To a casual fan, Kent State football likely doesn’t elicit many emotions. To die-hard college football fans, Kent State is one of the most intriguing Group of Five programs.
The Golden Flashes were content to take big paychecks from Power Five teams during the non-conference, which meant they needed to excel in league play to qualify for bowl games. The team went 5-7 last year, losing to Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia and going 5-4 in all other games. They weren’t a bad team, but the schedule was too much to overcome.
Kent State’s schedule is similarly hard this year – the Golden Flashes have dates with UCF, Arkansas, and Fresno State – but the personnel and coaching staff look different. Sean Lewis, Kent State’s former head coach, left to take the offensive coordinator position at Colorado. Plenty of Golden Flashes entered the transfer portal.
New head coach Kenni Burns takes over the program with a need for improvement.
Burns’ background is strong, having most recently been the assistant head coach at Minnesota. Burns learned from P.J. Fleck, who loves building programs in need of energy and stability.
Earlier in his coaching career, Burns served as an assistant coach at North Dakota State. He worked for a program with championship pedigree, and he understands what it takes to win at a high level outside the Power Five.
Considered one of the rising stars in college coaching, Burns seems like an ideal fit for the MAC program. He’s not going to make Kent State a flashy team – something Lewis arguably did – but the Golden Flashes should slowly but surely start doing the little things needed to consistently win conference games.
As for a potential rebuild, it’s hard to compare Kent State to MAC peers given the absurdity of its non-conference schedule. The Golden Flashes have essentially penciled in three non-conference losses in recent seasons, setting them behind conference foes in the annual race to qualify for a bowl game.
Will Burns have the Golden Flashes taking down UCF in Week 1? Probably not, but they might look the part of a competitive MAC team come November. With Burns and the Golden Flashes, it’s best to wait patiently. Give the new head coach time to build his program, and the results should follow. They might post a losing record in 2023, but Burns is capable of quickly putting the program on solid footing.
If Burns does well at Kent State, he’ll become a hot candidate to earn a large Group of Five job or a Power Five position. Fortunately for Kent State fans, Burns comes from a background of program builders. Even if he leverages this job into another gig years down the road, he’ll likely leave Kent State in a good position for future success.
Lewis’ model felt flashier, as his offenses excelled and his defenses struggled. Kent State was fun to watch, in part because the defensive struggles led to some high-scoring thrillers. Don’t expect that from Burns, who I anticipate will aim to build a more solid and consistent all-around program.
From a long-term view, Burns looks like a great hire. In the short term, the Golden Flashes and Burns might experience some substantial growing pains.
Bennett Conlin is a college football contributor for HERO Sports, and he works full-time covering sports betting industry news and legislation for Sports Handle and US Bets.