You have to admit, this might be the craziest season opener in the history of the Penn State football program.
There’s been some weird game times, thanks to the television networks, but 8:30 a.m.?
But most of us will be right there in front of the television Saturday morning, waiting to see the Nittany Lions take on Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic in Dublin, Ireland. I’m sure even a few more will be at local watering holes imbibing some good Irish libations.
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As crazy as this trip sounds — especially when it could have been grounded by a volcano in Iceland — it’s good for a special group of seniors who had to pay the price for something that never concerned them.
Most — if not all of them — had never seen Jerry Sandusky before the revelations of his criminal behavior became public. They were perplexed why they would suffer the punishment wrought by the NCAA over an incident that occurred while they were playing Pop Warner football.
They would see the man they came to Penn State to play for be fired and only a few months later pass away.
They would go through two coaching changes, see some of their teammates leave for other programs and would never play in a bowl game over their final three seasons.
“It’s been a wild ride,” senior running back Zach Zwinak said at the beginning of fall practice. “It really has, a roller-coaster up-and down. At times, you feel like you’re going to fall off.
“Like my dad said, I should have kept a journal. I would have one hell of a story. ... You’ve faced adversity and you get through it. You get used to the changes. In the end, everyone who has been through it is stronger. ... As much of a headache as it’s been, it’s been also productive as a person to get through it.”
So in lieu of a bowl game, we have this clash today. If any group of players deserve a trip, albeit an abbreviated one in a wacky time zone, it’s this group.
But there’s a lot more going on here than a special trip for the Nittany Lions.
The season opener presents a clean slate from the previous season and Penn State’s blackboard has been wiped with Mr. Clean.
Or maybe say Mr. Franklin.
The contest is the first for James Franklin, who blew into town from Vanderbilt and has taken the place by storm.
You certainly can argue his approach has been the biggest change in program history.
Franklin and his coaching staff have been social media darlings. Heck, even assistant Herb Hand appeared on a cooking show on the Food Network. Imagine that from an assistant in year’s past. “Chopped” would have a new meaning.
There’s no doubt things are being done as differently as ever before and that “King James” (sorry LeBron) has his imprint and control on everything.
Recruiting is at a level where it has not been in years (decades maybe?) and fans are starting to buy back into the program by purchasing season tickets.
But today on the Irish pitch, Nittany Nation finally gets a look at what Franklin and his staff bring to Xs and Os — instead of hashtags.
We didn’t see much from the playbook on either side of the ball during the Blue-White scrimmage this past spring. And given the personnel differences, it’s hard to believe much of what he did at Vanderbilt will apply.
There is a genuine mystery of what this opener will bring. It’s sort of like the first contest under Bill O’Brien, who was bringing an NFL reputation here, some three seasons ago. Franklin is hoping for a little better result than a 10-point loss to Ohio University.
Saturday’s game could very well establish the baseline for the program this season.
This is the year where the NCAA sanctions are supposed to hit the hardest. The Nittany Lions certainly will be throwing some inexperienced players on the field, especially along the offensive line.
While Central Florida doesn’t have quarterback Blake Bortles, who was the third pick in the NFL draft by Jacksonville, it does have four receivers who burned Penn State last season in a 34-31 triumph.
The Golden Knights went on to a 12-1 season, with its only loss by three points to South Carolina.
George O’Leary has nine starters back on defense, which should test Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
A win or a close loss against a borderline Top 25 team may show those sanctions may not sting as much as anticipated. A blowout loss may indicate just the opposite.
Aside from ESPN analyst Lee Corso — who may have lost oxygen by having tried on too many mascot heads — everyone is predicting a close game. Corso has said UCF will “wax” the Nittany Lions. The spread has UCF as a one or two point favorite.
So pour yourself a cup of coffee (or a pint if you’re so inclined), pretend it’s a Saturday afternoon and sit back and watch the show.
It’s likely to be entertaining and little educational. Plus, it’s a nice reward for some players who have been through a lot.