- Time and date: Saturday, September 24 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: SEC Network+/ESPN+
- Location: Sanford Stadium — Athens, GA
- Spread: Georgia (-44.5)
- ESPN FPI: Georgia has 99.2% chance to win
- All-time series: Georgia leads, 1-0
- Last meeting: Georgia 56, Kent State 3 — September 5, 1998
- Current streak: Georgia, 1 (1998)
Setting the scene
When a MAC team emerges triumphant in a non-conference game, they fly the flag. The MAC Jolly Roger was introduced prior to the 2018 season in by conference commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher. It was notably waved last Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium when Eastern Michigan stunned Arizona State to pull off the first regular season victory by a MAC team over a Pac-12 program in history.
The MAC Jolly Roger will make its trip to Athens, GA when Kent State hopes to do the unthinkable. Georgia is the No. 1 team in the latest AP Poll, and the reigning College Football Playoff champions deserve that number after skating through three opponents by an aggregate score of 130-10.
Kent State is fresh off its first victory, regaining confidence after annihilating FCS competition 63-10 in its home opener. Now that a ‘W’ is in the win column, a more confident Golden Flashes team travels to SEC country to complete the final leg of the most challenging non-conference schedule in all of college football. They fell 45-20 on the road at current No. 18 Washington and they suffered a 33-3 decision at the hands of current No. 6 Oklahoma. But this game looks poised to be the toughest challenge yet.
If Kent State pulls this off over the No. 1 team in the land, it will unquestionably be the greatest MAC upset in history.
Kent State Golden Flashes outlook
When Sean Lewis and the Golden Flashes arrive in Athens, GA, they should only have one mission — win this game. Not just compete, but win the game. Will it be easy? Absolutely not. But coaches and players need unwavering belief in their team in order to build a strong culture. And considering Kent State’s recent responses to brutal non-conference slates and perennial 1-3 starts, this team doesn’t get down on itself, which is a sign of good culture.
After lopsided defeats to Washington and Oklahoma in the first two weeks of 2022, Kent State finally got its mojo back when it made its season debut at Dix Stadium. Lining up against Long Island of the FCS, the Golden Flashes found their offensive footing and decimated the opponent 63-10 in a game which was a spitting image of their 60-10 win over VMI last September.
In the Sean Lewis era, Kent State has branded itself as one of college football’s premier rushing attacks in a high-tempo offense with frequent RPO usage. Two years in a row the Golden Flashes finished ranked top three in rushing, and after two difficult weeks on the ground to open 2022, the run returned in triumphant fashion in their “get right” game. Led by All-MAC running back Marquez Cooper’s 89 yards and two touchdowns, the team compiled 353 yards and five scores, averaging around 7.4 per attempt.
It was the first time this season quarterback Collin Schlee didn’t rank No. 1 on the team in rushing yards, but the junior still shined with 75 yards on four attempts. Schlee will make his fourth start as Kent State’s quarterback Saturday, fresh off a career performance where he breathed efficiency. Schlee connected on 10-of-12 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns against Long Island, gaining much-needed rhythm at the position after facing relentless Washington and Oklahoma defenses in Weeks 1 and 2.
In the passing game, Schlee has primarily split his targets between two wide receivers. Reigning First Team All-MAC selection Dante Cephas and new starter Devontez Walker have accounted for 22 of Kent State’s 36 completions this year. Cephas’ 230 yards almost make up for half of the team’s passing output, and he remains on all-conference pace once again as one of the most complete receivers in the MAC in terms of strength, speed, and hands. Walker is a developing home run hitter, tallying 140 yards on eight receptions and a pair of explosive touchdowns thus far.
Other than Cephas and Walker, the only other target with more than two receptions thus far is Raymond James, so Georgia will prioritize shutting down the duo and forcing Schlee to find other contributors to step in.
On defense, Kent State showed initial struggles by allowing Washington to score five touchdowns and a field goal on its first six possessions of the season. However, Week 2 demonstrated vast improvement on that side of the ball. The Golden Flashes entered halftime at Oklahoma down just 7-3, forcing four consecutive punts to open that outing.
Against Long Island, strong front seven play was exhibited throughout the contest, and that’s what the Golden Flashes must replicate in order to have success against a Georgia line which has yielded one sack in 2022. Kent State racked up 10 tackles for loss last week and inside linebacker Khalib Johns chipped in three, proving to be one of the team’s top backfield menaces. Johns is quickly becoming one of the most improved players in the conference, picking up multiple TFLs and a sack in each of his first three games — totaling 7.0 TFLs and 4.0 sacks already.
Nico Bolden is another familiar roster member making a strong impact so far. The strong safety leads the team with 27 tackles and was responsible for stopping Oklahoma numerous times in the first half in Week 2. Bolden, who wreaked havoc with two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2021, hopes his aggressive defense pays dividends against Georgia as he prepares to become the primary defender on All-American tight end Brock Bowers.
