2022 Week 1 Preview: Ball State Cardinals @ Tennessee Volunteers
- Date and time: Thursday, September 1 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: SEC Network
- Location: Neyland Stadium — Knoxville, Tennessee
- Spread: Tennessee (-34.5)
- ESPN REIT: Tennessee has a 95.1% chance of winning
- All-Time Series: No previous match
When evening hits Thursday night, a sea of orange is destined to engulf the town of Knoxville, TN. The aura surrounding the interior of the country’s fifth-largest stadium is expected to be stronger than in previous years, especially after the palpable hype generated during Josh Heupel’s first season at the helm – reaching a record wins in his freshman year unlike Tennessee’s previous three head coaches.
For the second year in a row, Tennessee is hosting a MAC program for its Thursday night opener at Neyland Stadium. The Volunteers beat Bowling Green 38-6 last year, and this week Ball State is hoping for a different result. Coming off a disappointing 6-7 record in 2021, a revamped Cardinals roster is looking to get off to a stronger start in non-conference play this time around, keeping the faith as they stroll through SEC country as five-touchdown underdogs.
Ball State Cardinals Prospects
Head coach Mike Neu is entering his seventh year at the helm, so the Neu era is in full swing at Ball State, but it’s a new era for the Cardinals. Two years ago, Ball State finished No. 23 in the latest AP poll, winning its first-ever bowling game and winning a MAC championship since 1996. An overwhelming majority of that team’s top contributors returned for 2021 to lead a team made up of veterans. , but those players graduated in droves this offseason.
Quarterback Drew Plitt, wide receiver Justin Hall, free safety Bryce Cosby and a slew of All-MAC linebackers are among the vacancies Neu and his team must fill in 2022.
Plitt will be replaced by John Paddock, a redshirt junior quarterback who threw 26 passes in lopsided non-conference losses last season. Paddock completed 69% of attempts in limited action, taking a sack and throwing an interception against Wyoming. The new starter is waiting for his first college touchdown pass, but he will have plenty of opportunities this season. Luckily for Paddock, the first secondary he faces as a starter ranked among the worst in the nation in pass defense last year — giving up 273 yards per game to rank 122nd out of 130 teams.
Although Ball State boasts more experience at wide receiver than quarterback, Hall is an equally tricky backup on offense. When Hall played his last game for the Cardinals in November, he held FBS active leader status in receptions and receiving yards. His game was used all over the court, in the form of 61 receptions, 37 rushing attempts, 11 kickoff returns and 10 punt returns last year. Ball State already began grooming Hall’s successor last year, as Cincinnati’s Jayshon Jackson replenished a spectacular first season at Muncie.
Jackson led all receivers with 69 receptions and 829 yards, while receiving additional support from longtime program staple Yo’Heinz Tyler. While the speedy Jackson is more likely to serve as a downside threat and Hall-style throw sweep option, the 6’3” strong-armed Tyler is known for his shorter throws to move sticks.
Rounding out the top contributors on offense is running back Carson Steele, one of the few youngsters to play a monumental role in Ball State’s offense in 2021. Steele is a classic powerhouse guard with a viable stiff arm and a appreciable hedge capacity. The 6’1″, 215-pound true sophomore became the primary rushing option midway through the season as a true freshman, finishing the campaign with a team-best 891 yards to go with six touchdowns. Given Tennessee’s status as one of 37 run defenses to limit opponents to less than 3.8 yards per run last year, combined with Ball State’s turnover on the offensive line, Steele certainly has his work cut out for him as he kicks off the sophomore year at Ball State.
On the defensive side of the ball, inside linebackers should be the positional group Tennessee studies most intensely in film. That unit consists of 2020 MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin, who missed nine games last season with a knee injury. When healthy, Martin averaged more than 11 tackles per game in 2020, supplemented by 6.5 tackles for loss during the season. He forms a dangerous duo with Clayton Coll (104 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions in 2021) that is sure to attract attention in the conference.
Elsewhere on defense, the line has a slew of starting talent, but the group needs to do a better job of getting to quarterback after recording less than 1.8 sacks per game in 2021. In a secondary new look losing its two starting safeties, veteran cornerback Amechi Uzodinma is aiming to play a starring role after ranking first in the MAC in interceptions and among the FBS top 10 in 2019. In what should be the most important to the contest, Uzodinma takes on the challenge of guarding Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman, who caught more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
Tennessee Volunteer Prospects
Head coach Josh Heupel was considered an offensive mastermind at UCF. In his three years coaching the Knights from 2018-20, he fielded the top four FBS offenses, peaking at 568 yards per game in his senior year. So when Tennessee needed a boost after ranking 100th or lower in total offense four straight seasons, Heupel seemed like a perfect pick.
