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2023 Week 1 Game Preview: Kent State Golden Flashes @ UCF Knights

Kenni Burns makes his Kent State debut against the Big 12’s newest program on Thursday night in Orlando.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 NIU at Kent State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Thursday, August 31 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: FS1
  • Location: FBC Mortgage Stadium — Orlando, FL
  • Spread: UCF (-36)
  • Over/under: 56
  • All-time series: Series tied, 2-2
  • Last meeting: Kent State 41, UCF 24 — November 23, 2004
  • Current streak: Kent State, 2 (2003-04)

(Yes, UCF and Kent State shared MAC membership from 2002 to 2004)

Hurricane Idalia update

Tropical storms are no stranger to disrupting UCF football seasons. Inclement weather canceled the Knights’ 2017 September home game against Georgia Tech and postponed their 2022 September meeting with SMU. Also, the 2021 season opener against Boise State was disrupted by a 3-hour delay. Now, the attention turns to Hurricane Idalia, which will be the determinant in whether Thursday’s game occurs as originally planned.

UCF canceled all classes Wednesday in wake of Hurricane Idalia, but the University is scheduled to operate as normal Thursday. No adjustment has been made to the game’s original time of 7 pm ET that night.

The hurricane is expected to pass through the Orlando area Wednesday before UCF’s opener, but there is another logistical factor to watch, as Kent State makes its trek from Ohio to Orlando also on Wednesday. Thus, the Golden Flashes’ travel plans are something to monitor in regard to the game’s status.

The GRIT era begins under Burns

On Dec. 5, 2022, a shocking move changed the entire complexion of Kent State’s football team. Head coach Sean Lewis accepted an offensive coordinator role on Deion Sanders’ staff at Colorado in a relatively-unforeseen move in college football. Lewis won the program’s first-ever bowl game in 2019, conducted the No. 1 scoring offense in the country in 2020, and qualified for the MAC Championship Game in 2021 — producing Kent State’s best three-year stretch since the 1970s.

Hired later in the month to replace Lewis was Minnesota associate head coach and running backs coach Kenni Burns, a P.J. Fleck disciple who previously served on Western Michigan’s staff in 2016. Burns retained three position coaches, including Colin Ferrell, CJ Cox, and Matt Johnson — the latter who was promoted to co-offensive coordinator this offseason. The remainder of his staff was rebuilt from the ground up.

Additionally, the program’s mantra shifts from “Flash Fast” to “GRIT,” which stands for “Grow, Respond with Integrity Together.” Burns is operating with head coach duties for his first time, and he’ll look to make Kent State’s GRIT a well-renowned brand in the MAC during this tenure.

Knighted into the Big 12

In September 2021, UCF officially received word that it would join the Big 12 prior to the 2023 season. The Knights received nearly a two-year grace period to prepare for life in their new conference after a successful 10-year run in the AAC, complete with four conference championships, two New Year’s Six appearances, and four bowl wins.

The Knights have been nomads on the rise in college football for quite some time, relocating from Division III to Division II and later to the FCS. Upon arriving to FBS status in the 1990s, UCF transitioned from independent to the MAC, then moved to the CUSA, realigned to the AAC, and now partake in Big 12 membership. All of that happened in a condensed timespan, as the program wasn’t even launched until 1979.

UCF is a geographic outlier in its new league, as the 13 other programs in its conference are more than a 12-hour drive away. But it’s what the Knights have longed for from a competition standpoint for a long time, especially after being snubbed from the 2017 and 2018 College Football Playoff fields despite producing undefeated regular seasons. Now, that dream comes to fruition Thursday night as Big 12 logos adorn the Bounce House and the Knights’ uniforms for the first time ever.

What to watch from Kent State

It’s nearly impossible to revamp an offense more than Kent State did this offseason. Statistics from 2022 can be thrown out the window as the Golden Flashes replace all 11 starters from the prior year. Kent State saw a horde of First Team All-MAC talent transfer out of the program, including running back Marquez Cooper, wide receivers Dante Cephas and Tez Walker, as well as Marcellus Marshall — who will suit up Thursday night against the Golden Flashes in a UCF uniform.

