Thursday, November 29, 2012

Kent State football??

Katie and me in Bowling Green celebrating Kent's win over Bowling Green
In all the blog posts I've done over the years, especially the many devoted to sports and the games I have attended, it's been a long time since I've blogged about Kent State football.  The only time I can remember doing so was way back in 2008 when I went to Cleveland to see KSU play Boston College at Cleveland Browns Stadium.  The game ended up being a shutout loss for Kent, the day after I had seen Kent Roosevelt lose 14-0 to Stow.  Even so, I don't think I've ever had a post devoted exclusively to KSU football like I have for basketball (I totally missed blogging about Kent State Baseball's magical run to the College World Series earlier this year).  Since then, it's not that I haven't watched or been to my share of KSU football games, but there hasn't been much to really blog about; that is, until now.  Tomorrow, Kent State plays Northern Illinois at Ford Field in Detroit for the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship.  That in itself is monumental enough, but now there's even more cause for interest not only from KSU, NIU, and MAC fans, but nationally.  If Kent State wins, it could potentially become the latest Bowl Championship Series (BCS) "buster".  Yeah, you heard that right.  Kent State could play in a BCS bowl.

Not often you see large lines at the Dix Stadium ticket office!
Let's start off first with what Kent State football has accomplished this year.  They are 11-1 and 8-0 in the MAC and won the MAC East Division title by 2 games over Bowling Green.  In the process they beat undefeated and 18th-ranked Rutgers in their home stadium (and on Homecoming no less!) and have won 10 games in a row.  The win over Rutgers was Kent's first win in school history over a ranked opponent.  The 10-game winning streak is the longest in school history and the 11 wins this season is also the most in a season, breaking the 9 wins of the 1973 team (they were 9-2).  The MAC East Division title is the first conference title of any kind since the 1972 team won the MAC and KSU will play in a bowl game for the first time, also, since 1972 (when they played in the old Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida, in December 1972...the Tangerine Bowl is known today as the Capital One Bowl).  Kent State is also ranked in every major poll.  For the AP poll, it is Kent State's first time being ranked since November 1973, when they were ranked 18th in the 20-team poll for one week.  For the other polls, such as the Coaches' Poll and Harris Poll, as far as I know, this year is KSU's first time ever being in those polls.  So as you can see, this year has already been full of accomplishments Kent fans have either never seen before or haven't seen for a loooooong time.  In my lifetime, the best season Kent State ever had prior to this one was the 1987 season when they went 7-4.  I certainly don't remember that (I was 5 years old), though I do remember going to some games around that time.  The first winning season I remember was 2001 when the team, led by Josh Cribbs (who is now with the Cleveland Browns), finished 6-5.  It was the first winning season since 1987 and second since 1977.  This year's 11-1 record is the first winning season since that 2001 season, though since 2001 there have been a few 6-6 years too.  In 2011, Kent was 5-7 after starting 1-6.  In the last 2 seasons, both under coach Darrell Hazell, Kent State has been 16-8.  From 1989-2000, Kent State also won 16 games, while losing 115 and tying 1.  I was at a lot of those games!

While not sold out, KSU drew pretty well this season!  Over
18,200 for the last game against Ohio U.  HUGE improvement!
Now, to the BCS.  This is also the first time Kent State has ever been ranked in the BCS, which isn't that old.  After their regular-season-ending win over Ohio, combined with a slew of losses by teams ranked ahead of them, Kent State is now 17th in the BCS standings.  If they move up just one spot, they will clinch a berth in a BCS game.  The rule is a team from a non-automatic qualifying conference ("AQ") automatically qualifies for a BCS game if they finish in the top 16 *and* are ranked ahead of the conference champion of one of the AQ conferences (the AQ conferences are the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, and Big East).  The other way for a "non-AQ" team to get in is to be ranked in the top 12 of the BCS, regardless of what teams in the AQ conferences do.  No MAC team has ever received a BCS bowl game (when a non-AQ team qualifies for a BCS game, they're known as a "BCS buster"), though Ball State would have qualified a few years ago had they won the MAC Championship Game as they were ranked 12th at the time.

