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Know Your Opponent: Week 1, Akron Zips

The tumultuous Akron program visits Champaign on the first week of the season

NCAA Football: Akron at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The recent trajectory of Akron Zips football has been a bit of a roller-coaster since Akron hired former North Alabama coach Terry Bowden in 2013. After struggling to build a program for his first few seasons, Bowden’s tenure with the Zips hit its zenith in 2015 when he led Akron to an 8-5 record with a 23-21 victory over the Utah State Aggies in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Bowden had some setbacks in 2016, leading to a 5-7 record that season, but he eventually rebounded in 2017 with a 7-7 record along with appearances in the MAC Championship and Boca Raton Bowl, which resulted in losses to Toledo and Florida Atlantic respectively. The bottom fell out of Bowden’s program in 2018 as the Zips limped to a 4-8 record, despite defeating the Northwestern Wildcats early on in the year.

Akron fired Terry Bowden after the 2018 season, his seventh with the Zips, and hired former University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Head Coach Tom Arth during the offseason. Arth compiled a 9-13 record in two seasons at UT-Chattanooga. Tom Arth’s Offensive Coordinator, Tommy Zagorski, was most recently the OC for the Eastern Kentucky Colonels from 2016-18. Matt Feeney, Arth’s DC at Akron, came with him from UT-Chattanooga after filling the DC and Linebackers Coach roles there.

The Zips lose their leading rusher to graduation, but return their second and third leading rushers, QB Kato Nelson and RB Deltron Sands respectively. Nelson, now a redshirt-Junior, threw for 2,329 yards last season for 15 touchdowns against 8 interceptions, while rushing for 564 yards. Watch him make some excellent plays against Northwestern last year:

Akron also returns its leading receiver, junior WR Andre Williams, who caught 46 passes for 649 yards and 6 TDs. On offense, Akron can compete against high-quality teams primarily through the air, but with some capacity on the ground as well.

On defense, now redshirt-senior LB John Lako was the Zips’ leading tackler last season by a considerable margin, racking up 126 total tackles. Senior DB Alvin Davis Jr. returns as the fourth-leading tackler last season with 75 total tackles, 4 interceptions, and 2 fumble recoveries. The Zips do lose quite a few of their major contributors from last season’s roster, but return their biggest playmakers.

Overall, it’s hard to say what we’ll get in week one with Akron. This is a team with a few very talented players, but many unknowns as well. With this being the first game of a first year head coach for Akron, on the road against a Big Ten opponent, the circumstances also bode well for Illinois. I do believe Illinois wins this game, but Kato Nelson gives the Illini fits in much the same manner as Kent State QB Woody Barrett last season, and Illinois needs a fourth quarter rally to win, 28-24.