Before you know it, Tennessee will be running through that Power T in September. We’re now under four months away from the home opener at Neyland Stadium, which was moved up to a Thursday night kickoff once again.
The opponent for Tennessee will be Ball State, who will make the trip south from Muncie, Indiana. It’s the dead of May, you’ve got nothing better to do — let’s look ahead at the Cardinals.
Tennessee Game Date: Thursday, September 1st (7 p.m. ET, Week 1)
2021 Record: 6-7
2021 S&P+: 107th
2022 S&P+ (Preseason): 123rd
2021 Power 5 Games: at Penn State (L, 44-13)
Head Coach: Mike Neu
Coach Neu came home back in 2016, tasked with rebuilding the Ball State football program. It proved to be no easy task for the former Ball State quarterback, who left his post with the New Orleans Saints as the quarterbacks coach after a long stay in the Arena Football League as a head coach.
Patience paid off in 2020 after four pedestrian seasons. Ball State went 7-1 in the COVID-shortened season, winning the Arizona Bowl and finishing the year ranked inside of the top 25. Looking to build on that, the Cardinals actually took a step backwards in 2021, going 6-7 overall despite returning plenty of upperclassmen starters.
For whatever reason, things didn’t go Ball State’s way like they did in 2020, and now Mike Neu is tasked with replacing more than a few key players for 2022.
Quarterback Drew Plitt (All-MAC, three-year starter)
Wide Receiver Justin Hall (All-MAC selection)
Offensive Guard Curtis Blackwell (All-MAC selection)
Three of four secondary starters
Six of eight linebacker contributors
Two of three defensive line starters
If Ball State took a step back in 2021, another one feels like it’s on the way for 2022. Replacing three pillars on offense and the bulk of a defensive unit will be no easy task, and starting their season against Hendon Hooker and Josh Heupel feels like a worst-case scenario starting point.
Ball State will turn to veteran quarterback John Paddock, who has patiently waited his turn to run the offense. The senior quarterback has just 34 pass attempts to his name, but he’s also entering his fifth season inside of the system. Veteran receivers Jayshon Jackson and Yo’Heinz Tyler will ease that transition for Paddock, as both players have produced over the last couple of seasons. Sophomore running back Carson Steele is coming off of an 800+ yard season, looking to build on that in year two.
The Cardinals may hold serve offensively, but considering the losses, the defense may end up being their issue in 2022. Veteran linebacker Clayton Coll returns after a 93 tackle, two interception season in 2021. Defensive end Tavion Woodward also returns after a five sack season. Michigan State defensive line transfer Kyle King will help fix a depth issue up front.
Ball State lacks depth overall defensively, and also lacks size up front. They’ll be breaking in new starters across the board, which will likely have them in for a real battle to get back to six wins and a bowl game.