We continue our information-dense previews of Georgia’s early season opponents with a look at a team from Muncie, Indiana with a famous comedian as an alumnus and a football team that’s no joke.
The Cardinal File
Conference: The mighty, mighty MAC.
2022 record: 5-7 (3-5 MAC)
Home field: Scheumann Stadium (capacity 22,500)
Key fact #1: Sometimes in hindsight things are better than they seem.
Even wise-cracking Ball State Cardinal David Letterman would have trouble finding anything to laugh about in how his alma mater’s 2022 season ended. The Cardinals were 4-4 headed down the home stretch before dropping 3 out of 4 to finish 5-7. All of those losses were to eventual bowl teams, and it halted a two year streak of bowl appearances by Mike Neu’s own squad.
I’m not saying the Cardinals were the best 5-7 team in America in 2022, just that they were probably the best 5-7 team in the MAC, other than perhaps Kent State. Speaking of which…
Key fact #2: Running into an old friend.
Much of the Cardinals’ 2022 offense ran through tailback Carson Steele, who churned out 1556 yards and 14 touchdowns. As so often happens in this era of college football that led to transfer opportunities, one of which Steele took. He’ll be suiting up for UCLA this year.
But just as the portal taketh away it also giveth. Enter Kent State transfer Marquez Cooper, last seen by Bulldog fans going for 90 yards and a touchdown on 21 Carrie’s in Georgia’s supremely unsatisfying 39-22 victory over the Golden Flashes last year. As you may recall Cooper is a speedy and elusive back who’ll provide a nice early season test for tacklers in red and black. Let’s hope it’s less of a challenge than his appearance last season.
Key fact #3: A different sort of Hatch Attack.
Last year the ‘Dawgs fared well against Samford coach Chris Hatcher’s wide-open offense. Ball State’s passing attack in 2022 was anything but wide-open. While the Cardinals went for a respectable 228.0 yards per game through the air, they also chucked up 14 interceptions, tied for the second most in the MAC. It’s hard to win football games when you’re that generous.
But Neu’s squad is turning over a new leaf under center. Former starter John Paddock has transferred to Illinois and been replaced by Texas State transfer Layne Hatcher.
Hatcher is sort of the Crash Davis of Group of 5 quarterbacks. After signing with Alabama in 2018 out of Arkansas powerhouse Pulaski Academy (as the state’s all-time leading passer) Hatcher didn’t play a down for the Tide. He transferred after one season to Arkansas State where he served as the backup, seeing his first action in a memorable week three matchup against…..Georgia.
Hatcher never began any of his three seasons with the Red Wolves as the starter but every year seemed to find himself brought in as the steady presence or reliable fill-in for an injury-prone or inconsistent quarterback. Somehow he’s 4th all-time in Arkansas State passing history with 7.427 passing yards and third in school history with 65 touchdown passes.
But Hatcher transferred yet again prior to 2022, landing with Jake Spavital at Texas State. As the Bobcats’ starter Hatcher threw for 2653 yards and completed 62% of his passes. He threw 19 touchdowns, but also 10 interceptions. On the bright side, that was down from the 13 he threw the prior season at Arkansas State.
Hatcher has a phenomenal arm, and at 24 years old with five seasons of college football under his belt he’s a savvy veteran. I wouldn’t underestimate his ability to make plays, even against an elite defense. But I also expect him to make some mistakes. Taking advantage of those will be important for the UGA defense.
Key fact #4: The defense isn’t great, but at least it’s experienced?
One of the grand conundrums of college football previewing is figuring out what to do with the unit which underwhelmed during the prior season, but returns a lot of starters and contributors. Will those guys get better? Did they show all they had to offer in the prior season? Who knows!
Such is the dilemma with the Ball State Cardinals. They were dead last in the MAC in rushing defense in 2022. While they were 5th in passing defense they were next to last in interceptions with only 7 on the year.
But they really could be better this year. Up front John Harris (6’2, 264) returns at nose tackle after amassing 17 tackles last season. The fact that Ball State’s starting nose is the same size as some of Georgia’s tight ends is an issue. But Ball State will make up for that with a lot of stunts and angles. I expect some of those to get home, and some to send defenders right out of the play. You live by the sword you die by the sword.
Tavion Woodard provides a decent pass rushing option off the edge (5 TFL and 4 sacks in 2022). Inside linebackers Clay Coll and Cole Pearce are quick and productive tacklers (Coll led the team with 110 stops in 2022). At 6’3, 236 pounds the versatile junior may be the Cardinal most likely to get a long look from pro scouts.
The Bottom Line
The Ball State Cardinals are a definite step up in weight class from Georgia’s opening opponent, UT-Martin. That being said, this one is still not a fair fight. I expect Ball State to get in some punches, and there will come a moment in this one when ‘Dawg fans find something to groan about in the present and worry about for the future, a la Kent State in 2022.
Score prediction: Georgia 41, Ball State 13.