Time and Date: Saturday, September 4 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: Kyle Field — College Station, TX
Spread: Texas A&M (-28.5)
ESPN FPI: Texas A&M has 97.2% chance to win
All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
Kent State scored at the highest rate in college football’s 2020 season, generating 49.8 points per game. The Golden Flashes, led by star quarterback Dustin Crum, aim to sustain that breathtaking scoring output as they travel to one of the most intense environments in the land. Around 100,000 fans decked in maroon are expected at Kyle Field to cheer on a Texas A&M team coming off its most successful season of the 21st century. The Aggies won the Orange Bowl to cap off a 9-1 campaign and hope to ride that wave of momentum into 2021.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
When the 2017 season concluded, Kent State was the most undesirable head coaching job on the market, and about a dozen candidates reportedly turned down the opportunity to become the frontman at the MAC institution. Former Syracuse offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Sean Lewis took on the challenge and it has paid dividends. Lewis led the team to a winning record and the program’s first-ever bowl victory in 2019 — well ahead of schedule in year two at the helm.
After winning seven of his last eight, Lewis now has the Golden Flashes in prime position to compete for their first conference title since 1972. They checked in atop the MAC media day poll for the East division, a testament to the recent on-field success the program has experienced. But difficult non-conference scheduling has been a staple of the Lewis era and 2021 starts with the tall task of taking on the No. 6 team in the country.
Statistically, the best offense in the country
The Flashes finished the 2020 season with a 3-1 record and a pair of COVID-19 related cancelations. The diminutive sample size and relatively low strength of schedule certainly contributed to inflated offensive numbers, but this team has no shortage of firepower. They were first in points per game (49.8), first in yards per game (612.5), second in rushing offense (305.7), tenth in passing offense (323.5), and situated in the top 10 in a multitude of other offensive categories.
The captain of this signature “Flash Fast” is quarterback Dustin Crum who claimed First Team All-MAC honors in 2020. Crum is the true definition of a dual threat quarterback. His pinpoint accuracy on his passes combined with his ability to run zone read schemes to perfection makes him dangerous for any defense. Crum completed passes at a 73.5 percent clip last year and averaged over 10 yards per dropback. Accuracy is never lacking when he’s in the pocket, and he looks to continue his 9-game streak of completing at least 64 percent of his throws. Across the past two seasons, he has 34 touchdown passes compared to just four interceptions. In the rushing department, he has three 100-yard showings and eight rushing touchdowns in his last seven games.
Only Air Force’s triple option attack manufactured more rushing yards per game than Kent State in 2020. In addition to Crum’s rushing talents, the Golden Flashes manage the ground game with a rotating trio of halfbacks. Marquez Cooper earns the most attempts of the group, leading the team with 282 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 2020. The other halfbacks, Bryan Bradford and Xavier Williams, complement Cooper’s skillset magnificently. Bradford is a 6’0”, 243 pound power back who stormed his way to 6.9 yards per carry, while Williams pieced together 8.0 yards per carry with the fastest legs in the team’s running back room.
Replacing Isaiah McKoy will be the main concern in the offense, as the former wide receiver accounted for a heavy portion of Kent State’s receiving production in 2020. Ja’Shaun Poke should take the No. 1 role this fall after a breakout campaign featuring 326 yards and three touchdowns across four games. Isaac Vance and Dante Cephas will play supporting roles in this offense which runs at a brisk tempo and frequents outside screens and quick throws near the sidelines. To complete the receiving attack, two established starters from Syracuse transferred into the program to reunite with Lewis — wide receiver Nykeim Johnson and tight end Aaron Hackett.
Kent State’s offensive linemen are the unsung heroes of the nation’s highest-flying unit. They finished top 20 in fewest sacks allowed and paved the path for a dominant rushing attack. Two All-MAC linemen — Kansas State transfer tackle Bill Kuduk and right guard Nathan Monnin — headline the group in the trenches.
The D-terminant of Kent State’s MAC title hopes
Kent State’s lone loss last season was a 70-41 pulverization at the hands of Buffalo. The Golden Flashes allowed running back Jaret Patterson to post 408 rushing yards (second in FBS history) and eight touchdowns (tied for first in FBS history) in a single afternoon. But it wasn’t just Patterson. Three of the four teams that played Kent State last year showcased a running back with 160+ yards and 2+ touchdowns. In order for the Golden Flashes to set their sights on Detroit for the MAC Championship, this element of their game must be solved immediately.
Missed tackles and the inability to shed opposing blocks plagued this fifth-to-worst ranked rushing defense. Also, Kent State plays aggressively and overcommits on reads too far often, so making the right initial reads are the key to preventing these breakout running back performances. This aggressiveness does benefit Kent State at times, as the team succeeds in pursuing the quarterback. The Golden Flashes ranked in the top 20 in sacks last year, led by linebackers Brandon Coleman and Kesean Gamble.
The strength of this defense lies within the secondary. Kent State allowed the third fewest passing yards in the nation last year, but that wasn’t solely the result of teams running it down their throat without attacking the air — the Golden Flashes produced the third lowest opponent completion percentage in the country. A slew of faces return in the secondary, and the team gets beloved veteran K.J. Sherald back in the lineup to complement Elvis Hines at cornerback.
Sherald missed the 2020 season, but he is one of the hardest hitting cornerbacks in the MAC. He recorded 86 tackles, six tackles for loss, and picked off three passes in a highlight-filled 2019 campaign. The secondary also beefs up as Maryland transfer Antwaine Richardson joins the safety room after 15 starts as a Terrapin, and he’ll line up alongside the team’s leading tackler from 2020 in Dean Clark. There is a lot to like about this secondary, which is shaping up to be the best Kent State has seen in years.
