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2016 Week 5 Preview: Akron @ Kent State

Welcome to the 59th edition of the Wagon Wheel rivalry

NCAA Football: Akron at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The importance of this opening weekend Wagon Wheel trophy game, pitting Akron and Kent State can’t be understated. Not only will the winner take the coveted trophy, but they would also start the MAC conference season 1-0 in what could turn out to be a very muddled division.

First, we’ll start with the rivalry itself. Dix stadium is set to be the location of the 59th meeting between these two schools. With Akron holding a 32-24-2 edge overall, but since 1946 Kent State leads the series 23-21-1. While both programs have had brief spells of success, this isn't exactly a football rivalry the has wide-ranging national relevance.

That isn’t to say this rivalry doesn’t matter a great deal to the football community in Northeast Ohio. Fans and players alike feel a great deal of passion and animosity toward the opposing school and the games take on a carnival atmosphere.

To add to the stakes, because the schools are just slightly more than ten miles apart, they often recruit from the same pool. Both Akron and Kent State rosters are filled with players from the surrounding area and this game influences recruiting decisions. Akron has 14 players alone from their home city with another handful from talent-rich Canton and Cleveland. To some extent, the same can be said for the Kent State roster as they have 53 players from Ohio.

This game also marks the opening of MAC play for both teams. Given how many of the MAC east teams are notably struggling, it isn’t out of the question that either Kent State or Akron could end up in the MAC title game. Every MAC east team has experienced disappointing losses, meaning the division is wide open. While Ohio might be the favorite, they have a pair of difficult cross-conference matchups against Toledo and Central Michigan, further illustrating the importance of this game for Kent State and Akron.

Based on the performances of both teams to this point, Akron has to be considered favorites in this game after winning away at Marshall and at home to VMI. Combine that with losses to Wisconsin and Appalachian State, Akron sits at 2-2.

Kent State has but one nonconference win to their name against Monmouth, with losses to Penn State, Alabama and the embarrassing 4OT loss against North Carolina A&T.

To further highlight the disparity between these two teams, one doesn’t have to look far. The scoring offenses rank at opposite ends of the MAC spectrum, with Akron scoring a healthy 40 points a game and Kent State a pedestrian 19. Context has to be included as Kent State has played against a more challenging slate of opponents, but the point is the offenses are trending in opposite directions.

Leading the charge for Akron is junior quarterback Thomas Woodson who has kicked off the season throwing for 350+ yards in three of the first four games. He hasn’t gotten nearly as much notoriety as his other conference mates at quarterback, but Woodson is quietly ranked second in the MAC in passing yards, tied for first in touchdown passes (although Akron has played one more game than Toledo) and first in completion percentage among full-time starting quarterback.

Woodson has gotten plenty of help in the running game as Manny Morgan, Warren Ball, and Van Edwards have combined to rush for 493 yards through the first four games. With Woodson throwing for so many yards it is only logical to have highly ranked receivers as well and that is exactly the case with Jerome Lane leading the conference by a wide margin over Corey Davis.

Tasked with stopping this explosive Akron offensive will be a very capable Kent State defensive unit led by the nation's leading tackler Nate Holley (15.3 a game). This defense has been bruised and battered by the physical dominance that is Alabama football, so it will be interesting to see how much fight is left late in the game. Against Alabama a week ago and to some extend all season long, the Kent State defense has had to play far too many snaps after the offense repeatedly went three and out.

That Kent State offense will likely be led by a third-string quarterback in sophomore George Bollas. Bollas does have experience starting six games a year ago, but it is telling that he came out of camp as the third option. Other names to keep an eye on when Kent State has the ball is running back Justin Rankin, who leads the team with 230 rushing yards and the potential big play threat of Kavious Price.

There should be opportunities for Kent State to drive the ball as Akron have given up huge yards defensively this season. Through the first four games, Akron has conceded a MAC-worst 329 yards per game passing and a whopping 200 yards rushing per game.

The game kicks off at 3:30 and can be found on ESPN3 or live at Dix Stadium.