Ball State fell apart last year en route to zero MAC wins and a 2-10 record. Injuries were a big part of it, but getting blown out in Conference Games was the norm almost the entire season in Mike Neu’s second year in charge. Healthy again with offensive playmakers back, the Cardinals have an over/under of Four wins with the second-worst odds to win the Conference of +10000 at 5Dimes Sportsbook.
Junior quarterback Riley Neal only played in three Games last year and that includedboth of the team’s wins (UAB, Tenn. Tech). The Cards reached or surpassed 21 points in those three Games, but went on to average 17.9 points for the year. Also returning is stud running back James Gilbert, who only played three Games after rushing for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016. Gilbert and last year’s starter Caleb Huntley (1,003 yards) could be the best running back duo in the conference. At the least, injuries led to more experience along the line as everyone returning saw the field last season. The receivers could produce even better numbers with Neal under center as top wide outs Justin Hall (78 receptions, 801 yards) and Riley Miller (300 yards) both return. This group may not be elite, but it will be a lot better than last year.
The defense is another story as it was always going to struggle, giving up more than 40 points per Game. If the Cardinals want a shot at a bowl Game or have a chance at more than Four wins, this group has to improve. They switched to a new 3-4 alignment in the spring so at least something is new, although improvement on points allowed was going to happen either way. The line is small and inexperienced, but linebackers Jacob White and Brandon Martin return as starters. Cornerback returns two seniors in Josh Miller and Marc Walton, while two sophomores are set at safety. The only way for this defense to go is up, but a major improvement to mediocrity is unlikely.
If the offense looks like it did at the beginning of last year, this team should be headed to at least three wins out of the gate. That includes home Games against CCSU, Kent State and Eastern Michigan. Difficult road trips in non-Conference will be hard to overcome, but the home Game against WKU could be that Fourth win. Grabbing more than one MAC win will require defensive improvement in a Conference where most teams have the pieces to Scoreas much as Ball State. It doesn’t help that the Cardinals close the season with three road Games in Four contests with all of them against teams expected to finish near the top of the standings. Neal and the running backs should give the offense some consistency, but vastly improving this defense won’t be as easy. Reaching five wins could be difficult unless they can take down WKU early and then steal another one in MAC play.
2018 Ball State Cardinals Football Schedule
Aug. 30 vs. Central Connecticut State
Sept. 8 at Notre Dame
Sept. 15 at Indiana
Sept. 22 vs. Western Kentucky
Sept. 29 vs. Kent State
Oct. 6 vs. Northern Illinois
Oct. 13 at Central Michigan
Oct. 20 vs. Eastern Michigan
Oct. 25 at Ohio
Oct. 31 at Toledo
Nov. 13 vs. Western Michigan
Nov. 20 at Miami (OH)