In a bizarre season of MAC football, we crowned our East division champion on Tuesday night. It was a team almost nobody expected to earn a trip to Detroit for the conference title game — the Akron Zips.
Akron took care of business and finished the regular season 7-5 after soundly defeating a 2-10 Kent State program by a score of 24-14. Here are takeaways from the battle for the Wagon Wheel, arguably the conference's greatest rivalry trophy.
Akron proved just about everybody wrong
In the MAC coaches' preseason poll, the Zips were selected to finish fourth in the East division. Here is a look at how the coaches voted back in August (total points are listed first, then first-place votes are in parenthesis):
- Ohio, 69 (9)
- Miami, 61 (3)
- Bowling Green, 45
- Akron, 41
- Buffalo, 20
- Kent State, 16
Yes, Akron was selected to finish behind a 2-9 Bowling Green team. And the predictions appeared to be accurate as the season started. After a 5-7 result to the 2016 campaign, Terry Bowden's Zips opened the season in Happy Valley and looked lifeless against the Nittany Lions. Penn State throttled the team 52-0 and two weeks later, Iowa State (before we knew what the Cyclones were capable of) bullied Akron 41-14 at the Zips' home stadium.
But after all of that, Akron stepped it up in conference play. Most of the MAC East schedule was a breeze and the Zips downed all of the teams in their division except for Miami. But they won the contest that mattered most, using an ignited offense and a home crowd to upset the reigning division champion Ohio Bobcats.
Major props should be given to Coach Bowden and his Zips team for not giving up after a desolate 1-3 start. Akron turned it around quickly and recorded several key upsets along the way. The team will be heavy underdogs come December 2, but winning the division crown is a huge accomplishment for a program with insignificant expectations just three months ago.
Kent State proved just about everybody right
There wasn't much respect given to Kent State in that preseason poll, and rightfully so. The Golden Flashes were a play or two away from reaching the Orange Bowl back in 2012, and nothing has gone right for the program since.
Losing quarterback Nick Holley for the year three games into the season was rough, but the rest of the team didn't show much promise throughout the course of the year. Kent State notched one FBS victory — an upset win over Miami, but the team couldn't even finish within 10 points of the rest of their MAC competition on gamedays.
This was the Golden Flashes' toughest fought game since the Miami win, but what does the future hold for a team that's sat in college football's basement for the last five years?
Head coach Paul Haynes' contract is about to expire, and after posting a 14-45 record (9-30 conference), it seems highly unlikely he'll be leading the 2018 team. A likely coaching search will begin for Kent State, and achieving the four-win mark would be considered a huge success for Haynes' successor — a feat that has not been accomplished since 2013. Maybe the University should try luring Darrell Hazell out of the Minnesota Vikings facilities...
It's time for Kent State to change the offensive system
The option attack, run-first Kent State hasn't worked. So, what do the Golden Flashes have to lose by implementing a new offensive system? They could test out a pocket passing quarterback and see if that revolutionizes the offense.
In 2017, Kent State passed just 234 times compared to 520 rushing attempts.
The team's leading rusher and offensive touchdown leader Justin Rankin scored just three times (all in the last three contests). Rankin rushed for a team-high 490 yards and probably served as the most effective offensive player.
But the quarterback position needs work. The team's two healthy quarterbacks, Dustin Crum and George Bollas, combined for 5 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2017. If the Golden Flashes can find a passing-oriented quarterback rather than option threats, that could rejuvenate this offense.
For one, Kent State will finally be able to beat opponents downfield. No player on the team exceeded 324 receiving yards in 2017 and no player on the team exceeded two receiving touchdowns. For comparison's sake, Buffalo's receiver Anthony Johnson scored four times in a single game last week.
If the Golden Flashes can add the key element of down field passing to their game, maybe the rushing attack will open up to create a balanced offense. And last of all, utilizing a versatile offense would benefit Rankin and allow him to be more effective when Kent State calls his number.
This was not a convincing follow-up performance by Akron
After completing the landmark upset over Ohio last week at InfoCision Stadium, Akron was expected to completely demolish Kent State at home to close the season.
The Zips won by just 10, the lowest margin of victory out of all seven MAC teams that defeated Kent State. Quarterback Kato Nelson played like an All-American against Ohio with 322 yards and four passing touchdowns, but his offense didn't find the same groove against a much worse Kent State team.
Nelson finished with 69 passing yards and only completed 30% of his attempts. Unlike Kent State, Akron IS a passing team, especially since the team's feature back Warren Ball suffered an injury earlier in the season. The Zips only managed 121 rushing yards on Ohio, compared to 122 yards on Kent State. But the stark contrast in passing performance is what harshly affected Akron's scoring output on Tuesday night.
Many other variables, such as forcing three turnovers and boasting an effective third down defense, were held constant. So, if Akron hopes to make a statement in early December against presumably Toledo (possibly NIU), the passing game needs to wake up and revert to its success from the Ohio victory.
Player of the Game: Ulysees Gilbert III
The junior outside linebacker notched 14 tackles, recorded three tackles for loss, and finished with one sack.
In a pivotal play right before halftime, Gilbert recovered a fumble and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown — Akron's final score of the game. The rushing attempt by Kent State was supposed to end the half in 17-7 fashion, but Gilbert and the Zips' defense had other ideas. The linebacker swooped down, snatched the ball, and took it to the house without hesitation, adding seven points to Akron's output on the final play of the second quarter.
Gilbert finished 2017 with over 100 tackles, two interceptions, four sacks, and a fumble recovery. He is absolutely a lock for First Team All-MAC.