Recording routine stops was a strength of the Kent State defense last year. But the Golden Flashes had a steady inflow of interceptions, which allowed the team to remain potent enough on defense to serve as a viable threat. After recording eight interceptions in its first two games in 2021, the exact opposite trend is transpiring in 2022. Kent State has yet to intercept a single pass and it hopes its first will come when pitted against a Georgia team with zero turnovers committed not he season. Cornerback Montre Miller picked off a team-high four passes last year, and he’s one name to look for to flip Kent State’s turnover fortune in a favorable direction.
Georgia Bulldogs outlook
This is Georgia, the reigning national champion. The Georgia which is currently No. 1 in the nation. The Georgia that has allowed 10 points through three games, and the only touchdown yielded occurred with 53 seconds remaining at South Carolina. The Georgia which ranks sixth in total offense and first in scoring defense. The Georgia which has refrained from committing a single turnover through a quarter of its regular season schedule.
Even after the Bulldogs set a record by sending 15 players into a single NFL Draft class last April, Kirby Smart has his well-oiled machine running better than ever. Of those 15 players drafted, five were defensive players that warranted first round selections. Yet, by means of a relentless defense, Georgia still decimated Oregon 49-3 and demoralized South Carolina 48-7 in its first two matchups against FBS competition this year.
Who are the new stars of a defense which replaced more than 50 percent of its starters? The havoc all starts up front where 6’3”, 310 pound defensive tackle Jalen Carter resides. A phenomenal athlete, Carter is possibly the most explosive force at the position in the country. However, an ankle injury suffered in the Week 1 win over Oregon could limit his number of snaps, as it did last week at South Carolina.
Although Georgia’s defensive line has generated plenty of pressure this season, the Bulldogs are shockingly one of five programs tied for last in the FBS in sacks. Only true freshman defensive end Mykel Williams, a five-star who has already logged two starts, has met a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage this year, so the Bulldogs hope to amplify that pass rush against a Kent State line holding up decently well amidst offseason turnover. To amplify the pass rush, Georgia may look to outside linebacker Nolan Smith — who picked up 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2021 — to light a fire in the unit.
Although the front seven could go toe-to-toe with any unit in the FBS, perhaps the most intimidating aspect of the Bulldogs’ 2022 defense is the secondary. That position group features a horde of returning talent as well as up-and-coming five-star true freshman Malaki Starks. The young free safety leads the team in tackles and holds two interceptions to his name through three collegiate games. Other ballhawks Kent State must be wary of include strong safety Christopher Smith, who opened Georgia’s 2021 campaign with a pick-six to beat Clemson, and cornerback Kelee Ringo, who closed Georgia’s 2021 campaign with a pick-six to beat Alabama.
This secondary made things extremely difficult for Spencer Rattler and the Gamecocks last Saturday, limiting the former star Oklahoma quarterback to 13-of-25 with 118 yards and two interceptions. As suggested by those numbers, passing on Georgia isn’t an easy task, and Collin Schlee must be ready to play the game of his life in his fourth collegiate start.
Defense has always been Georgia’s calling card in the Kirby Smart era, but this season, the offense is off to an explosive start. Stetson Bennett IV looks like an even sharper version of himself coming off the national championship, ranking 11th in passing yards and averaging 10.8 yards per attempt on a 74 percent completion rate. Bennett has also made some damage with mobility this year by weaving through defenders en route to a career-high three rushing touchdowns. And he has yet to take a snap in a fourth quarter.
Bennett has a versatile range of targets and his three favorite options this year all play different positions. Secondary halfback Kenny McIntosh is the early leader in receptions with 15, future NFL tight end Brock Bowers has generated the most explosive plays with 21.6 yards per catch, and the reliable Ladd McConkey ranks first among wide receivers in all categories. Add wide receiver Kearis Jackson and 6’7” tight end Darnell Washington to that mix, and that’s a diverse set of weapons Kent State must cover.
While Georgia produces a modest 156 yards per contest in the ground game, the Bulldogs still produce a sturdy output exceeding five yards per carry. McIntosh plays a supporting role in this department, but the main feature is Kendall Milton. With 167 yards and two rushing touchdowns thus far, Milton is vying for a breakout year after serving a tertiary role the past several seasons.
When it comes to Georgia, the question is — does the opponent score? Do they manage a lone second quarter field goal like current No. 15 Oregon did in the Week 1 matchup? Do they register a lone garbage time touchdown like South Carolina did with under a minute remaining last Saturday?
Scoring against Georgia is a daunting task. Even a 9-4 Arkansas team which finished No. 21 in the 2021 AP Poll couldn’t crack a single point on this defense last year. That being said, if Kent State endures a shutout Saturday in Athens, it is not an indictment of the Golden Flashes at all. Kent State still has the tools to punch a ticket to Detroit for the MAC Championship Game in a wide-open East division. But after the Golden Flashes managed just three points in a 60-minute battle at Oklahoma in Week 2, a shutout seems like a very plausible scenario against this Georgia squad.
Prediction: Georgia 45, Kent State 0