It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
College football season is here, folks, and Penn State is ready to open its season under James Franklin for the first time. The Nittany Lions will be taking on Central Florida, a team riding a wave of momentum after a dominant Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor to end the 2013 season. Penn State will be looking to exact revenge on the Knights, as UCF came into Happy Valley last season and left with a 34-31 victory.
Here’s how our writers think the game will play out:
Zach Berger: Penn State 27, UCF 13
College football teams usually kick off the season with an easy win against a school that nobody’s ever heard of, like Youngstown State (or Appalachian State, right Michigan?). That isn’t the case for the Nittany Lions this year, as they essentially start the season with a bowl game in Ireland against Central Florida, a team that beat Penn State last season thanks to a strong offense that featured Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson.
Bortles and Johnson both went to the Jacksonville Jaguars, so Pete DiNovo will be behind center for the Knights on Saturday. He’s a redshirt freshman, and UCF head coach George O’Leary himself admitted that DiNovo has been inconsistent and played like “a typical freshman,” according to the Times Leader. DiNovo will likely be a decent quarterback, but expect him to struggle on Saturday, especially against a respectable Penn State secondary.
As for the Nittany Lions, Christian Hackenberg will likely need to adjust to losing his best target at receiver, but Geno Lewis is ready to take over and prove he’s the sure-handed, speedy pass-catcher that he’s been advertised as. The running back trio is back and ready to improve on a very productive 2013 season. UCF is a very strong team, but Penn State will overcome a solid Knights defense and for the most part shut down the Knights’ rookie-run offense.
Ben Berkman: UCF 27, Penn State 20
This offseason, Franklin has repeatedly highlighted the fact that his Nittany Lions are the second-youngest team in the country. That, combined with Franklin calling the Croke Park Classic essentially a bowl game in regards to travel, hotels, and missed class, could prove fatal for the inexperienced Blue and White.
Offensively, Penn State should have an advantage at quarterback as a now-seasoned Christian Hackenberg returns under center for his sophomore campaign. Central Florida lost quarterback Blake Bortles to the NFL after last season — the same quarterback who torched the Nittany Lions’ secondary in Happy Valley last year for three touchdowns.
Central Florida could put up some big numbers when it has the ball. Quarterback Pete DiNovo lacks experience, but a veteran corps of receivers and backs should carry him over a green Nittany Lions secondary.
I think it will come down to the fourth quarter, but the Knights will prevail.
David Abruzzese: Penn State 28, UCF 21
The game that we’ve all been waiting far too long for is finally upon us, and the Nittany Lions have redemption on their minds. James Franklin will start his tenure in style, letting newly minted team captain Christian Hackenberg sling the ball early and often. Geno Lewis will show the college football world that he is ready to take the spotlight, and will have himself a breakout day. Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak will keep the Knights’ defense honest, providing solid chunks of yardage when their numbers are called upon. The offensive line will have its early stumbles, and Hackenberg will need to get the ball out quickly.
On paper, the departures of Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson should lead to a much more manageable task for the Nittany Lions’ defensive unit. However, just as Franklin predicted, UCF’s stable of receivers will give the secondary some trouble. That will be UCF’s main source of offense, as the linebacking trio of Brandon Bell, Mike Hull, and Nyeem Wartman should keep the ground game in check. Deion Barnes will start the season off right with a late sack and a whole lot of pressure on Knights QB Pete DiNovo. This one will be close, but I expect Hackenberg to lead the charge late and help seal a W for Penn State.
Tim Gilbert: UCF 23, Penn State 20
The spread opened at Penn State -1, now Penn State is +2. That means this one is more or less a coin flip, and my coin landed on UCF after an offseason of musing and changing my mind countless times.
It seems to me that many have forgotten how elite UCF was last season. Casual football fans are severely underrating the Knights because of Blake Bortles’ departure, but UCF is No. 26 in the country and returns nine starters from a top 20 defense. Besides, one player doesn’t cause a 17-point underdog to upset Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights also lost running back Storm Johnson, but he has an extremely capable replacement in William Stanback, who accumulated more than 400 yards spelling Johnson last year. UCF’s offensive line also isn’t what it was in 2013, but, uh, neither is ours.
Penn State will be a good team this year, don’t get me wrong. Christian Hackenberg is one of the country’s best quarterbacks as a sophomore, the coaching staff seems equipped to handle the adversity of shallowness, and the schedule is far from daunting. The Lions could easily come back to the States 1-0, but UCF has a slight edge in this one. Here’s hoping I’m wrong!
Greg Schlosser: Penn State 31, UCF 27
I don’t know too much about UCF now that Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson are in the NFL, but it’s hard not to feel a little confident heading into this one. Penn State played UCF to a close 34-31 score last year, and that was with an inexperienced Christian Hackenberg at the helm. If the offensive line is able to hold up, expect the offense to put up 24-plus points with a breakout performance from Geno Lewis.
Defensively, the big concern is at the linebacker position. Brandon Bell is definitely the more inexperienced of the current trio of him, Nyeem Wartman and Mike Hull, but Saturday is a great opportunity for Bell to solidify himself as a playmaker on the defense. I’m expecting a close game, but I think Penn State pulls out a 31-27 victory.
Mike Reisman: UCF 24, Penn State 17
This game has the potential to be a great win for Penn State, and it would be a huge step towards James Franklin meeting the hype he’s created for himself. UCF is a very good team that lost a huge piece to the draft in Blake Bortles, but the team is still expected to be a fringe top 25 team all year. The game is very winnable for Penn State, and it would do wonders setting the tone for the season.
Unfortunately, the Nittany Lion offense is young, inexperienced, and going against a great defense. I see the group getting overwhelmed early, falling behind by a couple scores and not mounting a comeback until it’s too late. If it can hit the ground running, it’ll be a fantastic game, but I just don’t think it’ll happen.