Texas A&M Aggies outlook
Just like Kent State nailed the Sean Lewis hire, Texas A&M struck gold when luring Jimbo Fisher to campus from Florida State. Fisher pioneered the Aggies to uncharted territory last season with a No. 4 AP Poll finish — the program’s highest since 1939. The Aggies rolled past North Carolina in the Orange Bowl and arguably authored a résumé strong enough to participate in their first College Football Playoff. Currently at No. 6 in the AP Poll, Texas A&M owns its highest preseason ranking since 1995 and hopes to convert that recognition into another season of results.
Replacing and reloading on offense
The primary focus of Texas A&M’s offense is replacing longtime quarterback Kellen Mond. The four-year starter improved each year on campus, peaking in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdown-to-interception ratio during the Aggies’ 2020 run.
Now, in order to sustain hopes of crashing the playoff, redshirt freshman quarterback Haynes King must excel in his new role. King briefly appeared in two contests last season, completing 2/4 passes for 59 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Scrambling appears to be a focal point of his game and the mobile quarterback attained 43 yards on six attempts in 2020.
King’s scrambling ability could make Texas A&M one of the most dangerous rushing threats in the FBS. The Aggies’ backfield already features First Team All-SEC halfback Isaiah Spiller, who plays with a sense of ferocity, breaking tackles at an absurd rate while proving to be unfazed by contact. Spiller surpassed 110 yards in six of ten games last fall, so Kent State’s rushing defense must emphasize limiting the 1,000-yard rusher before things get ugly.
Ainias Smith is another name to watch in the backfield and the versatile weapon splits time between running back and wide receiver, earning 49 attempts as a rusher and 43 touches as a receiver last fall. When assessing the Aggies’ pure receivers, Chase Lane burns opponents with speed and Caleb Chapman attacks with size. Chapman suffered a season-ending injury on a crucial 51-yard touchdown reception against Florida last year. The 6’5” receiver’s return to the lineup will provide the Aggies with a strong, reliable threat on 50/50 balls and in the red zone.
Tight end Jalen Wydermyer presents a similar set of receiving skills when compared to Chapman. The Aggies are no stranger to elite tight ends and Wydermyer earned All-SEC honors last December after leading his team in receptions and receiving touchdowns. He’ll be a key cog Kent State must slow down in the receiving game and move past as a blocker.
The Aggies’ offensive line was one of the best in the sport last year, finishing as one of three finalists for the Joe Moore Award, recognizing the best o-line in college football. Nicknamed the “Maroon Goons”, the Aggies displayed NFL talent across the board. But now, four of those starters from 2020 are currently pursuing their NFL dreams, leaving consensus All-American right tackle Kenyon Green as the lone returner. One notable name assisting Green on the relatively inexperienced line this fall is Luke Matthews — the fourth son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews to wear the Aggie colors.
Return of the Wrecking Crew
Texas A&M has stars like Spiller, Wydermyer, and Green manning the offense, but the reason the Aggies have the No. 6 attached to their name is primarily by virtue of this defense. Nine starters return to a unit which allowed only 21.7 points per game in 2020. Texas A&M was as lethal as anybody in preventing the run, stifling foes to 92.3 yards per game. Thus, the opener will feature the second ranked rushing offense pitted against the second ranked rushing defense.
The run stopping is spearheaded by future NFL first round draft pick DeMarvin Leal. He is as capable as any defensive tackle in college football at shedding blocks and he brutalized backfields with 7.0 tackles for loss last season. Leal recovered the game-winning fumble in the win over Florida, and he bolstered Texas A&M’s pass defense by batting down a handful of attempts at the line of scrimmage.
Texas A&M lost its two premier pass rushers in defensive tackle Bobby Brown and linebacker Buddy Johnson, leaving defensive end Tyree Johnson to become the new ringleader of pressuring the quarterback. Johnson contributed 4.0 sacks for a team that finished third in the SEC in the category.
Other faces to watch on defense include the two returning starters with the most tackles to their name — WILL linebacker Aaron Hansford and free safety Leon O’Neal Jr. The duo registered 49 and 48 tackles, respectively, contributing significantly to the limitation of opposing running backs. O’Neal also remains a force in zone coverage and is another pro-ready talent on this defense. Also in the secondary, Myles Jones operates as the chief shutdown corner tasked with blanketing teams’ No. 1 receivers. Jones has 121 tackles, four interceptions, and 28 pass breakups since first taking the field for the Aggies in 2017.
Texas A&M is favored by approximately four touchdowns over a Kent State team which has lost 14 straight non-conference games against FBS teams. While the Flashes usually struggle in non-conference play, openers have not been Texas A&M’s forté either over the last half decade. In 2017, the Aggies blew a 34-point lead to a UCLA team which finished 6-7. Last season, winless Vanderbilt came within five points of the maroon and white and squandered three opportunities at an upset in the fourth quarter.
The Aggies will have to debut a new quarterback and four offensive linemen, so Texas A&M has more adjusting to do while Kent State trots out a more experienced offense. We haven’t seen what Haynes King can do as a starter yet, but Dustin Crum has already established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the FBS, so Kent State’s offense can inflict some damage as long as No. 7 is under center. However, against unranked opponents, the Aggies only allowed more than 20 points once in seven outings in 2020, so the nation’s reigning scoring champ may run into a buzzsaw in the opener.
Crum and the Kent State offense present plenty of speed and explosiveness, but the Golden Flashes are severely outmatched by Texas A&M in the physicality department. The primary concerns for Kent State are (1) how the offensive line responds to the DeMarvin Leal and the Aggies’ elite defense and (2) preventing Isaiah Spiller from blasting off for 150+ yards.
Kent State presents a valiant effort, but overcoming the No. 6 team at Kyle Field is a tall task.
Prediction: Texas A&M 45, Kent State 27