The Golden Flashes coasted to a 41-21 win over Towson in their opener, but they were dealt a lopsided, 47-14, loss the following week at Kentucky. They went undefeated the rest of the regular season though as they managed to outlast Ball State for a 45-43 win and upset Rutgers, 35-23, on the road. KSU nearly claimed its first conference championship since 1972 as well, but it came up short in double-overtime and fell, 44-37, to Northern Illinois. Hazell accepted an offer to become the head coach of Purdue shortly after the loss to the Huskies, but he stuck around to coach the team as it took on Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. The Golden Flashes gave the Sun Belt Conference champions a battle, but they were unable to send off their coach in a winning fashion, falling, 17-13.
Paul Haynes, who spent the 2012 season as the defensive coordinator at Arkansas, was hired as Hazell's replacement. He has no previous head coaching experience, but he served as an assistant for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Louisville, Michigan State and Ohio State prior to his one-year stint with the Razorbacks.
OFFENSE: Kent State used a dynamic rushing attack to put up 225.8 yards per game on the ground on its way to 33.1 points per game. Tailback Dri Archer was the biggest home run threat in the nation and was named to a Walter Camp First Team All-American after gaining 8.9 yards per carry, which was the highest single-season average this century by a player with at least 150 carries. The elusive and speedy rusher finished the regular year with 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns on 159 carries. He also paced the team in receiving with 561 yards and four touchdowns on 39 receptions. His phenomenal performance as a junior has inspired the school to start a Heisman Trophy campaign for him.
"When you think about the Heisman and the best college football player, it should be someone who is exciting," Haynes says. "When you look at how electric he is and the plays that he made, he's a natural fit. He's one of those players where every time he touches the ball he has a chance to make a big play, and I think people are really going to legitimately look at him as a Heisman candidate. Dri is all about doing what's best for the team, but when it comes to catching the attention of fans and media, we want to put him front and center."
Haynes is expected to use Archer more in the passing game than as a rusher. Junior halfback Trayion Durham was overshadowed by Archer's elite numbers last season, but he quietly racked up 1,316 yards and 14 touchdowns on 276 carries. The thunder and lightning attack on the ground made up for a lackadaisical passing game. There will be a new quarterback under center this season as senior David Fisher and redshirt freshman Colin Reardon are both viable options to replace four-year starter Spencer Keith.
Including Archer, KSU had seven different players finish 2012 with a double- digit total of receptions and at least 180 yards. Josh Boyle and Chris Humphrey both cracked the 330-yard mark as underclassmen.
The offensive line is suspect after losing three starters from last year's steady unit. Left guard Pat McShane and center Phil Huff will provide senior leadership up front for the three inexperienced players joining them in the trenches.
DEFENSE: The Golden Flashes were not quite as tough on the other side of the ball with allowed averages of 410.3 yards and 33.1 points per outing. However, Kent State forced 35 turnovers to finish second in the nation in turnover ratio (+ 1.43). The defensive unit was above average versus the run, as it ranked 33rd in the FBS and second in the MAC with only 138.4 rushing yards allowed per game.
Although its numbers left plenty to be desired last season, Haynes will be lucky to get the same production as he is faced with the difficult task of replacing six starters on defense. An important piece to the puzzle returns to the defensive line though, as senior nose tackle Roosevelt Nix takes aim at his fourth-consecutive appearance on the First-Team All-MAC. No player has been able to accomplish that feat in program history.
The attention Nix demands on the interior will free up senior ends Mark Fackler and Zack Hitchens to pursue the passer. KSU played aggressively on defense last season, which led to a high number of allowed yards in addition to an average of 2.5 sacks and 5.6 tackles for loss per game. Fackler showed off his versatility last season as he managed to intercept three passes, one of which he returned for six points.
The Golden Flashes are lacking experience at linebacker. Haynes is hoping the sophomore tandem of Matt Dellinger and Jordan Italiano can quickly settle into their new starting roles.
KSU has a ball-hawking safety to lead the way in senior Luke Wollet. He comes into his final campaign with 201 total stops, 10 interceptions, two forced fumbles and three defensive touchdowns. The defensive backfield has a pair of proven corners in Darius Polk and Malcolm Pannell to counter the opposition's playmakers.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Anthony Melchiori began his career on the right note in 2012, averaging 42.6 yards per punt to rank second in the conference. The starting place kicking job was an open competition heading into the offseason. Redshirt freshman Brad Miller is the front runner to win the job. He made 69 straight PATs during his high school career.
Archer was named to the First-Team All-MAC as a running back last season and then again as a returner. He was also the conference's Special Teams Player of the Year and a consensus All-American as a kick returner after tallying 591 yards and three touchdowns on 16 attempts. Although he is an important asset to the offense, Archer will most likely continue his stellar work on special teams to keep open the possibility of an NFL career as a return specialist just in case his lack of size prevents him excelling as a wideout.
OUTLOOK: Kent State will not be sneaking up on anybody again this season after last year's breakthrough. The team may take a step back until it recovers from the numerous changes in the coaching staff and depth chart.
Haynes makes his head coaching debut in late August when Kent State hosts Liberty at Dix Stadium. It will remain at home for its MAC opener against Bowling Green before hitting the road for difficult tests at LSU and Penn State. The Golden Flashes's rough stretch will continue with their next three challenging league games, at Western Michigan, versus Northern Illinois and at Ball State. KSU concluded its non-conference schedule the following week at South Alabama before returning to MAC action to take on Buffalo, Akron, Miami- Ohio and Ohio.
The Golden Flashes have to perform at a very high level once again if Archer's hopes of winning the Heisman Trophy are going to be realized. It is very unlikely they will soar to the same heights in 2013, but no one believed they were capable of winning 11 games prior to last season's opening kickoff either.