The defending American Athletic Conference football champion will open its season Saturday, but the UCF Knights will journey about 4,000 miles for their first game.
UCF, the Fiesta Bowl winner last season, will face Penn State in Dublin (8:30 a.m., ESPN2) in a game that was first billed as a battle of Irish coaches. George O'Leary remains as UCF's head man, but Bill O'Brien left Penn State for the NFL's Houston Texans.
James Franklin, the former Vanderbilt coach, is now leading Penn State. O'Leary, though, is still embracing the trip.
"Obviously when Coach O'Brien was there, we discussed this as far as a game in Ireland with O'Leary and O'Brien, but right now it's UCF-Penn State," O'Leary said on the weekly American Athletic Conference coaches' media teleconference Monday. "That's the way it was to begin with and that's the way it stayed."
O'Leary, the UCF coach since 2004, said his team has been practicing since July 30 and his players are ready for the challenge of playing in a country that holds a special place for him.
"I think it's a great game for the country of Ireland, for both UCF and Penn State," O'Leary said. "I think it's a great game for the kids to get that exposure."
The Knights were 12-1 last season as quarterback Blake Bortles (3,581 yards) blossomed into one of the top passers in the country. Bortles was selected by Jacksonville with the third overall pick in the NFL draft.
Finding a replacement was the biggest challenge this year. O'Leary and his staff evaluated four candidates for the job: sophomore Justin Holman, freshman Tuler Harris, Boise State transfer Nick Patti, and redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo.
DiNovo (6 feet 2, 205 pounds), a highly touted recruit from Tarpon Springs, Fla., distinguished himself in training camp and won the job.
"I think we have enough players back in all the areas that can help manage the game," O'Leary said. "But Pete did the best job of taking the game from the sideline to the huddle to the execution and really being a productive quarterback back there and limiting the mistakes. That was the reason he was given the nod. All four quarterbacks are talented but I thought Pete made the least amount of mistakes from the sideline to the huddle without the coaches on the field."
Burcham Steps In At SMU
Like UCF, Southern Methodist must replace a prolific passer. Garrett Gilbert (3,528 yards, 21 touchdowns) is gone, with the starting job falling to sophomore Neal Burcham. The Mustangs open at Baylor Sunday (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1). "He's been waiting for his chance," coach June Jones said. "He's had a good summer and good camp. I think he's one of those guys who we're going to find out about how he's going to play in a game. He's an accurate kid, he's smart. We're looking forward to watching him play." … Ten of the 11 AAC teams open this weekend, with Cincinnati off. The Bearcats open Sept. 12 against Toledo. … The first conference game of the season is Thursday (8 p.m.) when first-year members Tulane and Tulsa meet. The former Conference USA foes played last season, with Tulane winning 14-7.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times