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2017 Week 1 Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes at Clemson Tigers

Clemson begins its victory tour with Kent State.

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NCAA Football: Kent State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Kent State was a play away from a BCS bowl in 2012. The Golden Flashes fell to the Northern Illinois Huskies 44-37 in double overtime in the most meaningful MAC Championship Game in the event's history. Kent State then lost the Bowl to Arkansas State to finish the season 11-3.

That sounds like a disappointing finish, but the Kent State Golden Flashes would do anything to return to bowl season. Since former head coach Darrell Hazell landed the Purdue Boilermakers job for 2013, the Golden Flashes are 12-35, failing to record more than four victories in a single season. To open 2017, it doesn't get much easier. Kent State faces none other than the reigning College Football Playoff champions.

Clemson's 2016 was nothing short of magical. The Tigers rebounded from a tightly-contest loss to Alabama in the 2015 National Championship and defeated the Tide with one tick left on the clock to rise to the top of the college football world.

The program made the leap from good to great, recently paying head coach Dabo Swinney an eight-year extension worth $6.75 million per season. Swinney has been nothing but impressive as the head man for the Clemson Tigers, defeating elite program after elite program every bowl season. Take a look:

  • 2012, Chick-fil-A Bowl: Clemson 25, LSU 24
  • 2013, Orange Bowl: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35
  • 2014, Russell Athletic Bowl: Clemson 40, Oklahoma 6
  • 2015, Orange Bowl: Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17
  • 2016, Fiesta Bowl: Clemson 31, Ohio State 0
  • 2016, National Championship: Clemson 35, Alabama 31

Kent State has minimal chance to win this game, but the Golden Flashes can hopefully show some resilience against a powerhouse aiming for its third-straight CFP appearance.

Current head coach Paul Haynes is on medical leave for several weeks and interim coach and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell will captain the team.

The Golden Flashes return senior quarterback Nick Holley. At 5-feet-10-inches, Holley primarily operates as a rushing, option quarterback. He took the ball to the ground 195 times last season while electing to throw on only 146 occasions. Holley completed passes below the 50% completion percentage mark, a number he must improve upon if Kent State hopes to escape the MAC's unforgiving cellar. In the rushing game, he was as effective as any MAC quarterback, leading the conference's quarterbacks with 920 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. Holley's best day occurred in a 44-20 victory over Buffalo, racking up career-highs in yards (224) and touchdowns (4) in a dominant offensive performance.

Running back Justin Rankin sits next to Holley in the backfield on Kent State's frequent shotgun plays. The sophomore from Oberlin, OH serves as the team's primary back, rushing for 511 yards during the 2016 season. Rankin finished first on the Golden Flashes in receptions and receiving yards, becoming the team's primary offensive option in both the running and passing departments. The quick, agile running back caught 28 passes for 335 yards last season — an impressive yards per catch mark for a halfback.

Kent State's defense actually stood above average last season. The Golden Flashes tied the Utah Utes for 53rd in yards allowed per game, particularly thriving in the passing defense (25th in passing yards allowed per game). Holley's twin brother Nate, the team's strong safety last season, was an impressive tackler (111 in nine games) and an effective secondary threat. Replacing the former safety will be difficult but Kent State, but the Golden Flashes return six defensive starters including cornerback Jerrell Foster (11 pass breakups in 2016).

Stopping Clemson in 2017 is an easier task than stopping the Tigers a season ago, as the team lost legendary quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Houston Texans in the NFL Draft. Watson's replacement will be junior Kelly Bryant, who has attempted nine passes in each of his first two seasons on campus. Bryant will attempt to fit the role as Watson's successor on Saturday morning, preparing for a season of lofty expectations in Death Valley.

Even with a new quarterback, Clemson is still stacked. Wide receivers Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud, and local hero Hunter Renfrow (game-winning touchdown against Alabama) all return to the lineup on offense. But Clemson's biggest weapon is the star-studded defensive unit.

Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence anchor the defensive line from the interior. The two should have no problem making their way into the Kent State backfield throughout the day, halting the Golden Flashes' offense at all costs. Former linebacker Ben Boulware is gone but outside linebacker Kendall Joseph is ready to pick up where he left off and make a major impact in the linebacking corps.

Kent State's offense ranked 125th in yards per game a season ago, scoring 20.6 per contest. The Golden Flashes lost 48-0 when traveling to Tuscaloosa to face the then-reigning champion Alabama Crimson Tide in 2016. Kent State produced 166 yards of offense and only committed one turnover in the shutout loss. Clemson is similarly built to Alabama, so expect a similar result in this one.

Prediction: Clemson 55, Kent State 3