The big talk around college football is first, of course, the feel-good story of a perennial loser like Kent State has been in football seemingly coming out of nowhere on the verge of busting the BCS.  The other story, though, is Kent State's one loss: a 47-17 loss to Kentucky in the season's second game, a Kentucky team that finished 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the SEC.  Many are questioning Kent State's seemingly lofty ranking in light of that loss.

The team doing the fight song after beating Bowling Green
As a Kent State fan, of course I'm of the belief that Kent State is right where they should be in the rankings and that if they do win the MAC Championship Game and do make a BCS bowl (most likely the Orange Bowl), there should really be no question.  I keep seeing the comments that Kent State lost "by 30 points to a 2-10 Kentucky team."  Yes, they lost by 30, but Kentucky was not 2-10 when they played Kent State, nor was Kent State 11-1 and ranked.  At the time, no one really paid attention to the outcome of the game.  Kentucky was favored in the game and KSU was the perennial loser from the MAC.  The game itself wasn't a rout until late either.  Elton Alexander, a reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, wrote a good article about that game specifically and why it really shouldn't be held against Kent, at least as much as many have.  In my own observation of KSU football, they certainly weren't solidified as a team right away.  They looked decent in their opener against Towson of the FCS (a team which later gave LSU fits in Baton Rouge), then lost at Kentucky, won at Buffalo in an ugly, sloppy game, and then had a great comeback in the final seconds to beat Ball State in a wild 45-43 shootout.  I felt the Buffalo game got the team believing they could win (KSU rarely wins road games), and then the Ball State comeback, in a game they nearly gave away, told this team they were, in fact, a good team who could win even when they weren't at their best.  Plus, that last drive was one I've seen countless KSU teams completely fail on.  I have seen all too many losses snatched from the jaws of victory!  After the Ball State game, you definitely started feeling good.  They won at Army, which now seems insignificant, but at the time was yet another sign this team was for real (first non-conference road win in a looooong time).  Then, of course, they won at Rutgers.  After the Kentucky game, I was just hopeful Kent would be respectable in the game and maybe have a chance to eek out a win.  I never expected them to win the way they did.  Not only did they have 7 turnovers (6 interceptions), but they also ran the ball really well.  I've seen plenty of KSU teams do nothing with opportunities like that.

In looking at the schedule, I decided that if Kent State was doing reasonably well and the weather looked decent, I'd head over to Bowling Green for the game against the Falcons on November 17th, which I occasionally do for men's basketball.  The game ended up being the de facto MAC East Championship Game.  I was happy to see several hundred KSU fans also made the trip (the university sent 3 buses over too).  Not only did we have absolutely fantastic weather, but it was one heck of a game, going back and forth right down to the wire.  Kent State won 31-24, after stopping BG on 4th down in a previous drive and then intercepting a 4th down pass in the end zone on the Falcons' final drive with just 24 seconds left in the game.  It was my first true KSU football road game (I've gone to a few KSU men's and women's basketball road games over the years).  And of course I had an absolutely fantastic time with my sister Katie and my good friend and fellow KSU alum Michelle!
Just after the interception that clinched KSU's win at BG
The final!
Now, obviously all the BCS talk will be mute if Kent State doesn't beat NIU in the MAC Championship, and NIU is favored (it should be pointed out, however, that Bowling Green was favored too).  I honestly won't be surprised by the outcome of the game.  I thought from the beginning that NIU was the team to beat in the MAC, but I don't think they're invincible.  I can see KSU winning this game just as easily as I can see NIU winning.  It should be a great game.  I would go, but since the game is on a Friday night, getting to Detroit (about a 3-hour drive) would be tricky since I'll be working until 3 PM that day, not to mention all the costs like gasoline and parking.  I'll definitely be following the game here in Kent.  Go Flashes!