Location: Kent, Ohio
Mascot: Flash the Golden Eagle
2017 Record: 2-10
After finishing 127th in the nation in total offense, and dead last in the Mid-America Conference in total offense and scoring, the Kent State Golden Flashes are looking for improvement, in just about any way they can.
Over the past five years, the Flashes have struggled, winning just 14 games in the MAC.
Last season Kent State won two games, beating Howard and Miami (Ohio), ending up with a one and seven record in the MAC.
The Flashes made drastic changes in their off-season, including the dramatic hiring of 31-year-old head coach Sean Lewis: the youngest FBS coach in the league.
Lewis has a three-game stretch to start the season where they face solely “Power 5 conference teams” on the road. It will be a tough stretch to begin the season for Lewis and his team, but could provide big rewards for Lewis’ team, and give much-needed experience for a roster in need.
That three-game stretch starts when Kent State visits the Illini this Saturday on September 1st.
In a key game where the Illini will be expected by many to win, and win big, the young Illini team will have to get over their first-game shakes and take care of business when the Flashes come to town.
That being said, who are the spearheads for this Kent State team in their turnaround revival efforts, leading them into a stretch of games where they not only face Illinois, but highly-rated Penn State?
In recent years, and throughout much of the program’s history, the Flashes have struggled to maintain a consistent, effective offense. It could be easily seen how even a mediocre offense in certain years could have immensely boosted Kent State’s season, as they have oftentimes fallen victim to the “wasting” of average-to-good defenses in certain years.
Last year, the offense was one of the worst in football, which is largely the reason for them being voted (almost unanimously) to the bottom of the Mid-American Conference. Despite an overall-average defense, the Flashes struggled to move the ball, which led to the offense averaging just over 12 points a game.
With new coach Sean Lewis at the helm, and a new class of recruits, the Flashes will hope to use the incoming speed and athleticism to move the ball more effectively. Lewis was an assistant under some good head coaches, and has often confirmed his love to play fast on offense.
Perhaps the biggest need, and maybe improvement, for the Flashes is the addition of quarterback Woody Barret.
Barret is a former Auburn player who transferred in with the class of 2018. However, Barret doesn’t quite have the job locked down just yet, as Lewis hasn’t confirmed a starting QB.
It is largely assumed that either Barret or former starter Dustin Crum will get the nod for the game at Illinois. Crum threw for 232 yards on 16 of 30 passing, and rushed for 310 yards on 85 carries last year.
Should Kent State be able to be confident in who they put under center, they without a doubt have some speed and physicality at skill positions that could lead to an improvement in their offense.
Another offensive player to watch is Senior Tailback/Receiver Justin Rankin. Over two years, Rankin has 70 receptions for 646 yards and three touchdowns. He also has 1,001 yards rushing with another six touchdowns.
This game will be won or lost on the offensive side of the ball, by whoever can most effectively move the ball downfield.
Okay, so maybe we already knew that, because that’s one of the basic elements of football. The Kent State defense held up decently well last year, as did Illinois’ defense when compared to the offense.
Like Illinois, Kent State has had many defensive changes over the past year, as they lost five starters from last year’s defense. Lewis and his staff also have changed their defensive system from a 4-3 to a 3-4 system, adding another question mark to the plan.
Though it may seem like a minor thing, a scheme change while trying to regroup a defense that lost more than a few key pieces is almost never a smooth process. The question for the defense this year will be if they can adjust to the changes, and if they have the personnel to fit the change.
There are some exciting players on this Kent State defense going forward, as Coach Lewis did land some talented 3 star recruits in one of Kent State’s best recruiting classes ever. This comes in Lewis’ first class for Kent State, the class of 2018, and bodes very well for the future of the program on both sides of the ball.
One key player to Kent State’s defense should be redshirt senior linebacker Matt Bahr, who missed most of last year with injuries, but has starred on special teams and in defensive coverage after walking on to the Flashes football team his freshman year.
Bahr will be a key centerpiece of experience for a young Kent State team.
Kent State is typically solid defensively, but the questions above remain true. It has yet to be seen exactly how the defense will fare this season.
After letting opposing teams score 40+ points multiple times last season, Lewis will hope the influx of young talent, and the scheme change, along with a more productive offense, will help the defense perform better.
As someone who loves watching punters and kickers, Kent State has a very good punting unit, with punter Derek Adams, who averaged 43.6 yards per punt last year even after being asked to punt 79 times, which ended up being the 11th most punts in the FBS.
Ideally and incredibly likely, the Fighting Illini football team shouldn’t have much trouble dispelling a young, rebuilding Kent State team. However, the Illini themselves aren’t yet at their peak, despite the growing momentum that is without a doubt trending upwards.
As is typical with most teams in the situations of Illinois and Kent State, there will likely be some freshman mistakes, but Illinois looks to be the much better team on paper. However, as we have all learned in the past: sometimes the paper lies.
A win to start the season would be big for both teams, but I’d say all the pressure here lies on Illinois’ shoulders. As I said in my season predictions, which you can read here, I think the Illini will take care of business in their opening week, and win by a relatively large margin.