- Date and time: Thursday, September 1 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: SEC Network
- Location: Neyland Stadium — Knoxville, TN
- Spread: Tennessee (-34.5)
- ESPN FPI: Tennessee has 95.1% chance to win
- All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
When evening strikes Thursday night, a sea of orange is destined to engulf the city of Knoxville, TN. The aura surrounding inside the fifth-largest stadium in the country should be stronger than in past years, especially after the palpable hype generated in Josh Heupel’s first season at the helm — attaining a winning record in his first year unlike Tennessee’s previous three head coaches.
For the second consecutive year, Tennessee welcomes a MAC program for its Thursday night opener at Neyland Stadium. The Volunteers tossed Bowling Green in 38-6 fashion last year, and this week, Ball State hopes for a different result. After a disappointing 6-7 record in 2021, a refurbished Cardinals roster looks to jump to a stronger start in non-conference play this time, holding out faith as they stroll into SEC country as five-touchdown underdogs.
Ball State Cardinals outlook
Head coach Mike Neu enters year seven at the helm, so the Neu era remains 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 final AP Poll, winning its first ever bowl game and claiming a MAC championship since 1996. An overwhelming majority of the key contributors to that team returned for 2021 to lead a veteran-heavy squad, 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 some of the vacancies Neu and his staff must replenish in 2022.
Plitt will be replaced by John Paddock, a redshirt junior quarterback who threw 26 passes in lopsided non-conference defeats last season. Paddock completed 69 percent of attempts in limited action, taking one sack and tossing one interception against Wyoming. The new starter awaits his first collegiate touchdown pass, but he’ll have plenty of opportunities this season. Luckily for Paddock, the first secondary he faces as a starter ranked among the nation’s worst in pass defense last year — yielding 273 yards per game to rank 122nd out of 130 teams.
Although Ball State touts more experience at wide receiver than quarterback, Hall is an equally tricky replacement for the offense. When Hall played his last game for the Cardinals in November, he held status as the FBS’s active leader in receptions and receiving yards. His playmaking was utilized all over the field, 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 transfer Jayshon Jackson pieced together a spectacular first season in 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 downfield threat and jet sweep option à la Hall, the 6’3” strong-armed Tyler is known for corralling shorter throws to move the sticks.
Rounding out the major contributors on offense is running back Carson Steele, one of the few youngsters who served a monumental role in Ball State’s offense in 2021. Steele is a classic power back with a viable stiff arm and applaudable hurdling ability. The 6’1”, 215 pound true sophomore became the primary rushing option around midseason as a true freshman, finishing the campaign with a team-high 891 yards to go with six touchdowns. Given Tennessee’s status as one of 37 run defenses to limit opponents under 3.8 yards per carry last year, combined with Ball State’s turnover on the offensive line, Steele certainly has his work cut out for him as he launches year two at Ball State.
On the defensive side of the ball, the inside linebackers should be the position group Tennessee studies most intensely on film. That unit consists of 2020 MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin, who missed nine games last season due to a knee injury. When healthy, Martin averaged over 11 tackles per game in 2020, complemented by 6.5 tackles for loss on the season. He forms a dangerous pairing with Clayton Coll (104 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions in 2021) which is certain to draw eyeballs within the conference.
Elsewhere on the defense, the line possesses a string of incumbent talent, but the group must do a better job at getting to the quarterback after recording under 1.8 sacks per game in 2021. In a new look secondary losing both of its starting safeties, veteran cornerback Amechi Uzodinma aims to take a leadership role after ranking first in the MAC in interceptions and among the FBS top 10 in 2019. In what is set to be the most important matchup of the contest, Uzodinma takes on the challenge of guarding Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman, who captured over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
Tennessee Volunteers outlook
Head coach Josh Heupel was deemed an offensive mastermind at UCF. In all three years coaching the Knights from 2018 to 2020, he fielded top-four FBS offenses, peaking at 568 yards per game in his final year. So when Tennessee needed a boost after ranking 100th or below in total offense four seasons in a row, Heupel seemed like a perfect fit.
