Ball State - Last 3 season openers
2015 — vs. VMI — 48-36 (W)
2014 — vs. Colgate — 30-10 (W)
2013 — vs. Illinois State — 51-28 (W)
Fifth-year senior linebacker Aaron Taylor is no stranger to the Georgia Dome turf.
Before enrolling at Ball State, the Lawrenceville, Georgia, native played there as senior at Central Gwinnett High School.
Taylor said it was great playing on the same field as some of his pro idols like Michael Vick, but he wasn't satisfied with the loss his team took in that game.
"It was a long game," he said. "Each team put up like 60 [points]. But we lost last time I was in the dome. That's another reason I want to go back home and finish it off right."
Five years later, Taylor will get a chance to reverse his fortune in his home state. Ball State opens the season Sept. 2 in the Georgia Dome against Georgia State, the first true road game in an opener for the Cardinals since 2005.
First-year head coach Mike Neu said he thinks his players are excited to play in the home of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
"Of course, when you get an opportunity to play a game in a professional stadium like that, it’s really cool," he said. "We’ve got some guys from Atlanta, so it’s a little bit sweeter for those guys to have an opportunity to go back home where they grew up playing high school football."
Sweet as it may be to play in front of family and friends, Taylor and fellow Georgia native Martez Hester still have a bitter taste in their mouths from last year's matchup with Georgia State.
The Panthers came into Scheumann Stadium and pounced on the Cardinals, racing out to a 24-10 halftime lead. Then-senior Nick Arbuckle torched Ball State for 412 yards and a touchdown as Georgia State picked up a 31-19 victory. It just was the Panthers' second win against an FBS program in school history, though they went on to finish 6-7 (5-3 Sun Belt) after making their first-ever bowl game appearance.
This year, Arbuckle is gone, and Georgia State still hasn't named its starting quarterback. Still, Hester said the Ball State defense will have to improve in order to contain playmakers Penny Hart, Robert Davis and Keith Rucker in the passing game.
"They've got athletes at receiver, and they've got guys coming back that made plays last year," Hester said. "It's an explosive passing game ... And we're going to have to really bring it."
Georgia State head coach Trent Miles is in his fourth year with the Panthers after a five-year stint with Indiana State. He seemed to be more concerned with the Ball State's offense than its defense on the Sun Belt conference call earlier this week.
"They'll be fired up and have a lot of energy," Miles said. "They've got a new coach, who I think is outstanding, and they've got coach [Joey] Lynch there. They'll produce, and they've got some talent. That big receiver [KeVonn Mabon] they've got is a really good player, and I really like their quarterback [Riley Neal]."
He also said it has been difficult to develop a game plan against a first-time head coach.
"We don't know what you're going to see because there's no game film on Mike Neu's offense," Miles said. "You've got to be prepared for a little bit of everything."
After a long offseason full of change, the Ball State players are ready to finally hit someone in a different color jersey. Starting safety Corey Hall has been waiting for almost two years now after missing last season due to injury.
Hall, a junior college transfer originally from Stockbridge, Georgia, said he's ecstatic to return to the field in front of friends and family.
"It's so surreal for me. I mean, I grew up watching the Atlanta Falcons," he said. "For me to actually play on the field, it's a kid's dream to play in an NFL stadium."
Taylor said he will also have a section at the game filled with relatives from the Atlanta area, plus some that are making the trip down from Tennessee.
It's only fitting that he begin his senior year at Ball State the same way he ended his high school career — playing the game he loves in front of the people he loves.
"It means everything to me," Taylor said. "Opening with Georgia State, that's a big mark on my calendar. I've gotta go down there and give them the same feeling they gave us last year."
Ball State and Georgia State will kick off at 7 p.m. Sept. 2, with the game airing on ESPN3.