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Ball State, Buffalo finish season ranked for first time in program history

The Cardinals check into the final AP Poll at #23 and the Bulls follow at #25. Two MAC teams finish ranked for the first time since 2003.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Ball State vs San Jose State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A season that nearly didn’t happen for the Mid-American Conference turned out to end in historical fashion for two member programs.

Hours after the 2020 college football season concluded, the final 2020 AP Poll was released. Ball State (7-1) checked in at No. 23, securing its first ever season-ending ranking. Buffalo (6-1) followed two spots behind at No. 25 in the AP Poll, also earning the program’s first final ranking. The Cardinals and Bulls become the first MAC teams to enter the final rankings since 2016 Western Michigan. Also, this marks the first occurrence of multiple MAC teams in the final AP Poll since 2003, when Miami (OH) and Bowling Green both qualified.

Ball State had not been ranked since 2008, which was the only time the Cardinals ever invaded the AP Poll. Meanwhile, Buffalo never earned a ranking before 2020. The Bulls enjoyed two weeks in the poll before losing the MAC Championship, but a 17-10 Camellia Bowl victory over Marshall on Christmas Day catapulted Buffalo into ending 2020 with a coveted number beside its name.

Buffalo drew national attention throughout the 2020 season due to the weekly rushing numbers of All-American halfback Jaret Patterson. The program finished its year in the limelight in spectacular fashion, winning consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history. Draft declarations and transfer portal decisions will make this an offseason of heavy turnover at Buffalo, but the 2020 Bulls ride into the sunset on a high note as a Top 25 team.

Ball State ended the year on a 7-game win streak. The team knocked off an undefeated No. 23 Buffalo team in the MAC Championship Game, 38-28. Then, the Cardinals followed up and usurped their second ranked opponent of the season on New Year’s Eve, toppling Mountain West champion No. 19 San Jose State, 34-13 in the Arizona Bowl. After finding themselves in a slew of close games to open the season, Ball State convincingly defeated two quality opponents to punch a ticket into the poll.

Finishing the season with a MAC title and bowl game hardware has been an elusive accomplishment as of late. Ball State became the first MAC champion to win their bowl game since 2011 Northern Illinois. Losing their bowl game after a 12-0 start 2008 ultimately pushed them out of the rankings, but 12 years later, the Cardinals redeemed themselves by finishing the year strong. Currently, Ball State holds the nation’s fourth-longest active winning streak at seven, trailing only Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M in the category.

A MAC football season which was initially canceled in August commenced in November. The season which almost never existed transformed into a year of feats and firsts for an upstart Ball State program, driven by fifth-year head coach Mike Neu. The Cardinals expect to return 20 of 22 starters from this historic team for the 2021 season — a campaign in which they hope to turn these “firsts” into the Ball State standard.