Penn State hopes to avenge last year's loss to Central Florida in game number one of the James Franklin era.
Penn State (0-0, 0-0) vs. Central Florida (0-0, 0-0)
Kickoff: 8:30 a.m., Croke Park, Dublin, Ireland
The Line: PSU -2
TV: ESPN Mike Patrick (play-by-play), Ed Cunningham (analyst) Jeannine Edwards (sideline)
Weather: Clear day with temperatures in the low 60s for kickoff.
PENN STATE RECORD: 0-0, 1st Year
OVERALL RECORD: 24-15, 4th Year
VS. Central Florida: 0-0
CENTRAL FLORIDA RECORD: 72-56, 11th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 124-89, 19th Year
VS. PENN STATE: 1-1
...NOW THE FUN PART
CENTRAL FLORIDA OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE
Redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo has the nearly impossible task of replacing the now-legendary Blake Bortles at quarterback. DiNovo managed to beat out Boise State transfer Nick Patti and sophomore Justin Holman, who served as Bortles' primary back-up in 2013. Look for Penn State to attempt to take advantage of DiNovo's lack of experience by switching up looks and applying pressure from all across the field. For all of the depth issues at certain positions, the Nittany Lions have a deep and talented defensive line. Just how talented will be determined, but they may have the ability to regularly rush the quarterback with a four-man front. Pay special attention to the rotation across the line- Penn State could go three-deep, which would obviously cause problems for offense lines who need to constantly face a fresh opponent across the line of scrimmage.
Unfortunately for DiNovo, he will face a much tougher secondary than Bortles faced a year ago in Happy Valley. Although they were often maligned, the unit improved tremendously during the course of the season, and comes back with plenty of experience under their belts- something that could not be said in 2013 as the team was forced to break in several players with no experience. Cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos both should challenge for All-Big Ten honors in 2014. Central Florida returns plenty of talent at the wide receiver position, most notably senior Rannell Hall, so we'll see right away just how much Penn State's secondary has improved from a year ago.
CENTRAL FLORIDA DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE
The key factor in this game will be how Penn State's offensive line matches up with Central Florida's defensive line. The Golden Knights front seven will likely be the strength of the 2014 squad, and may severely limit Penn State's offense on Saturday. However, Penn State's offensive line has the potential to perform well this season. Players like Andrew Nelson, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey may develop quickly and eliminate the many questions about the offensive line throughout the season.
It goes without saying that all eyes will be upon Christian Hackenberg when Penn State has the ball. The sophomore quarterback is already being called a future number-one overall NFL draft pick by the likes of Mel Kiper, Jr., so expectations could not be any higher. With his first full offseason at Penn State now under his belt, Hackenberg could make a meteoric rise to superstardom beginning on Saturday.
Running backs Bill Belton and Zac Zwinak should both get plenty of carries, but keep an eye out for redshirt sophomore Akeel Lynch. The Canadian product showed great promise last season, but missed playing time last year because of struggles with pass-blocking. He should challenge for much more playing time in 2014, and could even find himself as the full-time starter by season's end.
Penn State must find a way to replace the back-to-back Big Ten Receiver of the Year, Allen Robinson. They have plenty of athletic, yet inexperienced, options to replace the man who had the ability to create offense when the team was struggling to move the ball. While they may not have a single player who is capable of producing the eye-popping numbers we became accustomed to with Robinson, it will be interesting to see who emerges as Hackenberg's favorite target. Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton are penciled in as the starters, but plenty of other receivers will be involved in the rotation. Keep an eye out for true freshmen Chris Goodwin and Saeed Blacknall.
While the offense was the catalyst to Central Florida's Sugar Bowl championship season in 2013, the defense will return nearly all of its starters from a season ago. With that much experience returning, Penn State can't afford much rust if they want to return to the U.S. with a victory.
According to the new coaching staff, Sam Ficken has been phenomenal throughout the offseason. Now we'll see what he can do in the heat of the battle this season. Despite his well-documented struggles at times, Ficken has shown the ability to be a major factor for the team in 2014.
Penn State's special teams units struggled mightily throughout 2013. This year's units should be greatly improved thanks to the addition of a slew of speedy freshman (both true and redshirt) who should contribute on special teams immediately. According to the depth chart released on Tuesday, Akeel Lynch and Geno Lewis will handle kickoff returns, while Jordan Lucas and the sure-handed Jesse Della Valle will be the primary punt returners.
Central Florida returns both their punter and kicker from a season ago. If the game comes down to a last second field goal, the Golden Knights are in good hands- kicker Shawn Moffit has the accuracy that will likely allow him to continue his football career on Sundays.
PENN STATE-27 CENTRAL FLORIDA-24
Since we know next-to-nothing about either team at this point, I'll just throw objectivity out the window and pick the good guys. Central Florida's defensive line is a major concern, but something tells me Penn State's offensive line will surprise people considering their overall inexperience. Even if the line struggles, Hackenberg's experience coupled with the athleticism around him should be enough to find ways to move the ball.
Of course, it's really anyone's guess at this point. We'll know what this team is made of soon enough...