Ball State @ Tennessee - A Quick Preview(ish)
Before we get into the article, this is an experimental piece. With a staff of three writers and one photographer who all have full-time jobs and a hectic schedule, this won’t be long, but instead, it is designed to give some talking points on the matchup selected. That being said: WELCOME BACK, COLLEGE FOOTBALL!
This week, we are talking #MACtion in SEC land: Ball State vs Tennessee! This game serves as several first. The first ever matchup between these two schools on the gridiron, the first road trip for the podcast, and the first SEC stadium Alex has attended a game in. Exciting stuff, right? Now, ESPN isn’t too high on this MAC squad, giving Ball State a 4.9% chance to beat Tennessee. Not great odds. But we know that MAC squads are used to being the underdogs against the Power Five foes, so these odds don't come as a surprise. Let's examine the good, the bad, quick thoughts, and score predictions.
Ball State at Tennessee - (September 1, 7:00 PM, SECN)
THE GOOD: Ball State returns key contributors from a year ago, including lead rusher Carson Steele (891 yards, 6TDs), leading receivers Jayshon Jackson (829 yards, 5 TDs), and Yo’Heinz Tyler (487 yards, 6TDs). Defensively, Brandon Martin and Clayton Coll will pace the linebackers who are both elite in their own right, the former being an All-MAC selection in 2020. Returning Cornerback Amechi Uzodinma II looks to continue to establish a lockdown role in the backfield after leading the MAC in picks a year ago. Ball State also returns Justen Ramsey and Jack Sape as down linemen to help attack the Tennessee offensive line. The Cardinals' passing attack gets a crack at the Tennessee passing defense that was one of the worst in college football last year, giving up over 270 yards per game through the air. Tennessee was barely in the top 100 in total defense a year ago, giving up over 420 yards a game, and giving up just over 21 points per game. The Tennessee offensive line was absolutely terrible last season, one of the worst ten lines in football, surrendering 3.39 sacks a game. Not ideal for a team who wants to win a lot of games.
Ball State has a whole cast of characters to replace. From starting QB Drew Plitt, WR Justin Hall, and several offensive linemen, the 2022 Cardinal offense will need John Paddock to grow up, and quickly. Paddock has limited experience, playing in 2 games a year ago and just 4 games in five years in Muncie. Last year, he went 18-26 with no touchdowns and a pick in mop-up duty/garbage time play. A hostile environment is not the ideal place to break in a new starting quarterback. Defensively, Mike Neu has to be scratching his head. His defense is experienced, but with limited reps. A lot of these players were backups and saw minimal action. The task of establishing a new defense against one of the top 25 offenses in college football a year ago is not one for the weak. Tennessee OC Alex Golesh is absolutely licking his chops at devising new ways for the Volunteer offense to feast on this MAC defense. Tennessee has an established quarterback in Hendon Hooker (2,945 yards, 31 TDs), several high-powered receivers such as Cedric Tillman (1,069 yards, 12 TDs), and lead rusher Jabari Small (792 yards 9 TDs), this offense is loaded and will give Ball State an overwhelming amount of work for 60 minutes.
Ball State was very hit or miss on both offense and defense a year ago. Some games where they looked like world beaters (45 points against Western Michigan), were often coupled with games where they were an above-average FCS team (12 points against Toledo). The challenge of facing a top SEC offense on the road, while breaking in a new quarterback is one that coaches try to avoid dreaming about. Paddock is a fine QB, and he will have a great cast to support him, but Neyland Stadium is NOT the place to start your first full season under center. Tennessee benefits from not playing with Joe Milton under center all while they avoid running back that experimental disaster that kept BGSU in the game a year ago. The chips are stacked against Ball State and frankly, we expect the Cards to be in for a long night, Rocky Top blaring in the background. Ball State might win the uniform battle (especially if Dancing Charlie is on the helmet), Tennessee definitely shouldn’t overlook Ball State as it is still college football where anything can happen, but the Cardinals are (don’t hate me) Volunteering to take their paycheck and go home.
Chalk this one up as a victory for Tennessee, final score of 41-17.