Football experts will tell you that the true mark of a head coach is the results he begins to accrue when the roster is entirely his. He can’t claim the last guy left the cupboard bare any longer or hide beyond a stacked roster. It’s his destiny to rise or sink with the players he’s recruited and a roster that he cultivated. For Ball State Cardinals head coach (and program alum) Mike Neu, that time is squarely now, as he enters his fifth year at the helm of the SS Cardinal in Muncie.
That isn’t the paragraph I had planned to write for 2020, given that my 2019 preview called for Neu to be replaced. I thought three or four wins was the ceiling and we’d have to start over with someone else. Again. Instead, the Cards won five and Neu was granted an extension. It’s really a good example of how there’s more to evaluating results than simple wins and losses. Sure, at the end of the day that’s what matters and in Parcells parlance, you are what your record says you are. But Mike Neu’s 15-33 record (8-24 MAC) doesn’t really tell the whole story. The Cardinals were eight points away from 8-3 instead of 5-7 and the team finally looked like it had a purpose that it clearly understood. The offense? Humming. The defense? Porous. The conference? The MAC, so that’s sort of expected. And here we sit to 2020.
It would be inauthentic to not at least throw in a cursory notice this preview can be virtually worthless after one mask-less house party. There is no need to belabor the point that at the drop of a hat games can and will likely be postponed or canceled, players will test positive and be quarantined or isolated, or coaches and staff may need to step away from their duties for the same reasons. It’s the world we find ourselves in currently, in sports and beyond, but it’s at least worth mentioning.
On to the conquering heroes from Muncie...
Having a football team in the MAC without a high powered offense is like bringing a butter knife to a bazooka fight. In a Maryland and crab cakes kind of way, offensive football is what the MAC does. Ball State has been no stranger to that trope through both distant and recent history, and even their current head coach continued that trend when he was calling the offense as the starting BSU QB in the early 90s. This year’s signal-caller, Drew Plitt, looks to continue from his 2019 campaign and have Cardinals fans clearing some space next to names like Nate Davis and Keith Wenning (or Talmadge Hill if you want to go way back). 2019 saw Plitt throw for just shy of 3000 yards and 24 TDs, helping lead the Cardinals to the top scoring offense and top total offensive crowns.
As Plitt goes so will go the offense, but that’s not to say he has no supporting cast or a bevy of also-ran B-level counterparts. The receiving corps returns critical pieces in Justin Tyler and Yo’Heinz Tyler while the ground game is led by Caleb Huntley (1275 yards and 12 TDs in 2019) who averages just north of five yards per carry. It’s a dazzlingly balanced offensive attack, led by a head coach who just happens to have a significant and sizable background in offense. If only that was the only side of the ball that mattered...
As good as the offense was, the defense was... not. Surrendering 420 yards and 34 points per game is bad by even MAC standards, and frankly, created several situations where the Cardinals offense was forced to score every time down the field or lose a close game (the aforementioned eight points costing three wins). It created a standard storyline where there was virtually no margin for error, instead and nearly all the time, letting games coming down to who had the ball last. It wasn’t all bad, as the defense did lead the MAC in takeaways so there’s that. That’s enough, right? TELL ME THAT’S ENOUGH.
The defense returns most of the unit with a few key departures, but the replacements look to be adequate (or in some cases better... at least on paper). Simply put, and I cannot overstate this, the defense for the Cardinals is going to be the reason they either have a winning season or not. The offense gets them and realistically keeps them close in any game on the schedule. The defense is what will put them over the top into the win column with better pressure and general disruption.
The Cardinals lose K Ryan Rimmler, last year’s starter and have a kicking battle heading into fall camp. With the small margin for error, it’s vital that the Cards have a kicker that is reliable and consistent. Nathan Snyder returns for the Cards in the punting role, which given the offensive prowess may be the least valuable position on the roster.
Welcome to the new and adjusted 2020 schedule:
Wed., Nov. 4 (7 p.m.) at Miami (Oxford, Ohio) – CBS Sports Network (CBSSN)
Wed., Nov. 11 (7 p.m.) vs. Eastern Michigan (Scheumann Stadium) – CBSSN
Wed., Nov. 18 (7 p.m.) vs. Northern Illinois (Scheumann Stadium) – ESPN2, ESPNU or CBSSN
Sat., Nov. 28 (TBA) at Toledo (Toledo, Ohio) – CBSSN or ESPN platform
Sat., Dec. 5 (TBA) at Central Michigan (Mt. Pleasant, Mich.) – CBSSN or ESPN platform
Sat., Dec. 12 (TBA) vs. Western Michigan (Scheumann Stadium) – CBSSN or ESPN platform
Fri., Dec. 18 (TBA) – MAC Championship (Detroit, Mich.) – ESPN or ESPN2
It’s fitting that in 2020, with everything else going on, the Cardinals may actually have the pieces in place to compete for a MAC title. Leave it to Ball State to win a championship in the COVID era, where there’s a ready-made asterisk ready to be applied to the crown. It’s so Ball State that it would be fitting, poetic, and more than a little expected. That’s the way of things in Muncie, you see. There’s always a play that doesn’t quite get made, a win that just doesn’t quite come to pass, or some oddity that makes success unachievable. Let’s go ahead and close out 2020 with a bang and a title, shall we?