. They return 7 starters overall and are still plagued by depth issues as a result of the reduction in scholarships from the sanctions following the Sandusky scandal, but they do have star power on offense in sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards with 20 TDs and 10 INTs as a freshman, but his offensive line will be particularly inexperienced with only 2 of their 5 starters seeing action last season. The Lions can lean on experienced running backs in Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who combined for 1,792 yards rushing and 17 TDs last season. Defensively they are thin at linebacker, but returning defensive end Deion Barnes is expected to have a breakout season as a pass rusher and they return 3 starters in the secondary.
UCF finished 12-1 last season, including a 52-42 win over Big 12 Champion, and then-5th ranked Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Their only loss coming to then-12th ranked South Carolina 28-25 in late September. They must replace Bortles, but the Knights return 24 of the 30 players who saw action for them defensively last including their starting secondary. They have experience and depth on defense, and that will be a key factor early in the season when offenses tend to struggle. Offensively the Knights return 2 starters on the offensive line, and 4 of their top 5 wide receivers including Rannell Hall (57 receptions, 886 yards) and Breshad Perriman (39 receptions for 811 yards). Running back William Stanback (443 yards rushing) is expected to increase his workload this season as well. Redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo will take over under center,
Penn St. vs. UCF Spread, Line and Betting Odds:
Penn St. Nittany Lions +2
@UCF Knights -2
Over 46.5 (-110)
Under 46.5 (-110)
Betting odds taken from BetOnline.ag
Penn St. vs. UCF Pick:
UCF has a 23-12 record in season-openers, and has won 8 in a row. The Knights have won 9 games in a row overall, the 3rd longest current streak among FBS teams (behind Florida St. 16, and Michigan St. 10). This will be the 4th ever meeting between the two teams, with Penn St. winning the first 2 in 2003 and 2004 before last season’s loss.
The Knights are the deeper and more experienced team, particularly on defense and return 15 starters overall including 9 on defense. Their special teams are superior to Penn State’s as well with all of their key players returning, including kicker Shawn Moffitt who went 21-for23 on field goals last season. The experience of playing in the Fiesta Bowl last season should give them an edge in this game since it will be a high profile neutral site game. Bortles had a big game last season, throwing for 288 yards and 3 TDs, so the Knight should be able to have some success through the air here. The key to this game though is their experience combined with defense and special teams, that gives them edge and UCF is the pick here.