The Tennessee Volunteers will open their 2022 season on Thursday night in Knoxville against the Ball State Cardinals out of the MAC. It will mark the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
Ball State's Mike Neu enters his seventh year as head coach at his alma mater. Neu led the Cardinals to a 7-1 record, a MAC championship, and the program's first-ever bowl victory during the abbreviated 2020 season. However, the Cardinals were unable to match that success last season, finishing the year at 6-7, despite returning most of their key players from the highly successful 2020 squad. While confidence remains high heading into the '22 campaign, there will be some big hurdles for Neu's Cardinals to overcome in order to reach bowl eligibility for an unprecedented third year in a row. Chief among them are depth concerns and breaking in a new quarterback. The Cardinals will certainly have their work cut out for them on Thursday night against the Volunteers, in what is sure to be an electric environment inside Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee enters Year 2 of the Josh Heupel era on Rocky Top with plenty of buzz after a better-than-expected 7-6 season in 2021. Most of that buzz is generated by an explosive offense that returns eight starters and ranked in the top 10 nationally. While the Vols still have some work to do defensively to take another step forward in 2022, improved depth and athleticism on that side of the football leaves room for optimism. Tennessee will look to come out guns blazing in its first test of the season on Thursday night against Ball State.
Ball State at Tennessee
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Tennessee -35
When Ball State Has the Ball
The biggest question mark facing the Ball State offense lies at quarterback, where John Paddock will be making his first-ever collegiate start on Thursday night, replacing three-year starter Drew Plitt. Neu has given Paddock plenty of praise for his poise and confidence heading into the season opener. However, Paddock's lack of game experience is glaring, having attempted just 34 total passes since 2018 in a reserve role. And while he has been successful in completing 24 of those attempts, his 5.3 yards per pass attempt and 109.2 passer rating leave plenty to be desired. Paddock also has yet to throw a single touchdown pass.
The good news is that Paddock will have some experienced playmakers to work with at the skill positions. Jayshon Jackson returns at wide receiver after leading the Cardinals in receptions (69) and receiving yards (829) last season. Yo'Heinz Tyler also returns after recording a team-high six touchdown catches. And the addition of Vanderbilt transfer Amir Abdur-Rahman should further bolster the receiving corps. Running back Carson Steele also is back after a promising freshman campaign in which he led Ball State in rushing yards (891) and rushing touchdowns (6). Additionally, Paddock has the luxury of facing a Tennessee pass defense that struggled mightily at times last season (ranked 122nd nationally) and is now without arguably its two best defensive backs from 2021 in Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor, both of whom went in this year's NFL draft.
Unfortunately for the Ball State offense, there is more bad news heading into Thursday night's matchup against the Vols. For starters, record-setting playmaker Justin Hall, who excelled as a receiver, runner, and return specialist for the Cardinals, has exhausted his eligibility. And while it's true that Tennessee struggled against the pass last season, the Vols shouldn't have much trouble limiting a first-time starter at quarterback out of the MAC. Meanwhile, a Tennessee run defense that limited opposing rushing attacks to 3.7 yards per attempt last season should fare well against a Ball State ground game that averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. The Vols also feature a very aggressive defense overall, led by linebacker Jeremy Banks and edge rusher Byron Young, that generated an impressive 102 tackles for a loss and 34 sacks in 2021. And while a fairly experienced Ball State offensive line should do well against MAC competition this season, it will be a tall order to keep Tennessee defenders out of the backfield on Thursday night.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
After setting multiple school records last season, a high-powered Tennessee offense that averaged 474.4 yards and 39.3 points per contest appears poised for an even bigger 2022 campaign. That's thanks in large part to the return of star quarterback Hendon Hooker, who will look to build on a phenomenal 2021 season in which he completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,945 yards with 31 touchdown passes against just three interceptions. Hooker also led all SEC quarterbacks with a stellar 181.4 passer rating and ranked second in the conference in passing yards per attempt (9.7). He proved to be plenty dangerous running the football as well, adding 620 yards and five scores on the ground while leading Heupel's fast-paced offense.
While the Vols' passing attack will miss standout wide receivers Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton this season, Hooker still has plenty of quality weapons at his disposal. Most notably, his favorite target and the SEC's leading returning receiver — Cedric Tillman. Tillman's breakout 2021 season included 64 receptions for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns. The addition of USC transfer and former 5-star recruit Bru McCoy provides the Vols' passing attack with another talented, big-bodied, target opposite Tillman. Speedy slot receiver Jalin Hyatt is expected to step up after a disappointing 2021 campaign, while Ramel Keyton, Jimmy Holiday, Jimmy Calloway, and Squirrel White provide depth at the position. Tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant also should factor in heavily. Collectively, this group should prove to be a real nightmare for a revamped Ball State secondary that was mediocre at best last season, although veteran cornerback Amechi Uzodinma II is someone to keep an eye on Thursday night.
The only real concern facing the Tennessee offense is a line that surrendered an SEC-worst 44 sacks last season. However, the Vols should be better in that regard with the return of four starters, along with improved depth. And pass protection shouldn't be a huge concern against a Ball State pass rush that produced just 1.77 sacks per contest last season.
The Tennessee rushing attack should have its way on Thursday night as well. The Vols return three of their top four rushers from a group that averaged close to five yards per carry and scored 30 touchdowns on the ground in 2021. That includes running back Jabari Small, who led Tennessee with 792 rushing yards and nine scores. Sophomore Jaylen Wright (409 yds., 4 TDs) also returns, while highly-touted true freshmen Dylan Sampson and Justin Williams-Thomas are expected to make an impact as well. Ball State had its struggles against the run last season, allowing 176.4 rushing yards per game (95th nationally), and there isn't much hope for improvement after losing five of its top six tacklers. However, the return of linebacker Brandon Martin should help the cause after his 2021 season was derailed by injury. Martin led the Cardinals in tackles in 2020 en route to MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. His presence still won't be enough to slow down the Volunteers' ground attack on Thursday night.
Ball State isn't completely devoid of talent, despite having to replace multiple starters on both sides of the football from last season. Offensively, the Cardinals have some capable playmakers, but with Paddock making his first collegiate start on the road against an aggressive Tennessee defense, in one of the most hostile environments in college football, it's hard to imagine much success coming their way. The bigger issue lies with the Ball State defense. It shouldn't take long for Tennessee's fast-paced offense to wear down an undersized Cardinals defense that also is short on depth and returning production. Hooker and the Vols' high-octane offense should have no trouble lighting up the scoreboard en route to a very convincing season-opening victory.
Prediction: Tennessee 52, Ball State 13
Podcast: Week 1 Preview and Predictions + Betting and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.