Bill O’Brien gestures to Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg during Saturday’s loss to Central Florida.
Bill O'Brien gestures to Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg during Saturday's loss to Central Florida. (GENE J. PUSKAR -- The Associated Press)

On the surface, it looks like a terrible loss.

Saturday, Penn State fell 34-31 at home to a directional school (Central Florida) from an overlooked conference (American Athletic). The Nittany Lions' defense couldn't tackle, couldn't cover and couldn't get out of its own way, allowing a stunning 507 yards.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll realize that the Knights may end up being the second-best team that Penn State will face this season, behind only No. 4 Ohio State.

Central Florida was 10-4 a season ago and won a bowl game. The Knights are 3-0 this season. They have an experienced, NFL-caliber quarterback and a bevy of talented receivers. In hindsight, it's not surprising that the Knights exposed a young PSU defense that lacks depth and playmakers.

UCF, if it can find a way to beat No. 7 Louisville in mid-October, may end up winning the American Athletic title and possibly even get a Bowl Championship Series berth. The only other game that the Knights will not be favored to win is the Sept. 28 game vs. No. 12 South Carolina. PSU's remaining schedule, meanwhile, doesn't look all that frightening. Yes, winning at Ohio State (3-0) on Oct. 26 looks like a near impossibility. But PSU doesn't play No. 18 Northwestern (3-0), which looks like the second-best team in the Big Ten.

Michigan (3-0) is ranked No. 15, based largely on its win over No. 14 Notre Dame. But the Fighting Irish struggled mightily to beat a suspect Purdue side last weekend, while Michigan was nearly stunned by Akron. That's the same Akron team that UCF humbled, 38-7.


The only other ranked team on the PSU schedule is No. 24 Wisconsin, which is coming off a 32-30 loss to Arizona State when the Badgers gave up 468 yards. Those numbers are eerily similar to what PSU allowed vs. UCF.

The rest of PSU's schedule features Kent State, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska. The last team on that list sounds the most imposing, but the Cornhuskers are in disarray. Their head coach, Bo Pelini, may get fired after ripping the team's fans and one of the program's all-time great players (Tommie Frazier). And Nebraska is coming off an ugly 41-21 defeat at home against UCLA in a game that it led, 21-3.

Does that mean Penn State will beat everyone but Ohio State and finish 10-2? The short answer is no -- another 8-4 season sounds more likely. The Lions have some major issues, especially defensively. That means most of their remaining games will likely be high-scoring affairs that are decided in the final quarter.

It should make for lots of edge-of-the-seat excitement.

It's now obvious that this isn't a great PSU team, but it's also obvious that it will definitely not be boring.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at