That partnership paid off in 2021, as the Volunteers witnessed an unfathomable rise from 102nd to ninth in offensive production, generating more than 475 yards per contest. The passing offense proved more than helpful, but the running game was Tennessee’s real forte, racking up more rushing yards per outing than any SEC team except Arkansas. .
What has changed schematically? Heupel introduced an extreme degree of tempo and introduced wider spacing between receivers, forcing the defense to cover more of the court. Quarterback Hendon Hooker thrived in his system in his first year after transferring from Virginia Tech, and the improvement in his game was on full display. His completion rate increased to 68%, yards per attempt to 9.7, and he widened the gap between his touchdown and interception numbers to 31 and three.
Despite a wasted effort, mostly due to defensive lapses, Hooker had one of the best bowl performances last season, shooting for 378 yards and five touchdowns in a Music City Bowl shootout against Purdue. He retains his No. 1 gun, Cedric Tillman, who became one of the nation’s deadliest fumblers in the second half of the season. Tillman has rushed for more than 150 yards in three of his last six performances and passed the century mark in each of his last four, and he was one of 15 receivers to rack up 12 touchdowns.
Another name to watch in Heupel’s plan is Jabari Small, who contributed 796 yards and nine touchdowns to help the mobile Hooker (616 rushing yards) guide Tennessee’s powerful rushing offense last year. With back small and secondary Jaylen Wright back with the program, the rushing attack is expected to pick up where it left off, but the receiving corps – apart from Tillman – comes with more questions after the Volunteers have lost their second and third leading receivers of 2021.
Jalin Hyatt is the only other wide receiver besides Tillman to land more than seven receptions last year. He will step into a starting role and is expected to receive additional support from Bru McCoy, who was declared immediately eligible last week following his transfer from USC. Restocking the reception hall shouldn’t be too much of a concern, but if there’s one downside to the offense, it’s the litany of sacks allowed by the offensive line. Tennessee fires four starters (all but the lone All-SEC selection from the Cade Mays line) from a group that ranked 123rd in sacks returned in 2021. So Ball State’s recipe for an upset starts with winning. this battle from the start.
Defensively, there is still work to do. The Music City Bowl was a microcosm of Tennessee’s 2021 season where the offense flew over the field early and often, only to have that progress immediately negated by runs at the other end. Overall, the Volunteers ranked 98th in total defense, giving up about 422 yards per game.
The run defense proved solid at times, but most of the issues were present in the secondary. Only eight teams have given up more air production to opposing quarterbacks than Tennessee last season. With All-SEC safety Theo Jackson no longer with the unit, Jaylen McCollough will be tasked with improving his covering game. Last season, McCollough had a team-high three assists, racking up five pass breakups and 49 tackles in his best season to date.
One aspect of defense that has shown its power in the past is the pass rush. Three volunteers generated at least five sacks in 2021, and two of them remain bright orange in 2022. Outside linebacker Jeremy Banks and point rusher Byron Young are the faces the Ball State line needs to be hyper aware of, as the two combined for 11 sacks and 23 tackles for the loss last fall.
Analysis and prediction
The odds are extremely high against Ball State in this contest. Not only do the Cardinals open on the road this Thursday night, but they will do so against one of the strongest offenses in the country.
Wyoming and Penn State’s 86th and 90th ranking offenses proved too much for Ball State to handle in last season’s non-conference game, and the Cardinals had 45 and 44 points, respectively, in one-sided losses to those opponents. .
Another challenge Ball State faces is the stark difference in the return of production between the teams. Tennessee is in the top quartile of this category, while Ball State is in the bottom quartile. With an established quarterback, a rushing offense and one of the best receivers in the nation, Tennessee should have no problem reigniting their offense in dominant fashion against a Ball State team lacking their army of super seniors last year.
Ball State certainly has a strong chance of sweeping the rest of its non-conference roster — Murray State (FCS), Georgia Southern and UConn — but Thursday night will be on the home team in dominant fashion.
Prediction: Tennessee 52, Ball State 10