It has been four long and brutal decades for Kent State since it last appeared in The Associated Press college football poll.
The 1973 team that last reached the rankings was led by linebacker Jack Lambert and had a graduate assistant named Nick Saban.
There have been four winless seasons since 1980 and only two winning ones, the last one coming 11 years ago.
Maybe that’s why second-year Kent State coach Darrell Hazell has downplayed the No. 25 Golden Flashes’ return to the rankings this week. Or maybe it’s because they face what looks to be their biggest Mid-American Conference test so far on Saturday at Bowling Green.
With a victory Kent State (9-1, 6-0 MAC) will clinch a spot in its first conference title game and set a school record for most wins in a season. A loss would give Bowling Green (7-3, 5-1) the inside lane to the MAC East Division title and the league championship game in Detroit.
“We’ll worry about the rankings when the season’s over,” Hazell said. “We don’t have time to concern ourselves with rankings right now.”
His players have followed suit.
“We know the significance of this game,” offensive lineman Josh Kline said.
It’s so big that the university has lined up several buses to bring Kent State students to the game.
The Golden Flashes and Falcons are very much alike, with both relying on a physical, grind-it-out style to win games.
“You’re probably looking in the mirror a little bit,” Hazell said.
Kent State has a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in running backs Trayion Durham, a 250-pound bruiser, and the speedy Dri Archer, who’s also a dangerous kick returner.
“They’re two different types of backs,” offensive lineman Brian Winters said. “That’s what makes the defense confused. They don’t know if we’re going to pass it, run it fast or go up the middle.”
Archer and Durham have run for more than 100 yards in the same game three times this season. In the most recent — against Miami (Ohio) — they rolled up 323.
“It’s really the one-two punch every coach dreams of having,” Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said.
But they’ll face a Falcons defense that is tough against the run, giving up just 104 yards per game.
“It’s strength,” Clawson said, “against strength.”
Defensive tackle Chris Jones anchors the Bowling Green line and is second in the nation with 17 tackles for a loss. He’s also tops in the country with 11.5 sacks. The Falcons rely on sophomore running back Anthon Samuel who was the conference’s freshman of the year last season. He already has 1,750 yards in his career and ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio just over a week ago.