|No. 5 Clemson another champ Kent State must face|
Kent State apparently is making a habit of playing defending national champions.
The Golden Flashes will open their 2017 season Saturday at No. 5 Clemson, which won the school's first national title in 35 years with a riveting 35-31 victory against 2015 national champion Alabama on Jan. 10.
Kent State played Alabama last season on Sept. 24 and lost 48-0 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
"Once again, we find ourselves heading into the lair of a defending national champ," said Kent State interim coach Don Treadwell.
Treadwell, the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, will guide the Golden Flashes into Clemson's Memorial Stadium after it was announced Sunday evening that head coach Paul Haynes was taking a medical leave of absence. No details were provided about Haynes' condition, but the school said he is expected to return to the team in two to three weeks.
The Golden Flashes, who are 12-35 in four seasons under Haynes, host Howard University on Sept. 9 and play at Marshall on Sept. 16 before traveling to Louisville on Sept. 23. But the team's toughest task is its most immediate.
Clemson is 28-2 over the last two seasons with two consecutive National Championship Game appearances and is bidding for its seventh consecutive season with 10 or more victories.
At the other end of the spectrum is Kent State, which is coming off a 3-9 season and has had only one winning season since 2001.
"Across the board, they give you everything that you could imagine you would expect to see from a national champ," Treadwell said. "I mean there's simply not a weakness, they just simply retool.
"They have players that are tremendous athletes and they coach them tremendously well. Our focus will be more on making sure we do the little things that we need to do to continue to move forward as a program."
Clemson, which is 70-13 under coach Dabo Swinney the last six seasons, lost 78 percent of its offense production off last year's team, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, tight end Jordan Leggett and running back Wayne Gallman.
Given that, Deon Cain will get his second career start at receiver while junior Kelly Bryant, C.J. Fuller and Milan Richard will draw their first starting assignments at quarterback, running back and tight end, respectively.
"I just want to see Kelly Bryant do what he's already done on the practice field," Swinney said. "He's just got to translate it to game day.
"Hopefully he won't miss a beat. He's been put in every situation and he's responded. He won the transformation phase; now he's got to win in prime time."
Swinney expects his new quarterback to be challenged by a talented Kent State secondary that includes All-Mid-American Conference candidates Jerrell Foster and Demetrius Monday.
"This is one of the better secondaries we'll play all year, to be quite honest with you," Swinney said. "A couple of them are probably going to Sundays. They're really, really confident and they play to their strengths -- a lot of man coverage. I expect them to pressure us a ton especially with a new quarterback."
Helping to ease concerns about Bryant is the presence of a hefty and veteran offensive line that returns four of five starters and a corps of wide receivers that is youthful, but is described by Swinney as the "deepest we've ever had here at Clemson."
On the other side of the ball, the Tigers return seven starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in total defense in 2016, including defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, both of whom are All-America candidates.
But Swinney, despite his team being a 39 1/2-point favorite, sees the game as more than a mere tune-up for upcoming challenges against Auburn on Sept. 9 and a trip to Louisville the following Saturday.
"There's no looking ahead for us," said Swinney, whose team was picked to finish second in the Atlantic Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference behind Florida State.
"These guys know exactly what it takes, and they're excited to play. We could be playing Alabama or Kent State and our guys are excited to play. We don't get caught up in that. If you do, you become very inconsistent. It only takes one good punch to knock you out."