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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Ball State

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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The least you should know about Ball State...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 7-6 (5-2 MAC; 2nd/West)
2003-07: 22-37 (19-20 MAC)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 97 • 103 • 77 • 79 • 101
Returning Starters, Roughly
19 (11 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
Nate Davis was an elite recruit by MAC standards, a big (6-3, 215), versatile passer ranked as one of the top 40 incoming quarterbacks in the country in 2006. He’s been at least that good: he led the MAC in passing efficiency each of his first two seasons and last year had a ridiculous 16:0 TD:INT ratio in seven conference games, which doesn’t include his 422-yard, 3-touchdown effort in the near-upset at Nebraska or his 291-yard, 3-touchdown game against Rutgers in the International Bowl. Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour gets all the love out of this league, but Davis is his equal statistically and as a pro prospect and should challenge the two-time MAC Player of the Year for every all-conference honor. Don’t know why he throws the ball like that.
You Know You’re a Cardinal If...’re a hugely popular, fabulously wealthy, thoroughly mediocre comedian well past his prime. The Late Show and Garfield – hosted and drawn, respectively, by BSU alums David Letterman and Jim Davis – were innovative enough in their day, but the quasi-funny men have long faded into the same routine yet lucrative blandness embodied in the life’s work of pizza maven and BSU alum John Schnatter, aka "Papa John," who traitorously lends his name to the stadium of another group of Cardinals. In all fairness, Ball State has produced six other current CEOs, including the bosses at United Way, the American Cancer Society and London’s ultra swanky Burberry Group.

Also: you love kegs. Tradition never graduates.

* According to Rivals
What's Changed. Expectations, mainly, a welcome pressure ("eustress," for ninth grade psychologists in the house) around these parts after years of pessimism. Going back to the start of the decade, the preseason consensus on Ball State's prospects in the six-team MAC West: sixth, fourth, fourth, fifth, fifth, sixth, fifth, fourth. Last year was the first time since its last MAC championship in 1996 that BSU won five conference games, finished with a winning record overall and/or ended the year in a bowl game, and virtually the entire starting lineup is back on both sides. So the Cardinals can probably expect to share at least part of the burden of conference frontrunner with Central Michigan when the magazines start rolling out this summer - College Football News has already labeled the Cardinals a dark horse challenger for the top 25, for whatever that's worth.

The only part of the lineup expecting to feature any fresh faces is the defensive line, where there will be three new starters, and that's just as well given the shameful acquiescence of the run defense the last two years. It's one thing to give up 521 yards on the ground to Navy, or 324 to Rose Bowl-bound Illinois, but BSU was its usual generous self to conference backs, too, and gave up more than five yards per carry on both first and second down runs for the third year in a row.

What's the Same. The passing game was the most prolific in the MAC, a fairly prolific passing conference overall, almost entirely the work of three names likely to go on the first day of the draft in 2009 and 2010: quarterback Nate Davis, lusciously-dubbed receiver Dante Love and tight end Darius Hill. Davis completed 270 passes as a sophomore en route to the breaking the elusive 3,000-yard/30-touchdown barrier, the vast majority of them to Love and Hill, who accounted for more than 2,300 yards and 21 of the team's 30 receiving touchdowns. The failures of the defense meant Davis had to sling it a lot, and sling he did, most memorably rifling the Cardinals within a blocked extra point and missed field goal of upsetting Nebraska in a 41-40 loss. Love and Hill combined for 15 catches for 307 yards in Lincoln, and if the Husker defense wasn't its usual self (hell, it wasn't even Iowa State's usual self) last year, it wasn't a step down from the MAC, either.

Hoke: Orgeron of the MAC.
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Speaking of which, Davis did not throw an interception in 241 throws against MAC defenses, against whom the Cardinals averaged 33 points. With Davis, Love, Hill, deep threat Louis Johnson (MAC-best 24.8 per catch, 8 over 25 yards) and the entire backfield and offensive line in tow, the offense should at least match that number and won't see many others that can keep up.

Thar, She Blows. The talent and experience on offense is going to obscure in most forecasts just how bad the defense is, and - returning starters notwithstanding - is almost guaranteed to be again. Last year's unit was 84th or worst nationally and ninth or worse in the MAC in rush defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, sacks and tackles for loss. And though bad games against Nebraska (41 points), Indiana (38) and Rutgers (52) are to be expected, it also gave up 58 points to Central Michigan in the decisive game for the division title. There is nothing in the recent past that suggests a turnaround with experiece:

BSU Defense: National (MAC) Rankings Under Brady Hoke
Ret. Starters Rush D Pass Eff. D Total D Scoring D
2003 7 98 (11) 90 (8) 71 (6) 92 (11)
2004 4 100 (13) 117 (14) 112 (12) 109 (12)
2005 8 105 (11) 110 (12) 111 (12) 112 (12)
2006 8 103 (10) 100 (10) 115 (12) 83 (8)
2007 7 106 (10) 90 (9) 96 (10) 68 (4)

Take last year's improvement in scoring defense with a grain of salt, due to...

