In what appears to be a major mismatch, the ranked Alabama Crimson Tide kick off the 2011 season against the Kent conference affair.
The Golden Flashes entered the 2010 campaign looking for the school's first winning season since 2001, but the club was only able to accumulate five victories. It was the second straight season that Kent State tallied five wins, and the last time this program finished any better was in 2006 at 6-6. New head coach Darrell Hazell takes over at KSU with a strong amount of talent on the offensive side of the football, but the defense is far from complete.
After winning the national title in 2009, Alabama entered the 2010 season with lofty expectations. A number of key contributors from that championship team were back in place, so there was certainly a "repeat or bust" feeling among head coach Nick Saban and his players. Because of that, the club's 10-3 finish was a disappointment, providing added motivation for this 2011 campaign. Saban is loaded with talent once again, so the focus on both the SEC and national titles are justified.
Saturday's game marks the first-ever meeting between Alabama and Kent State.
There are nine starters back on offense for Kent State, and Spencer Keith will be the man under center once again. Keith threw for 2,212 yards as a sophomore, but he finished with just eight touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Obviously those are not impressive numbers, but the signal caller has enough talent around him to improve and succeed.
Tyshon Goode is a player to watch, as he led the team in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns a year ago. Sure, Goode figures to touch the ball a great deal, but he certainly doesn't have to carry the weight alone, especially with Sam Kirkland in the mix. While not spectacular, Kirkland provides a veteran presence on and off the field for KSU.
Keith hopes to get significant support from the ground attack, which will showcase Jacquise Terry once again. The running game as a whole for the past two seasons has been a mess, as the team averaged less than four yards per attempt during that span. Terry led the squad with just over 500 yards last season, but he could be in for a large improvement and it has plenty to do with the return of an experienced front line that coach Hazell believes is one of the best in the conference.
"Our offensive line is pretty good," said coach Hazell. "They work extremely well together. They look very coordinated at the end of spring football in terms of making their calls, and making their combination blocks. So that was a big strength that I'm very please to where we are right now."
Defensively, the Golden Flashes were one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference terms of stopping the run (97.0 ypg) last year, and overall the unit held its own, surrendering just 22.9 ppg. However, coach Hazell only has five starters back.
"We are going to play a lot of guys and we are going to have to play a lot of guys early and try to create some depth within that defensive unit," said coach Hazell, "so guys are fresh in the fourth quarter, so we can win some football games in the fourth quarter."
A big reason for the success up front was the arrival of Roosevelt Nix, who exploded onto the scene. As a true freshman, Nix corralled 20 TFLs and 10 sacks, earning him the MAC Defensive Player of the Year award along with a spot on a number of media outlets All-American Freshmen squads.
It will be interesting to see the Alabama offense in action in this opener, as star tailback Mark Ingram, stud wideout Julio Jones and steady signal caller Greg McElroy are all gone. The least of coach Saban's concerns will be filling Ingram's Heisman-winning shoes, as Trent Richardson is a big-time talent who has been a major contributor his first two years in Tuscaloosa.
"I love all the expectations," says Richardson, who is being billed as a Heisman candidate. "At the end of the day, I want to live up to that. I want to be able to say like 'Hey, I did that' or 'We did that.' At the same time, it's hard because you got a big target on your back, but that's nothing to be scared of."
Sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims battled all spring and summer to earn Saban's nod for the starting quarterback job. Neither has any notable experience, and we may not know who will take the first snap versus Kent State until Alabama's first offensive series.
Regardless of which player wins the starting quarterback job, expect senior receiver Marquis Maze to play a major role. Maze caught 38 passes for 557 yards and three touchdowns a year ago, numbers that could certainly increase with Jones out of the mix. With four of the five starters back along the offensive line, the quarterback figures to have plenty of time to throw the ball. Wideout Darius Hanks, a projected starter, has been suspended for the first two games of the season.
"We have one of the most athletic defenses that's been through Alabama," says star linebacker Dont'a Hightower. "Last year, we lacked the speed part, getting after the quarterback. This year, I think it's what our defense is about, getting after the quarterback."
Hightower's surgically-repaired knee that hampered him early on last season seems to be strong, and he is one of the best players in the nation at his position. Add fellow linebacker Courtney Upshaw to the mix and the 'backers figure to be tremendous both in this opener and all season long. Upshaw was dominant down the stretch last season and finished the campaign with seven sacks.
Moving to the secondary, Mark Barron is a star with big-time NFL potential. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle and avoided contact in the spring, but should be good to go for the opener.