All-conference quarterback Collin Schlee was another key departure for the transitioning program, leaving Kent State at ground zero under Coach Burns. Kent State rebuilt from a similar starting point in the Sean Lewis era, and that rebuild essentially came to fruition with a foundation of phenomenal quarterback play. The GRIT-era Flashes hope to see the same trajectory under quarterback Mike Alaimo, a Purdue transfer who was named the Week 1 starter in Orlando over returning backup Tommy Ulatowski.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl
Mike Alaimo becomes Kent State’s new starting quarterback after previously serving a stint at Purdue.
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alaimo’s college experience is not extensive by any means, but the former Boilermaker saw a fair share of playing time in Purdue’s 63-7 Citrus Bowl loss to LSU — a game also located in the confines of Orlando. Alaimo delivered his team’s only touchdown of the afternoon in a lopsided result, completing 4-of-11 passes for 37 yards while obtaining 15 as a runner.

The capabilities of Alaimo as rusher remain somewhat a mystery, but the MO of Kent State’s offense is expected to be a run-heavy attack, especially given the current personnel and Burns’ background as a running backs coach at a ground-oriented Minnesota program. Additionally, the team could scrap its hyper-speed offense it utilized in Lewis’ tenure. The focal points of this new-look offense will be Gavin Garcia and Xavier Williams, a tandem of running backs who both return from the 2022 roster.

Garcia was frequently utilized toward the beginning of last season and wound up averaging a respectable 6.0 yards per carry on 35 attempts. Without Cooper, he’ll mold into a No. 1 running back role, but many of the attempts will also be allocated to Williams. Williams returns to the lineup after missing the entirety of 2022, but in 2021, the speedster thrived with 812 rushing yards on a 6.5 average, and his last two outings feature a combined 261 yards on just 21 carries — so he’ll hope to build upon that in his triumphant return.

Wide receiver does not feature the degree of experience as running back does, and the position group lost the dynamic duo of Cephas and Walker to the portal. Not to mention third option Ja’Shaun Poke transferred as well, so some growing pains should factor into this young corps. Trell Harris (13 receptions, 136 yards) is the only returning receiver who logged more than four catches in 2022, but he is listed as a second team option on the depth chart. The starters are FCS transfer Justin Coulson and JUCO transfer Treymon Echols on the boundaries and senior Luke Floriea (17 receptions across three seasons) as the slot.

The line features significant turnover as well, and Kent State sends out a rare true freshman starting center to anchor the unit in Andrew Page. No starter on the line has recorded more than two FBS starts, and the lineup features three sophomores including Dustyn Morrell who will field his first collegiate snap on Kent State’s opening drive in Orlando.

There’s certainly more experience on the defensive side, headlined by defensive tackle CJ West who enters his third season as a Golden Flashes starter. The 6’2”, 315 pound force will hope to cause chaos in the interior of the Knights’ o-line. Assisting West with backfield invasion is middle linebacker Khalib Johns. Prior to suffering a season-ending injury in Week 4 last September, Johns was on a mission, accumulating 21 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, and 4.0 sacks in four contests. And the caliber of opponent didn’t faze the linebacker as those stats were accrued against the likes of Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Akron at Kent State
Khalib Johns returns to the lineup after missing Kent State’s final eight games of 2022. He averaged one sack per contest last fall.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kent State’s defense will also feature some new leaders including a pair of seasoned veterans arriving from Missouri. Outside linebacker Devin Nicholson registered 152 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles in 39 games at his previous stop, earning a vast collection of starts along the way. Strong safety Jalani Williams saw four starts in 33 appearances at Mizzou, raking in 43 tackles and breaking up five passes with an SEC logo on his chest.

The Golden Flashes must adjust to UCF’s high-speed offense, and the players that must especially be on their heels at all times are cornerbacks Capone Blue and D.J. Miller. The cornerbacks tout more experience than most of the roster, but it is essential they stay focused as the Knights run a series of quick passes to the boundary when utilizing their signature tempo.

What to watch from UCF

Gus Malzahn returns for season three coaching the Knights, orchestrating the program’s highly-anticipated move into the Big 12. The past two seasons each featured nine victories, yet still, it felt like UCF left several wins on the table including close losses to Navy and Louisville in both 2021 and 2022.

As the only Big 12 call-up retaining its starting quarterback from 2022, UCF aims to make the most of its existing roster experience, as well as Malzahn’s impressive recruiting pedigree and a favorable non-conference schedule, in order to launch this new era in the proper fashion.

John Rhys Plumlee is one college football’s ultimate polymath. Off the gridiron, he is a talented piano player and a starting outfielder. In between the hashes, the former Ole Miss wide receiver exudes tremendous dual-threat abilities as a quarterback. Plumlee the passer posted four 300-yard games in his first season starting with the Knights, concluding the year with 2,586 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. Plumlee the runner led the team in rushing yards with 862 in 2022 (second among all FBS quarterbacks), eclipsing the century mark five times including a 176-yard explosion on Tulane’s defense.

