Hardesty: This is the year to watch Flashes football, national oracles say

Dix Stadium. Photo by Gary McLaughlin

Kent State football hasn’t tasted any kind of sustained national respectability since Don James patrolled the Dix Stadium sidelines in the early 1970s.

The Golden Flashes flirted with it in 2012 when they captured the Mid-American Conference East Division title, the program’s first championship of any kind since James’ 1972 team of Jack Lambert and company won the MAC crown.

But head coach Darrell Hazell left for Purdue after that historic 2012 season, and KSU football fell back into the abyss from whence it came, winning 14 games and losing 45 between 2013 and 2017. Only once in that five-season stretch did the Flashes win as many as three conference games in one season.

That seems like a hundred years ago now.

And a quick glance at the recently minted 2022 college football preview magazines hammers that point home.

Entering the 2021 season, Kent State was picked to finish fourth out of six teams in the Mid-American Conference’s East Division by Lindy’s Sports magazine. The Golden Flashes answered the bell by winning the division and playing in the MAC Championship Game for the first time since 2012 and only the second time ever.

This year, East trophy in hand, the Flashes are Athlon Sports’ pick to finish second in the division in 2022 behind Miami (Ohio).

Remember the days — actually, decades — when you didn’t have to search for Kent State’s name in the annual preseason football publications? When all you had to do was go immediately, even instinctively, to the bottom of the MAC standings and there the Flashes would sit? Year after year after year?

It was like a rite of summer. The weather turns hot, the days get longer, people head to the beach.

And the Flashes are picked last.

Well, things have changed in the last four years under head coach Sean Lewis. And they have changed big time.

Pay no attention to his 19-24 career record with the Flashes. In 2018, his first season, his focus was to change the culture and start bringing “his” players into the program. Kent State finished 2-10 overall that year. Since then, Lewis is 17-14. That includes a 51-41 win over Utah State in the Frisco Bowl to cap the 2019 season — the first bowl victory in program history.

Then came the MAC East Division title last season. And never mind the Flashes’ losses to Northern Illinois in the championship game and to Wyoming in the Idaho Potato Bowl.

The fact is, Lewis has put Kent State football on the map — and grabbed the respect of national observers like Athlon in the process. I put more stock in these national forecasters than I do the regional media that puts together its annual preseason polls for the conference, because those voters — as much as they would deny it — bring their own biases to bear when selecting their preseason list. It’s human nature.

National brands like Lindy’s and Athlon, on the other hand, don’t have a dog in the fight. They don’t cover Kent State any more than they do Akron, Central Michigan or Ball State. They just pick ’em as they see ’em.

And they see Kent State under Lewis — despite losing some key players from last year’s East winner like quarterback Dustin Crum, the 2021 MAC Player of the Year — as having staying power and contending for another title this autumn.

It speaks volumes about the ascension Kent State football has made under Lewis.

The question now isn’t as much “can the Flashes sustain their success?” as it is “can the university’s administration keep Lewis in Kent?” He came back for a fifth season as head coach, which surprised a lot of observers nationally who figured Lewis would do what just about every other mid-major coach does when he builds a program from the ashes and has a season like Kent State had in 2021: bolts for greener pastures.

But Lewis stayed (for now) and Kent State is poised to continue its resurgence in the Mid-American Conference — and in its perception around the country.

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Athlon has two Golden Flashes on its 2022 preseason All-MAC First Team Offense: junior running back Marquez Cooper and junior wide receiver Dante Cephas. Senior Ja’Shaun Poke is on the Second Team Specialists as a kick returner. The representatives on the Third Team are senior offensive lineman Zach Whaley, senior safety Dean Clark and sophomore kicker Andrew Glass.

Athlon forecasts KSU to end the season in the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, against Marshall. This is notable for a couple reasons: The LendingTree Bowl was called the GoDaddy.com Bowl when the Flashes’ 2012 MAC East title team played in it, losing to Arkansas State 17-13 on Jan. 6, 2013, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The bowl game is now played at Whitney Stadium on the campus of the University of South Alabama, moving there in 2021.

Also, Marshall was a conference rival of Kent State back when the Thundering Herd played in the MAC from 1954 to 1968 and again from 1997 to 2004. Beginning this season, Marshall will play in the Sun Belt Conference after ending its 16-year affiliation with Conference USA.

In a further sign of the program’s national respect, two of Kent State’s upcoming contests in 2022 made Athlon’s “Games to Watch” list in the MAC: Oct. 8 at Miami and Oct. 15 at Toledo. Athlon also ranked KSU’s 2022 recruiting class at No. 5 out of the conference’s 12 teams — an indication that the Flashes might well be in the upper echelon of the MAC for at least the foreseeable future.

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Lindy’s, for its part, has the Flashes third in the East in its preseason poll, stating that the “loss of Crum is irreplaceable.”

Which very well could be true. It is magnitudes more difficult for mid-major teams to replace key players, particularly quarterbacks, than it is for the sport’s bluebloods, who have brigades of blue-chippers at every position. Still, the fact that Kent State is even third in Lindy’s MAC East poll while acknowledging the hit the Flashes will take losing Crum says a whole lot about where Lewis has his program.

Lindy’s preseason All-MAC Team has Cephas and Glass on the First Team Offense, senior defensive back Montre Miller on its First Team Defense and senior center Sam Allan on its Second Team Offense.

Cephas made Lindy’s Top 10 NFL Talent list at No. 9 in the conference after his 82-catch, 1,240-yard season a year ago. Cephas was also named Lindy’s “Most Dangerous Deep Threat” in its 2022 preview issue.

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Like with Athlon, two Kent State games also made the cut in Lindy’s for must-watch action in the MAC.

The second of the two games is no surprise, with the Oct. 15 clash at Toledo included as it was in Athlon. But it’s the first, on Sept. 10, that caught my eye: at Oklahoma.

Does that mean Lindy’s thinks the high-scoring and battle-tested Flashes have a chance to spring an upset of the mighty Sooners, especially with former coach Lincoln Riley off to USC? Apparently so, or it wouldn’t be on Lindy’s list of “The Big Ones” to watch in the MAC in 2022.

Talk about respect.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.

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