The Kent State football team, under fearless rookie leader Dean Pees, will venture into some of the most hostile territory college football has to offer Saturday afternoon to battle 18th-ranked Georgia in the 86,000-seat southern heat lamp rabid Bulldogs fans affectionately call Sanford Stadium.
This, folks, is an opener you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy if you had half a heart. Especially if he was a first-year head coach.
"I've watched everyone of their films, and this is a good football team," said Pees, who will spend his 49th birthday today preparing to make his collegiate head coaching debut. "They're physical, they have guys that can run ... there's a reason everyone has them ranked in the top 20.
"I told our team we're outmanned because we are. There's no sense lying to them."
Yes indeed, facts are facts. And the fact is, Georgia is deeper and more talented across the board than the youthful Golden Flashes.
The Bulldogs return nine starters from a squad that went 10-2 and whipped Wisconsin 33-6 in the Outback Bowl a year ago. And they are especially strong where Kent is especially thin, on both lines.
Offensively, Georgia (31.5 points per game last year) returns first-team All-American left tackle Matt Stinchcomb (6-foot-6, 291 pound senior) and an equally talented right tackle in Chris Terry (6-5, 285, senior). They'll be protecting freshman quarterback Quincy Carter (6-3, 225), who emerged from a three-player duel during fall camp.
Carter was a Parade High School All-American in 1995, but was drafted in the second round of the '96 amateur baseball draft by the Chicago Cubs and just returned to football this year.
"I watched Quincy play in high school. He's a Charlie Ward-type, a tremendous athlete," said Pees.
Kent's rebuilt defense, fresh off a promising fall camp of its own, will obviously face a stern test on Saturday even though the Bulldogs will likely stay conservative with a new quarterback at the helm.
But on the flip side, the Bulldogs' vaunted defense will be coming at the Flashes full steam.
Georgia returns eight letterwinners up front led by senior tackle Paul Snelling (6-5, 280), and second-leading tackler Orantes Grant (6-1, 222, junior) is back to anchor the linebacking corp.
But the strength of the defense lurks in the secondary. And his name is Champ Bailey.
Bailey (6-1, 186, junior), one of the nation's best cover men, will be locked up with Kent senior wide receiver Eugene Baker in a matchup that alone will be worth the price of admission.
"(Bailey's) the best pure athlete I've ever coached," said third-year Georgia mentor Jim Donnan. "He's got a chance to be the best player in college football (this year). Baker presents a good challenge for Bailey. It's really got Champ fired up."
Kent's offense has some firepower of its own, coming off a record-setting season that saw it crank out 31 points and 442 yards per game. But the Flashes will have a tough time putting up those numbers against Georgia.
The pressure will be on Kent's two new tackles, sophomore Jason Hupp (6-3, 305) and junior Dan Goodspeed (6-6, 281), to give quarterback Jose Davis time to find Baker and his fellow receivers.
"The key to our offense is how fast those two come around," said Pees. "There's no doubt they'll be good eventually, but we don't know how long it will take."
It certainly won't take long for Pees' prized freshmen _ 13 of whom will make the trip to Athens _ to get a taste of big-time college football.
"It will be interesting to see how our freshmen react," said Pees. "It will also be interesting to see if our defense competes for 60 minutes, because that's one area I was disappointed in after watching film of last year's team.
"Are they better than us? Yes. But there's no sense worrying about that.
The true test for us is whether we reach inside and keep fighting.
Regardless of what happens, I want this team to keep playing hard and
learn to compete."