All eyes divert to Dublin this afternoon for what promises to be game of collegiate football’s opening weekend. Penn State Nittany Lions take on the Univeristy of Central Florida Knights, with both sides keen to get their season off to the perfect start. With the bookies unable to separate the sides by more than a handicap of two points, the Croker crowd are in for a treat.
The Croke Park Classic offers Penn State a chance on the big stage to further put the child sex abuse scandal behind them. On the field, this is the dawn of a new era. Head coach Bill O’Brien, following a 7-5 record in 2013, moved onto pastures new in the form of the Houston Texans, and James Franklin has now entered the fray. Franklin brought Vanderbilt to back-to-back nine win seasons for the first time in the school’s history, so it is fair to say that there is a justified sense of optimism.
The Knights enter the game on the back of a hugely successful 2013 season, finishing 12-1, including a perfect conference record of 8-0, and a shock victory against Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. George O’Leary enters his 11th season at the helm, with UCF’s stock on an upward curve. Being ranked at number 10 in January for the season’s final AP poll was the highest ranking in the school’s relatively young footballing history, of which they are eager to write a new chapter this year. Justin Holman pulling the strings at quarter-back should see the offence thrive, and wide-receivers Jackie Williams, JJ Worton, and Rannell Hall will test the Nittany Lions’ steel.
In truth, Penn State’s hopes rest in the hands of a certain Christian Hackenburg. The sophomore quarter-back wowed the United States in 2013 as a true freshman, throwing 20 touchdowns, and 2,955 passing yards. Touted as a potential future number 1 overall draft pick, Hackenburg is one of college football’s hottest properties at present. At 6’4” and 234lbs, the 19 year-old can will cause serious problems to the Knights should Mike Gesicki and co. in the Nittany Lions offensive line hold strong.
Local interest is entirely directed on Sean Galvin of UCF. The Corkonian is the Knights’ placekicker, and while not the ultimate key to his side’s chances, the Bandon native is one to watch as he targets a draft pick next year. Raised on Gaelic Games, Soccer, and Rugby, Galvin hardly envisaged that his first appearance on the turf at Croke Park would come as an American Footballer. He is the perfect poster-boy for what is trying to be achieved by bringing this game to Irish shores; provoking a local interest in the sport.
The bookies have Penn State placed with a handicap of +2, and look like they have got this one just about right. Dublin will be showcased to the United States, and American Football will be showcased to Ireland. Here’s hoping the game lives up to its billing.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.