“It’s Football Time In Tennessee.” Even in the state that is home to three of America’s music genres, nothing rings more beautiful to a Tennessee fan than John Ward‘s iconic introduction of the Volunteers football team. The Vols host Ball State this Thursday in Neyland Stadium. Here are three things Vols fans should look for as Tennessee begins Year Two under Josh Heupel.
Vols Host Ball State: Three Things to Look For
Ball State was a bowl team in 2021, finishing 6-7 after losing to Georgia State in the Camellia Bowl. The Cardinals are out-matched across the board, so Tennessee’s opener is more about performance than the score.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Tennessee struggled mightily on defense in 2021, leaving several wins on the field. While Ball State isn’t an offensive juggernaut, they will provide an early litmus test for Tim Banks’ squad. The Cardinals return starting running back Carson Steele. Steele, a sophomore, ran for 922 yards last season. Ball State is a run-oriented team that averages more run attempts per game than passing attempts. That’s rare in today’s game. Steele and Will Jones represent over 66% of the team’s rushing yards from last year returning this season. Expect the Cardinals to test the Vols’ interior defensive linemen, including Omari Thomas, LaTrell Bumphus, Elijah Simmons, and Kurott Garland.
The Cardinals will have a new signal-caller in Junior John Paddock. If they can’t get the running game going early, they will turn to their passing game, which returns four of the top five receivers from last season. There isn’t a lot of depth at the Quarterback position, so look for short passes to keep Paddock from facing too much pressure from Tyler Baron and Byron Young. If that’s the case, Vols fans should look at the linebackers’ ability to cover backs and tight ends.
It’ll be interesting to see how many defensive linemen and linebackers the coaching staff is comfortable rotating in and out while the game is still contested. This will give an indication of where Tennessee’s depth on the defensive front seven is this season — a key metric of improvement for the Vols.
The Cardinals were held under 125 rushing yards in eight games last year.
The Vols can show signs of defensive improvement by holding the Cardinals under 125 rushing yards and preventing the Cardinal’s passing game from establishing any momentum.
Ball State’s defense was almost as bad as Tennessee’s in 2021, even in MAC play. The Cardinals gave up an average of 419 yards per game (176 rushing and 243 passing) and 24.46 points. But Tennessee fans shouldn’t get excited just yet — this game won’t be as much about hanging 70 on the new scoreboards as it will be about crisp execution.
Vols fans should focus on how the Tennessee offense executes. With the offensive line returning four starters, quarterback Hendon Hooker shouldn’t get touched by the Ball State pass rush.
For Hooker’s part, the coaches will keep the playbook simple and let the second-year Vols starter get work managing the fast-paced offense. Will Vegas post a prop bet for fake injuries by the Ball State defense? If so, the Over/Under might be in the double digits. The coaches will look to evaluate a crowded receiver corps and the bevy of backup running backs.
It’s pretty simple: keep Hooker clean, keep the penalty sheet clean, and keep the ball clean. This game won’t be about the points, it’ll be about the film.
Handling The Pressure
It might not be fair, but it’s college football, so there’s going to be pressure on the Vols this season. With a big road game in Week 2 against defending ACC Champion Pittsburgh, can this Vols team adapt to a Thursday game week, block out a restless and energetic Neyland Stadium, and stay focused on the task at hand? Special teams always test a team’s focus.
Ball State actually had the fifth-ranked special teams unit in FBS last season. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they lost just about all of their specialists. Turnovers, muffed punts, and special teams breakdowns are normally where opening week jitters and unfocused pressure show themselves. The Vols don’t need to do anything special, they just need to handle their business to show that they can handle the pressure.
Vols Host Ball State: The Last Word
As much as Tennessee fans want to see a big number on the scoreboard, it’s unlikely the Vols get to 50. Look for Heupel to keep the play calling simple and to get key players out if Tennessee has a comfortable lead in the second half. Ball State is a great team to open with for Tennessee — the Cardinals are good enough to make Tennessee earn a win, but not a serious threat for an opening game upset.
Ball State: 20