The 2018 season was unkind to Kent State seeing the Golden Flashes produced a 2-10 record. After starting the 2019 season 1-1 with an opening 30-7 loss to Arizona State and a tight 26-23 win over FCS opponent Kennesaw State that snapped a nine-game losing streak, life does not look much better rolling into Alabama to face No. 8 Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
The Flashes from the MAC took some battering ram "money" games last season falling on the road to Illinois, Penn State, and Ole Miss. The 2019 schedule is lining up much the same after a hard loss to Arizona State in Tempe and now stare down one of the top teams in the nation in Auburn. Kent State was statistically outperformed by Kennesaw State the last time out, picking up 337 yards to the Owls 437 with sloppy play putting the ball on the ground three times, losing two, with one interception.
After a 27-21 come-from-behind, last-second win over Oregon in the season opener, Auburn got a tune-up game against Tulane last week winning 24-6. While the final margin of victory does not dazzle, the offense picked up steam in the second half backed by a defense that shut out the Green Wave after giving up two first-half field goals. With the offensive line opening big holes for running back JaTarvious Whitlow, much of this game will be about getting true freshman quarterback Bo Nix comfortable in the pocket and making the right reads before squaring off against Texas A&M next week.
Kent State at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Auburn -35.5
When Kent State Has the Ball
The Flashes return eight players on offense, highlighted by receivers Mike Carrigan, Antwan Dixon, and Isaiah McKoy. The trio takes turns catching passes from junior quarterbacks Woody Barrett and Dustin Crum, the starter in the Kennesaw State contest. Of the two quarterbacks, Crum has been more effective completing 65 percent of his passes for 189 yards and a touchdown.
The interior of Kent State's line is the strength with left guard Julian Sams, center Nate Warnock, and right guard Nathan Monnin opening up holes for senior tailback Jo-El Shaw. Shaw ran tough against Arizona State, finishing with 67 yards on 16 carries and topped that with 93 yards against the Owls. Crum's scrambling abilities adds another dimension to Kent State’s offense coming into Saturday's game as the team's second-leading rusher (88).
Auburn's run defense has been salty from the jump, allowing just 105 rushing yards per game. The pass defense also is inching towards one of the best in the nation holding teams to 173 yards per contest. In the early going of the season, Jeremiah Dinson has played his safety position like a linebacker, leading the team in stops (19), interceptions (1), and sacks (1). The front four of ends Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson along with tackles Derrick Brown and Tyrone Truesdell could have big games on Saturday.
When Auburn Has the Ball
Everything about the success of Auburn this season rests on the abilities of Bo Nix running the offense. Miracles are not expected from the freshman, but certainly welcomed. Nix has not looked sharp yet, completing just 47 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and two picks. The goal is for head coach Gus Malzahn to keep putting Nix in positions to get comfortable in the offense so his natural talents can take over. Will this be the week it clicks?
While Nix works on reading defenses and his timing with his receivers, the backfield has to carry the proverbial load. JaTarvious Whitlow is leading the charge early with 206 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries. With defenses asking Nix to beat them with his arm, the box has been loaded. Auburn's coaches would like to see Whitlow's 4.4 yards per carry average get up to around six per tote; Arizona State averaged 11.8 against Kent State. That lands on the line to get a better push for their talented back.
While Kent State's offense produced just 200 yards of offense against the Sun Devils, their defense wilted in the desert heat to the tune of 455 yards allowed. This unit was one of the worst in the nation a year ago, giving up 467 yards a game. The Tigers should have no problem doing what they want when they want.
Kent State is another tune-up game for Auburn, but things are more serious this week, even if the competition may be below that of Tulane. Three of the next two games for the War Eagles are on the road, at Texas A&M and Florida, with Mississippi State heading to town in between. The wins and losses mean something with the goal of an SEC West title and a run to Atlanta. Life for Bo Nix and the Tigers does not slow down once the ball is teed up in College Station until FCS member Samford visits on Nov. 23. But first thing first, and that means taking care of business against the Golden Flashes.
Prediction: Auburn 38, Kent State 10
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.