KENT — Two teams believing in themselves much more than outsiders believe in them will tee it up Saturday afternoon when Kent State visits Ball State to open Mid-American Conference play.

The Golden Flashes (1-3) and Cardinals (1-3) were both picked to finish last in their respective divisions after going 2-10 last season. They both drew attention early this season by playing formidable nonconference foes. Ball State was in the game at No. 8 Notre Dame all the way before falling 24-16, and the Flashes led Illinois by 10 at the half and trailed Mississippi by four points in the third quarter before staggering down the stretch in both road matchups.

Saturday's winner receives fuel for its fledgling fire, while the loser's flames get watered.

Kent State has dropped three of four games to start the season for the third consecutive year, but 1-3 feels much different this time around under first-year coach Sean Lewis. The Flashes have been more explosive offensively, with sophomore quarterback Woody Barrett directing an up-tempo attack that's producing nearly four touchdowns per game. Their defense has made some splash plays of its own against some loaded offenses, producing four interceptions, 10 sacks and 24 tackles for loss.

The new coaching staff has been aggressive. Kent State has gone for it on fourth down 10 times already this year, mostly in unorthodox situations, and converted seven.

“I think after four weeks these kids know that we mean what we say and we say what we mean. There's a sense of confidence that comes with that for them,” Lewis said. “The kids know that we're not going to waver as a staff, and we know our kids aren't going to waver either. We're going to call it to win it.”

The Cardinals have been spurred by the return of junior quarterback Riley Neal, who missed the last nine games of last season with a knee injury. Neal started as a sophomore in 2016 and ranked third in the MAC in total offense (280 yards per game).

Saturday's game could come down to which defense handles the opposing mammoth quarterback best.

Barrett (6-foot-2, 236) and Neal (6-6, 225) are both capable of making plays with their arms and legs. Their 2018 statistics are nearly identical — Barrett has completed 57 percent of his passes for 826 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions while adding 170 yards rushing and three scores, and Neal has completed 57 percent of his passes for 839 yards with four TDs and two picks while rushing for 128 yards and a score.

“[Neal] has played a lot of football, so he's used to being in the fray. He handles himself really well, and they have some dynamic skill [players] offensively,” Lewis said. “Offensively we've shown flashes. Woody is doing some good things. When we are right we can compete with anyone, anytime, anywhere. Our kids know that we can play. Now it's just a matter of keeping the [high] level of focus and intensity, so we can sustain and finish and earn victories.”