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2017 Hustle Belt Preseason Football Preview: Ball State Cardinals

A potential sleeper in the West

NCAA Football: Ball State at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season started off well for the Ball State Cardinals, as they managed to win 3 out of their 4 non-conference games. Their sole loss was by 10 to a resurgent Indiana team. Then the wheels fell off a bit. They only managed to win one game in the MAC, however they were in most every game.

There are a lot of questions going into 2017. The defense starts an entirely new batch of linebackers, safeties, and is headed by a new coordinator. The offense has to replace their starting receivers. If the new starters step up, it could be a successful season for second year coach Mike Neu.


Offense

The offense returns a lot of the pieces that were successful last season. James Gilbert was First Team All-MAC and the line returns 3 starters. Quarterback Riley Neal also returns and added 540 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground. The rushing attack was third in the MAC, averaging 220 yards per game.

The question marks start at the receiving position, where 5’8 Corey Lacanaria is the top returning receiver from 2016. He grabbed 33 passes for 341 yards and 2 touchdowns. The good news is that Mike Neu is an offense minded guy. His job before becoming the head coach of the Cardinals was coaching Drew Brees and the quarterbacks at New Orleans. Before that, he held the same position for Tulane, and spent considerable time in the Arena Football League.

The offense was one of only three MAC schools to average over 200 yards both rushing and passing in 2016. I think the offense is going to be fine for 2017.


Defense

The questions really pile up on the defensive side of the ball for the Cardinals, starting at the top. David Elson is the new coordinator after coming over from Western Illinois where he held the same position. Prior to that, he has a lengthy resume’, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. He was also the head coach of Western Kentucky for 7 seasons.

The line will be a strength where they return Anthony Winbush, a Third Team All-MAC end in 2016. 300 lb Kevin Willis returns at tackle. Corners David Moore and Marc Walton will also be a strength.

Questions abound in the middle, however. All three linebackers and both safeties will be new starters.


Prediction for 2017

The non-conference schedule favors the Cardinals. They open up with Illinois. Being a beatable Big Ten team, I suspect they will receive the full attention of the team. Then they get UAB, fielding their first team in a few seasons, and FCS Tennessee Tech. They close it up with WKU, who will be a fairly formidable opponent, though I don’t believe they will be as good as they were last season. It’s the type of non-conference schedule you dream of if you are trying to work in new pieces.

2-2 is probably the worst case scenario, 3-1 likely, but they could certainly enter MAC play 4-0. Then they take on Western Michigan and Akron, both on the road. After that is a bye and some much needed rest. 4-2 is a very good possibility at this point and they then host Central Michigan. It really could give them momentum as they head into the meat of their season. The Cardinals get both Toledo and Miami at home, probably the toughest two teams on their schedule after the bye.

I am not quite willing to call Ball State contenders in the formidable West, but I do see them winning at least 6 games and getting bowl eligible.