By Joseph Bonanno
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.— It’s almost football time in Tennessee.
The Volunteers are set to host the Ball State Cardinals on Thursday night in Neyland Stadium to open the 2022 season. Kickoff is set for 7 P.M. EST.
Tennessee and its second-year head coach Josh Heupel are coming off a successful first season under the new regime of Athletic Director Danny White. The Vols finished the 2021 season with a 7-6 (4-4 SEC) record and ended the season with a bitter overtime loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium.
In 2021, the Vols picked up big wins over at-the-time No. 18 Kentucky and South Carolina, however went 1-4 against ranked opponents. Despite the record, Tennessee’s fast-paced offense was among the best in the nation.
Heupel’s offense showed both an immediate and significant impact compared to the previous year. The Vols improved 99 spots in scoring offense, going from 108th in the country in 2020 to seventh in 2021, while averaging 39.3 ppg, a mark that ranked second in modern school history. The revamped Vols offense broke many program records including points (511), total offensive yards (6,174), touchdowns (67), point after touchdowns made (67), total first downs (316), rushing first downs (164), fewest interceptions thrown (3) and passing efficiency (167.10).
Although Heupel’s new system opened the door for the offensive improvement, it was the effort of starting quarterback Hendon Hooker that brought the success to life.
In 2021, Hooker etched himself in the Tennessee single-season records for completion percentage (1st with 68.0), passer efficiency Rating (1st with 181.4), total offense (4th with 3,565), touchdown passes: (3rd with 31), consecutive games with a touchdown pass (3rd with 12), passing yards (10th with 2,945), and rushing yards by a QB (3rd with 620).
Running it Back
After a successful 2021 season, the Vols enter 2022 as one of the most intriguing programs in college football.
Unlike last year, heading into Thursday’s opener, Heupel has a full off-season under his belt, meaning he had a full off-season for his players to adjust to his high-tempo offense. While it may not seem like much, year two in that kind of system can be vastly different than year one. I would expect to see dramatic improvement on Tennessee players’ endurance during the game as well as their understanding of running plays both on defense and offense.
Along with a full off-season together, Heupel and the Vols have one thing that the 2021 team didn’t, or rather they don’t have something that the 2021 team had: a quarterback competition.
Tennessee knows exactly who is going to be leading the offense on the field. Hooker’s outstanding debut season with the Vols primes him to enter 2022 as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks and a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Not only that, but knowing that Hooker is the starting quarterback allows the Vols’ offense to build a game plan around him instead of preparing for two possibilities at the position, a challenge that hurt the Vols early on in 2021.
Hooker at quarterback also keeps continuity in Tennessee’s offensive chemistry, especially with wide receivers Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt returning.
Ball State Matchup
The Vols will play a MAC team on a Thursday for the second consecutive year. In 2021, Tennessee routed Bowling Green 38-6 in Heupel’s debut with the team. This will be the first time in history that the Vols and the Cardinals will have faced off in football.
Ball State coming off a fourth place finish in the MAC West division where they went 6-7 (4-4 MAC).
It was an unimpressive 2021 season statistically for the Cardinals who finished in the lower ranks in FBS for most offensive and defensive categories. Ball State was 110th in total offense (338.3), 94th in scoring offense (24.1), 96th in total defense (419.4), and 85th in scoring defense (28.4).
The one area the Cardinals excelled in was the turnover game, forcing 19 turnovers (45th FBS, 2nd MAC) and having a turnover margin of 0.54 (27th FBS, 2nd MAC). They also intercepted 15 passes, which was good for 14th best in FBS (Tennessee’s 13 was 33rd).
While the Cardinals have a defense that looks prime to have a takeaway, its matchup with Hooker and the Vols is heavily lopsided in favor of the orange and white. Remember, Hooker is coming off a season where he had the third best passer rating (182.0) in the country and only had three interceptions compared to his 31 touchdown passes. On top of that, the Vols only lost 12 turnovers, which was good for 21st best in FBS.
The Vols’ explosive offensive attack will more than likely end up being too much for the Cardinals to handle.
On the other side of things, Ball State is starting redshirt junior John Paddock at quarterback, who is scheduled to make his first career start after being in a backup role all of last year. Paddock’s 2021 stats are minuscule compared to Hookers, as he was 18-for-26 for 132 yards and an interception.
The junior will face a Tennessee defense that experienced a ton of loss with veteran members like Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson heading the the NFL. However the Vols do get a ton of experience back in the front seven, with linebacker Juwan Mitchell returning from injury to play alongside senior linebacker Jermey Banks.
The defensive line, led by coach Rodney Gardner, is probably the highlight of the Vols’ defense. Guys like edge rusher Byron Young, and defensive lineman Tyler Baron and Omari Thomas are set to lead the group. However there is a ton of depth with guys like Elijah Simmons and LaTrell Bumphus set to make big contributions as well.
The Tennessee secondary had the hardest hit after 2021 losing Taylor and Jackson, however guys like Warren Burrell, Christian Charles and Kamal Hadden all had a solid fall camp and looked good. The Vols’ safeties are returning some verteran presence with Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough set to start. The matchup with an inexperienced quarterback in Paddock should do wonders for the secondary in terms of building confidence and getting into the flow of things.
Tennessee is listed as 35-point favorites over the Cardinals. However, I do believe that the Vols’ offense will start out sluggish as they adjust from practice speed to game speed.
With the high offensive tempo that Heupel’s system brings, it seems almost normal for there to be some kind of adjustment period. However, I don’t think that adjustment period will last very long and the Vols will find their rhythm rather quickly, especially if this team is anything like 2021. Last year, Tennessee led the nation in first quarter points per game (14.6) and had the nation’s best scoring differential in the first quarter (offense minus defense) with +10.69.
With that being said, my final score prediction for Thursday’s game is Tennessee 42, Ball State 14.