That partnership paid off in 2021, as the Volunteers witnessed an unfathomable rise from 102nd to ninth in offensive production, generating over 475 yards per contest. The passing attack proved more than serviceable, but the run game was Tennessee’s real sweet spot, collecting more rushing yards per outing than every SEC team save for Arkansas.
What changed schematically? Heupel brought in an extreme degree of tempo and introduced wider spacing between the receivers, forcing the defense to cover a greater portion of the field. 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 rose to 68 percent, yards per attempt to 9.7, and he widened the gap between his touchdown and interception numbers to 31 and three.
Despite a losing effort, primarily due to defensive lapses, Hooker manufactured one of the best bowl performances last season, firing for 378 yards and five touchdown strikes in a Music City Bowl shootout against Purdue. He retains his No. 1 weapon, Cedric Tillman, who became one of the most lethal wideouts in the country during the second half of the season. Tillman produced 150+ yards in three of his final six performances and flew past the century receiving mark in each of his final four, and he was one of 15 receivers to accrue 12 touchdown catches.
Another name to watch in Heupel’s scheme is Jabari Small, who contributed 796 yards and nine touchdowns to assist the mobile Hooker (616 rushing yards) in guiding Tennessee’s high-powered rushing attack last year. With Small and secondary back, Jaylen Wright back with the program, the rushing attack is expected to pick up where it left off, but the receiving corps — outside of Tillman — comes with more questions after the Volunteers lost their second and third leading receivers from 2021.
Jalin Hyatt is the only other wide receiver besides Tillman to snag over seven receptions last year. He’ll step into a starting role, and should receive additional support from Bru McCoy, who was declared immediately eligible last week after transferring from USC. Restocking the receiver room shouldn’t be too much of a concern, but if there is one downside to the offense, it is the litany of sacks allowed by the offensive line. Tennessee returns four starters (all except the line’s lone All-SEC selection Cade Mays) from a group which ranked 123rd in sacks surrendered in 2021. Thus, Ball State’s recipe for an upset starts with winning that battle upfront.
Defensively, more work needs to be done. The Music City Bowl was a microcosm of Tennessee’s 2021 season where the offense flew down the field early and often, only to have that progress immediately unraveled by points on the other end. Overall, the Volunteers ranked 98th in total defense, permitting roughly 422 yards per game.
The run defense proved sturdy at times, but most of the issues were present within the secondary. Only eight teams gave up more aerial production to opposing quarterbacks than Tennessee last season. With All-SEC safety Theo Jackson no longer apart of the unit, Jaylen McCollough will be tasked with upping his coverage game. Last season, McCollough picked off a team-high three passes, amassing five pass breakups and 49 tackles in his best season to date.
One aspect of the defense which has demonstrated potency in the past is the pass rush. Three Volunteers generated at least five sacks in 2021, and two of them remain in bright orange in 2022. Outside linebacker Jeremy Banks and edge rusher Byron Young are the faces Ball State’s line must be hyperaware of, as the two combined for 11 sacks and 23 tackles for loss last fall.
Analysis and prediction
The odds are overwhelmingly stacked against Ball State in this contest. Not only do the Cardinals open on the road this Thursday night, they will do it against one of the country’s highest powered offenses.
Wyoming’s 86th and Penn State’s 90th ranked scoring offenses proved too much for Ball State to handle during last season’s non-conference play, and the Cardinals yielded 45 and 44 points, respectively, in one-sided defeats to those opponents.
Another challenge Ball State faces is the stark difference in returning production between the teams. Tennessee is situated in the upper quartile in this category, while Ball State sits in the bottom quartile. With an established quarterback, rushing attack, and one of the top receivers in the country, Tennessee should have no problem jumpstarting its offense in dominant fashion against a Ball State team lacking its army of super seniors from last year.
Ball State certainly has a strong chance to sweep the rest of its non-conference slate — Murray State (FCS), Georgia Southern, and UConn — but Thursday night will belong to the home team in dominant fashion.
Prediction: Tennessee 52, Ball State 10