Penn State vs. Central Florida College Football Pick

Darin Zank

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 2:41 PM UTC

Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014 2:41 PM UTC

Defending Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida and Penn State open this season in unusual fashion, hopping across the pond to meet in Dublin, Ireland Saturday morning (8:30 am ET, ESPN2). Here's our breakdown of this bout, with a free college football pick thrown in at the end.

The Betting Odds
The chalk on this game has shifted sides. Most books opened Penn State as a short favorite of a point or a point and a half, but then moved that chalk toward UCF. As of mid-week the best line we could find on the Knights was the -1 offered at BetDSI, while the Lions could be found at +2 at Pinnacle.

Also, most shops were listing the total on Saturday's game at 48. 

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The Match-Up
Central Florida returns 15 starters from a team that went 12-1 last year, won the AAC and upset vaunted Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Six starters are back on offense, including last year's top three receivers. But the Knights lost starting QB Blake Bortles and thousand-yard rusher Storm Johnson to the pros, and they've got three holes to fill along the offensive line.

But UCF gets back nine starters on defense, including the entire back seven.

The Knights averaged 35 points per game last year, and gave up just 21 PPG. They probably won't average five touchdowns this year, but that defense has a chance to be just as good.

Penn State returns 12 starters from a team that went 7-5 last year. Just five starters are back on offense, after the loss of thousand-yard receiver Allen Robinson and four of the big boys across the line. But they get back QB Christian Hackenberg, who completed 60 percent of his throws while compiling a 20/10 TD/INT ratio as a true freshman last year, and last year's top two rushers.

And seven starters are back on defense, although they'll have to replace three of last year's top five tacklers.

The Lions averaged 29 PPG last year, while giving up 26 PPG. They have a chance to match that first figure this year, and improve upon the second.


When Last They Met
This is a rematch of a game played last September in Happy Valley, won by the Knights 34-31. UCF led early 21-7 and 28-10 midway through the third quarter, but the Lions pulled to within 31-24 early in the fourth, and within 34-31 with three minutes to go. But the Knights ran out the clock from there to earn their first-ever victory over a Big Ten team.

Central Florida won outright as a four-point underdog, and the game played 'over' its total of 50.

Of course, several key players from that game won't be in Dublin Saturday, most notably Bortles, who threw three touchdown passes; Johnson, who ran for 117 yards and one score; and Penn State's Robinson, who caught nine balls for 143 yards and one score.

UCF out-gained Penn State that day 507-455 and held the ball for almost 33 minutes. 


The Coaches
There's no doubt George O'Leary can coach; he guided Georgia Tech to five straight bowls back in the 1990s, and re-built this UCF program basically from the ground up. In his first season with the Knights back in 2004 they went 0-11; since then they're 72-45, with three conference championships and a wonderful upset of Baylor (as 16-point dogs) in last year's Fiesta Bowl.

New Penn State head coach James Franklin has only been a boss for a short while, but he's already done something amazing; he led Vanderbilt to three straight bowl games. Vanderbilt! In the two seasons prior to his taking over Vandy went 4-20; in his first season in charge the Commodores went 6-7, and over the last two seasons they went 18-8. They also went 25-14 ATS in his three seasons. 


Free College Football Pick
Central Florida has some key holes to fill, but can do it with players who have been in O'Leary's systems. Penn State, meanwhile, will go through a learning curve with Franklin's new schemes, at least through the first half of this season or so. So we'll go with the UCF Knights for our free College Football pick on this contest. 

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