- Time and date: Saturday, September 9 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: SEC Network
- Location: Sanford Stadium — Athens, GA
- Spread: Georgia (-42)
- Over/under: 52
- All-time series: No previous meetings
Setting the scene
It’s as tall of a task as there is in college football. The Georgia Bulldogs are back-to-back defending national champions and ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. Their last regular season loss transpired the first week of November 2020, and despite churning out an assembly of NFL Draft picks in the last three drafts, the Bulldogs haven’t seen any drop-off.
Ball State will be the longshot challenger, making a trek to SEC country for the second consecutive week. Although the Cardinals held a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter against Kentucky, the Wildcats responded with 20 second quarter points and kept the foot on the gas thereafter in a 44-14 thrashing.
Now, as 42-point underdogs in Athens, Ball State seeks to do what some perceive is impossible. The Cardinals enter the defending champs’ territory with an 0-12 record against the current 14 SEC programs and this will be the program’s first ever clash with the No. 1 team in the AP Poll.
Ball State Cardinals outlook
Ball State started its 2023 season in promising fashion, holding a 7-3 advantage over Kentucky after one quarter. But all momentum vanished in the second quarter when the Cardinals fumbled in Kentucky in the second quarter, watching the Wildcats’ lead blossom from 10-7 to 17-7. Defensive ineptitude reigned for the remainder of the contest and Kentucky posted 41 points in just the final three quarters.
But this week, the opponent ramps up a notch. To remain competitive in Athens, Ball State must hone on the facets of the game which worked against Kentucky. One of those was surprisingly the passing offense, which was operated by true freshman quarterback Kadin Semonza. Journeyman transfer Layne Hatcher (with previous stops of Alabama, Arkansas State, and Texas State) got the start and finished 6-of-8 for 36 yards, but the Cardinals finished the afternoon with the youngster. Semonza completed 15-of-21 for 165 yards and a touchdown without tossing an interception, and the true freshman could be called up as the starter this week, although head coach Mike Neu has yet to name one.
Kiael Kelly could also check into the game, but mainly for rushing opportunities. The 6’2” sophomore threw one passes and ran the ball seven times in Week 1 — checking into the contest intermittently during drives led by Hatcher and Semonza.
Some of the quarterbacks’ main targets are tight ends. Ball State exhibits the best tight end tandem in the MAC in Brady Hunt and Tanner Koziol. But unfortunately for the Cardinals, Hunt — a First Team All-MAC selection in 2022 — will miss his second game with an injury. That carves out a larger role for Koziol, who caught a team-high eight passes for 66 yards last week. At wide receiver, Ty Robinson looks poised to emerge into the No. 1 option this year. The Colorado transfer shattered his career-high with 90 receiving yards in Week 1, and he’ll look to provide explosive playmaking in Week 2.
The run game is also spearheaded by a transfer, but Marquez Cooper is as established as any player on the roster. The Kent State transfer is a two-time All-MAC selection, posting back-to-back seasons of 1,200 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. He’ll look for a stronger performance than his 15-carry, 33-yard showing against Kentucky, but in order to do it, Ball State’s offensive line must show more assertiveness against Georgia — which is quite a daunting task.
Defensively, Ball State didn’t start off terribly against Kentucky and the Cardinals forced a slew of early incompletions, which led to first half stops. But the defense wore down as the game progressed and stopping Wildcat running back Ray Davis was a goal never attained in Lexington. But getting defensive end Tavion Woodard back in the lineup this week will definitely make the unit a stronger version of itself than it was in Week 1.
The stars of Ball State’s defense reside within the linebacking corps. Clayton Coll collected 110 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles in 2022, while Cole Pearce totaled 85 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss, and 5.0 sacks. The Cardinals will need those two to provide plenty of pressure to Georgia’s running backs to make the Bulldogs as one-dimensional as possible.
Georgia Bulldogs outlook
College football’s newest dynasty continues to roll. Last Saturday in Athens, Georgia took the field for the first time since annihilating TCU 65-7 in the national championship, and the result was skating past an FCS opponent, 45-7, despite a slow start by Georgia standards.
We’ve seen more dominant performances by Georgia’s defense against elite teams like Clemson, Oregon, TCU, and such over the past two years, but the Bulldogs still suffocated UT Martin to 2-of-14 on third downs and to 3.9 yards per passing attempt. The offense punted on three of its first four drives, but eventually, new starting quarterback Carson Beck settled into the game and kickstarted the offense. Beck, a frequent participant in blowouts over the past two seasons, posted 294 yards on a 68 percent completion clip in his first start — adding a rushing touchdown to his résumé.
But Beck is without several key skill position players around him. Starting running back Daijun Edwards, the team’s returning leader in rushing yards, remains sidelined with an MCL injury. And 2022’s most targeted wide receiver Ladd McConkey sat out Week 1 with a back injury. Thus, different faces must blossom within the offense. Kendall Milton handled a significant load of the backfield duties against UT Martin, but 4-star true freshman Roderick Robinson II shined in his debut with 50 carries and a touchdown on eight touches.
The focal point of the receiving game will still be All-American tight end Brock Bowers, who corralled a team-high five receptions for 78 yards in the opener. This game should give opportunities for other receivers to develop, including Mekhi Mews who caught three balls for 75 yards in a breakout performance last Saturday. Additionally, the Bulldogs loaded up on experienced receiver talent in the transfer portal by acquiring Missouri’s Dominic Lovett and Mississippi State’s Rara Thomas — who should play significant roles if McConkey remains out this week.
Despite losing five defenders in the first five rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft, Georgia’s defense remains a force to be reckoned with. This year, the scariest position group appears to be the veteran secondary. Georgia remains dominant on the back end with the safety trio of Malaki Starks, Javon Bullard, and Tykee Smith, who collected an aggregate 18 tackles against UT Martin — all while limiting the opponent to 128 passing yards on 33 attempts.
And since it’s Georgia, you can always expect massive, athletic defensive tackles clogging up the middle. Current Philadelphia Eagles Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter served in those roles, and now that position is bequeathed to Nazir Stackhouse. The 6’3”, 320 pound senior racked up 33 tackles last year and he’s aiming to cause more havoc against Ethan Crowe and Ball State’s interior offensive line.
Ball State is gifted $1.6 million in the program’s first-ever opportunity to square off against the No. 1 team in the country.
The Cardinals haven’t had much luck against SEC opponents or highly-ranked teams in the past, and after all, this is Georgia. Kirby Smart’s program is defending back-to-back champions for a reason and they’ve remained at the top with stellar recruiting and internal development.
Yes, Kent State shocked Georgia last year by hanging with 10 points in the fourth quarter. But this time, expect Georgia to fly by the Cardinals, which fall to 0-2 during their 2-game SEC road trip.
Prediction: Georgia 49, Ball State 3