Beating Penn State was what fueled UCF's miraculous run in 2013. That was the victory that put the program on the map. The legend of Blake Bortles was born by beating Penn State. It was one of many shocking victories for UCF in 2013. The victory against the Nittany Lions put UCF on the map in 2013.
Now the players have changed. Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson are gone for the Knights. Bill O'Brien left for the NFL and was replaced by James Franklin. Now both open the season in Ireland. Devon Edwards from Black Shoe Diaries was kind enough to answer my questions and to preview the game.
Q: James Franklin replaced Bill O'Brien as head coach, what are the expectations for Penn State under Franklin?
Devon Edwards: James Franklin has definitely changed the atmosphere of the program, and he's turned Bill O'Brien's untimely departure into a positive. He's absolutely torn it up on the recruiting trail so far, despite the sanctions, and it seems like the players are simply having more fun under him. Granted, that might not mean success on the field just yet--this might be the worst year, in terms of the impact of the NCAA punishment--but things are trending upwards. There's a real sense that a sleeping giant has been awoken.
Q:What are the differences in philosophy between Bill O'Brien and James Franklin?
Edwards: O'Brien came from an NFL background, and tried to run this program like a pro team. There's nothing wrong with that, at all--that air of professionalism was needed in the wake of the sanctions, and the pro-style offense helped recruit, for one, Christian Hackenberg. But Franklin is a college guy, through and through, and where BOB seemed to view recruiting and the public nature of the job as a necessary evil, that's where Franklin has really thrived. In terms of actual scheme, I don't know how different things will really be; Franklin has been saying all summer that he's building an offense to best fit his personnel. That ought to be similar to the one-back, tight-end heavy system BOB used.
Q: Christian Hackenberg is now a sophomore coming off an impressive freshman year, what are the expectations for him?
Edwards: For Hack, the sky is the limit. I'm not sure how many people wanted to throw him in, headfirst, as a freshman, but it was pretty incredible to watch his progress last year, especially in the finale, when he carved up a good Wisconsin defense to the tune of 340 yards and four touchdowns. Now, he loses Allen Robinson, and there's a lot of uncertainty on the offensive line, but the feeling is that it's Hackenberg's team now, and they'll go as far as he can take them. Given the realities of the roster, a minor improvement, statistically, would mean a big step forward in his development.
Q: How are Penn State fans reacting to the game in Ireland? Do they support it?
Edwards: The idea always was to give the players and the fans a bowl-like atmosphere while the NCAA prevented us from actually going to one, so I think there's generally a sense of excitement about the game, especially now that it doesn't seem like a volcano will shut the whole thing down. IT sucks that we'll have to wake up at 8 AM to watch it, but other than that, I think everyone's pretty psyched to be playing a game abroad.
Q)Last year, UCF moved the ball at will against Penn State, has the defense changed under Franklin? How so?
Edwards: Well, from a sheer depth perspective, Franklin managed to recruit a bunch of defensive backs who ought to be able to play from day one. That ordinarily wouldn't mean much, but Penn State at some points had so few cornerbacks on the roster that they couldn't run a true nickel defense. There will also be more 4-2-5 packages, with a "hero" hybrid linebacker/safety, a role that should suit Adrian Amos well. This year, Penn State's very thin at linebacker, so you'll see more packages meant to deemphasize that.
Q:What are the strengths and weaknesses of this Penn State team?
Edwards: Aside from quarterback, Penn State is loaded at tight end and running back--even with a possible season-ending injury to Adam Breneman, Penn State has three guys, in Jesse James, Kyle Carter, and Mike Gesicki, who either have had serious success at the Big Ten level or come in with an exceptional pedigree. And at running back, the trio of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch might not boast an All Conference-caliber standout, but there's good balance among the three, and they'll get the job done. The weakness is at OL--which returns one starter, and starts two converted defensive tackles--and the WR corps--which loses do-everything Allen Robinson and has talent, but very little experience. Defensively, there's talent everywhere, but the biggest depth question is at linebacker, which returns exactly three players who've had any significant playing time.
Q:Now that Storm and Bortles are gone, do you think Penn State will overlook UCF?
Edwards: Nobody's going to be overlooking anybody. There's no way James Franklin won't have his team up for the first game in his tenure, and with UCF listed as 1.5 point favorites in most of the books, I don't think anyone at Penn State believes they'll just waltz to victory. If Penn State loses, which is a distinct possibility, it will be because they were outplayed, or because they made too many mistakes, not because they looked past UCF.
Q)What do you think the score will be?
Edwards:Both teams have major question marks, but early in the season, when they'll both be trying to figure out just what they have, it's best to have a quarterback. It might be a sloppy affair, but I think Hack carries this Penn State team to victory, 24-20.
I want to thank Devon for his time to answer my questions. I wish him and other Penn State fans good luck on Saturday.