Hustle Belt: Obviously, one of the biggest questions for Ball State fans has been who will replace Keith Wenning under center. Who do you think emerges from fall camp as the starter, and how critical is quarterback play to the success of the Cardinals this season?
Ben Breiner: At this point, I'd be shocked if anyone but Ozzie Mann takes the spot. I'm confident enough I'd wage a fair sum on it (Vegas totally sets those odds, right?). He's worked with the first team for most of the summer, but Kyle Kamman has started taking more second-team reps, with Jack Milas getting third-team work. I think QB play will actually be a little less crucial than the past two seasons, as the passing game can survive mainly just getting the ball out to the good receiving threats. But if the QB is making a lot of mistakes, that would take BSU down a bad road real quick.
HB: Coach Pete Lembo had plenty of suitors this offseason. What does his return mean to the future of the Ball State football program?
BB: It means one more season of getting the foundation he wants in place and building continuity. Ball State has usually been a team that tends to fall off dramatically after great seasons, so I think just another year of solid, above-.500 football creates more of a lasting infrastructure. But after that, the big schools want good coaches and MAC teams lack the resources to hold them off. Ball State was lucky to keep him the season, but I can't imagine he'll be outside the power five for much longer.
HB: The Ball State defense that finished 7th in the conference in yards allowed last season will be without new Indianapolis Colt Jonathan Newsome in 2014. How successful do you see the Cardinal D being in the high-flying MAC?
BB: The defense has looked better in practice than in past seasons, I'll give it credit there. It loses a handful of good players, and the staff hopes depth and maturing youth can counteract that. If the pass rush can stay where it's at or improve (right in the middle nationally), I think they can hold on to their gains in pass defense last season. It all comes down to stopping the run, and that feels more iffy. The MAC inflates most metrics, so I'd say this unit shouldn't fall to pieces. I'd guess they finish maybe a spot or two better next year.
HB: Who's the potential breakout star this season that Cardinal fans may be unfamiliar with?
BB: I'm going to jump on the words "familiar with" because WR KeVonn Mabon is going to put up numbers, but Ball State fans already know him well. I'll go with defensive tackle Darnell Smith. He's the sort of interior guy that just has a knack for exploding into the backfield and devouring backs and passers, at least in practice. He's got that Nate Ollie-style disrupter skill. I see him as the guy that when you're watching the game, will blow through the line and make fans say, "Wait, who is this guy?"
HB: How many wins are we looking at in 2014, Ben?
BB: I'll be the first to admit I'm a terrifically conservative predictor, and I'm going with seven. Four of the games (NIU, BGSU, Toledo, Iowa) strike me as tough tasks. But there are six that appear to be the sort of opponents a Pete Lembo-coached team just shouldn't lose to. I consider CMU and Akron tossup games and have Ball State splitting them. Eight wins wouldn't surprise me, and nine doesn't seem unreasonable, but with the natural wonkiness of college football, I have 7-5.