Your Most Valuable Possession. The Cardinals were not only +17 in turnover margin, fourth nationally and best in the MAC, but they didn't finish below the Mendoza line in a single game. BSU had the lowest giveaway number in the country (only eleven) and was +2 or better in six different games, including close wins over Western Michigan and Northern Illinois. Part of that was Davis' exceptional aversion to interceptions, which might reasonably continue, but it was aided by a few bounces, too (+4 in fumbles recovered:fumbles lost). Numbers like +17 virtually never repeat unless the defense is composed of USC's explosive raiders from the first half of Pete Carroll's tenure; there is no way this defense, perennially substandard withing its own downtrodden league, can expect to give up so few points again if it continues to hemorrhage yards.

Overly Optimistic Pre-Spring Chatter. Ball State's fortunes were apparently bad enough that, after four long years of meticulous bricklaying, the Brady Hoke administration resurrected itself from lame duck to hot commodity in one fell swoop. The alleged attention from then-desperate Michigan was not enough to land Hoke (career record: 22-36, 0-16 vs. BCS conference teams) a job with the big boys, but it was enough to convince his current employer it had some catch on its hands: Hoke signed an "enhanced contract" in February that secures him through 2010 and bumps his salary to $240,000. Thank you, reporter gullible enough to put "Brady Hoke's name has been advanced for the Michigan job" into an actual story Michigan!

Hoke excited the natives with another promising quarterback signee in February, Texas' Kelly Page, but there's still much concern over the running back position, inconsistent and besot with injuries last year - a sixth-stringer, Chris Clancy, started the bowl game. Projected starter Quale Lewis will be held out of the spring to avoid putting his torn ACL at risk, and he'll find a crowded field when he gets back in the fall; among the signees is Rashaad White of Georgia, who reportedly got serious attention from Clemson, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Ball State on You Tube. You decide: is Dante Love in fast forward against Navy:

Or is that a legit 4.3? Love is listed at 4.48 here.

See Also: It's freshman year at Ball State. ... The Seven Deadly Sins, mostly perpetrated by the same nerdy guy. ... And Snow days and mud wrestling on Parents' Weekend. It's all good.

Best-Case: Champions, My Friend. First, all MAC schedules are tentative - BSU dropped Temple for Akron just two weeks ago. As it stands, this is a tailor-made slate for the dark horse run CFN's talking about: there are no Nebraskas, no Illinois, no Purdues, Iowas or Auburns. The toughest nonconference games are Indiana and Navy, from which BSU is likely to emerge 1-1 at best. Within the conference, though, the Cardinals will probably be favored going into the year in every game except the Nov. 19 trip to Central Michigan, which shapes up again as the de facto West division championship (and the second of two straight mid-week games on ESPN2, a rare BSU sighting on national TV). It's not reasonable to think Ball will suddenly run the table in the MAC, but a 6-1 record - as long as the `1' isn't against CMU - ought to be good enough to punch a ticket to the MAC Championship.

Worst-Case: Obscurity, Muncie Be Thy Name. The MAC has no stable hierarchy, and if it did, Ball State wouldn't be high enough within it to regard anything as automatic. There are no certain losses, but almost no certain wins, either; the "glass half empty" view of the schedule can conceive of nine losses as easily as nine wins. The four crucial September games - Navy, Akron, Indiana and Kent State - are pretty representative of the rest of the schedule and should set the tone for the season. A lousy or mediocre start probably portends a lousy or mediocre year on the order of 5-7, right within the "Hoke Window" (three of his first four teams here were 4-8, 4-7 and 5-7). An unlikely loss to I-AA Northeastern in the opener would be a disaster, in which case all bets are immediately off.

Motor City or Bust. Ball State has won ten games once in its history, in 1978, and with a potential 14 games this year has to have that benchmark in sight. More importantly, that will mean a real shot at the conference title, which likely hinges on the late head to head with Central Michigan. With the tremendous skill talent returning on offense, the championship should be the goal, and (barring major injury to Davis) anything less than another bowl game should be met with gnashing of teeth and maybe rending of contract enhancements. For point-scoring potential and a schedule rife with opportunity, this is one of your mid-major snakes in the grass.