Plumlee enters his second year on Malzahn’s system. The first year resulted in an AAC Championship Game appearance, but there is still room for growth for the quarterback — especially as a passer — where he’ll look to remain more consistent on a week-to-week basis.

Military Bowl Presented by Peraton - UCF v Duke
John Rhys Plumlee returns for his second season as UCF’s starting quarterback. Plumlee finished second in rushing among all FBS QBs in 2022.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Plumlee is the headliner of the rushing attack, and he’ll be joined by the tandem of RJ Harvey and Johnny Richardson in UCF’s RPO-heavy system. Harvey averaged an impressive 6.7 yards per carry last year as the second option, and he’ll certainly see an uptick in reps after the departure of Isaiah Bowser. Meanwhile, the 5’7” Richardson strikes with track-star speed, picking up 6.9 yards per carry in the prior season. But under Malzahn, the offense’s speed extends beyond the quickness of its individual players. UCF moves at a warp-speed tempo in general, preferring to sprint to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball as quickly as possible to prevent defensive subs and wear out opponents.

Three transfers are slated to start on the offensive line to pave the way for Harvey and Co., including a former Kent State star. The 6’5”, 310 pound Marcellus Marshall will now anchor the Knights’ starting right tackle spot after earning First Team All-MAC honors with the Golden Flashes in 2022. Bula Schmidt (Fresno State) and Drake Nugent (Stanford) also make their UCF debuts Thursday night after launching their college careers on the West Coast.

The wide receiving corps is loaded with former SEC talent in Kobe Hudson and Javon Baker, who both transferred into Orlando prior to the 2022 season. Hudson ranked first among all Knights in touchdown receptions with seven, while Baker led the yardage category with 796. Finding a third option to emerge is a focus for the offense Thursday, and true sophomore Xavier Townsend and Florida transfer Trent Whittemore are the premier candidates for breakout 2023 campaigns. Expect expanded verticality from UCF’s passing offense this year, as the Knights hired former UAB offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw to conduct the unit, and the his top three receivers averaged 22.5, 16.0, and 18.7 yards per reception in 2022.

Defensively, the Knights were off to an extraordinary start in 2022, holding their first six opponents to 20 points or fewer. However, the last eight games took a different trajectory and the defense surrendered 30.6 points per game in those contests. The unit must recapture that early-season magic under new defensive coordinator Addison Williams, who fulfills the vacancy left by Travis Williams’ departure to Arkansas.

The strength of UCF’s 2023 defensive lies within the line, where they exhibit an ideal combination of talent and experience. Defensive end Tre’Mon Morris-Brash led the team in sacks (6.0) and tackles for loss (13.0) in 2022 while the other boundary rusher Josh Celiscar added 8.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. The middle is clogged with the 320-pound Lee Hunter and First Team All-AAC defensive tackle Ricky Barber. Both tackles are heavier than the majority of Kent State’s offensive line, so size should favor UCF on both sides in the trenches.

Cincinnati v UCF
Jason Johnson is one of three 2022 First Team All-AAC defenders remaining on the Knights during their transition to the Big 12.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Elsewhere on defense, Jason Johnson is a force at WILL linebacker after racking up 126 tackles in a breakout 2022. The First Team All-AAC selection should be the main force limiting Kent State’s run game, while cornerbacks Brandon Adams and Corey Thornton hope to sustain the Knights’ successful passing defense from a year ago — the primary strength of the unit. Although it may not be the deciding factor in a contest with a 36-point spread, forcing turnovers is an additional priority for UCF after logging just six interceptions in 14 contests last fall.


The Bounce House typically opens on a Thursday night every September, and it’s always one of the most hyped up atmospheres in college football. The stadium shakes tremendously when the students bounce in unison to Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400,” and one can only imagine the increased sense of hype given the Big 12 patch on the Knights’ uniform.

However, it’s also hurricane season in Florida and the Knights are no stranger to this phenomenon. There could be a weather delay or rainy conditions affecting the playing surface. But regardless of the setting, the Knights trot out significant amounts of experience compared to Kent State. UCF should control both sides of the trenches with ease, and their defense has the firepower to limit the completely refurbished Kent State offense to single-digits. John Rhys Plumlee’s dual-threat abilities won’t be easy to stop, and the Knights wield a litany of speed at the skill positions which will be on full display Thursday.

But on the bright side, Kent State’s young team will gain valuable experience in the process.

Prediction: UCF 38, Kent State 6