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Ball State is the MAC’s most MAC team. Is that good or bad for 2017?

Let’s find out!

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

dIn 1929, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, an enduring work that was designed to study your average small American city over a long period. They chose Muncie, Indiana.

This made sense for any number of economic or demographic reasons. It also shows writers’ inclinations toward looking at the Midwest as “real” America isn’t a recent construct.

It’s also kind of funny to think about because if you were looking to study the most run-of-the-mill MAC football program, you would look toward the one housed in Muncie.

Ball State fits every MAC personality trait you can think of.

Losing successful coaches to Big Ten jobs? Check. Dave McClain went 26-7 from 1975-77 (BSU’s first three years in the MAC) and won a conference title, then got plucked by Wisconsin. And in roundabout ways, Bill Lynch (to Indiana via DePauw) and Brady Hoke (to Michigan via San Diego State) used Muncie as a Big Ten prep course.

Semi-drastic ups and downs? Yep. You can rise or fall quickly in this conference, and in the last decade, Ball State has gone from 12-2 in 2008 to 2-10 in 2009 and from 10-3 in 2013 to 3-9 in 2015. In the 1990s, the Cardinals both went to two Last Vegas Bowls and finished 1-10 or worse twice.

An offense much further along than the defense? Oh yes. Over the last 10 years, Ball State has ranked 65th or better in Off. S&P+ six times, peaking at 19th in 2012. In that same time frame, the Cardinals have not ranked better than 83rd in Def. S&P+. They haven’t cracked even the top 100 since 2013.

In 42 years at the FBS level, Ball State has won zero, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, and 12 games in a season at least once each. A long-term study of the Cardinals is a long-term study of MAC existence.

But despite what we might call a normal MAC life, it’s not like the school has a set type of coach. Far from it.

  • McClain (1971-77) was a Woody Hayes disciple.
  • Dwight Wallace (1978-84) was a career offense guy and had spent four years as a Colorado assistant.
  • Paul Schudel (1985-94) was a Bo Schembechler disciple.
  • Lynch (1995-2002) was a small-school head coach at Butler.
  • Hoke (2003-08) was a Ball State alum and longtime Michigan assistant.
  • Stan Parrish (2009-10) was a coaching lifer with head coaching gigs at Wabash, Marshall, and Kansas State.
  • Pete Lembo (2011-15) had spent his previous 10 years as head coach at Lehigh and Elon.

BSU has alternated between Typical MAC Profile (i.e. guy with Ohio State or Michigan ties) and wildcards. And in replacing Lembo with Neu, the school leaned heavily into the latter.

As Ball State quarterback, Neu was the MAC’s offensive player of the year in 1993. He played in the CFL (Calgary Stampeders) and Arena League (Orlando Predators, Nashville Kats). By 1999, he was Nashville’s offensive coordinator, and by 2004 he was head coach of the AFL’s New Orleans VooDoo. When the team was shuttered, he joined the Saints as an assistant and spent a couple of years as Tulane’s QBs coach.

Professional playing experience? Professional head coaching experience? Recent college coaching experience? Neu crafted a unique résumé off of the normal grid. And in 2016, he showed significant promise.


2016 in review

2016 Ball State statistical profile.

Lembo’s last couple of BSU teams lost their way. The Cardinals won 19 games in 2012-13 with an extreme efficiency offense, and when the offense lost some difference-makers and stumbled, the defense had no chance of picking up slack. They won just eight games in 2014-15, and Lembo left for a Maryland assistant position.

Under Neu, the defense wasn’t suddenly great, but it was better; the Cardinals improved from 116th to 101st in Def. S&P+. The offense, meanwhile, began to show signs of peak Lembo-era efficiency.

Granted, this wasn’t enough to spark a surge in the win column. A combination of tight losses and a late-year defensive collapse made sure of that.

  • First 7 games (4-3) — Avg. score: BSU 28, Opp 24 | Avg. percentile performance: 46% (~top 70) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.8, BSU 5.5
  • Last 5 games (0-5) — Avg. score: Opp 39, BSU 25 | Avg. percentile performance: 31% (~top 90) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.1, BSU 5.8

The run defense began allowing about a yard more per carry, and the pass defense collapsed; over the last five games, the Cardinals allowed a 155.4 passer rating. There doesn’t seem to have been a single injury that was a catalyst for collapse, but the Cardinals’ inability to get off the field on passing downs might have had a cumulative effect. And while the offense remained sound, it couldn’t raise its game enough to keep up.

Still, the improvement was obvious, even if it trailed off. It was something to build on, though the Cardinals have to replace just enough to make you wonder how much more can be expected in year two.


Offense

Ball State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

In 2012, the Cardinals ranked 19th in Off. S&P+ thanks to monstrous efficiency. Keith Wenning completed 65 percent of his passes and averaged just 10.3 yards per completion. Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks averaged 5.8 yards per carry but with few huge, explosive runs. BSU just picked you apart, five to seven yards at a time.

It was hard to stand out offensively in the MAC in 2016. Eight of 12 offenses averaged between 1.24 and 1.35 IsoPPP (isolated points per successful play), and eight had a success rate between 36 and 43 percent. The range was tight.

Ball State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

BSU had the third-best success rate in the conference and by far the worst explosiveness. The Cardinals had a reasonably healthy 102 passes of 10-plus yards (82nd in FBS), but only 11 gained 30-plus (119th). Of the five players who caught more than 15 passes in 2016, none averaged more than 11.4 yards per catch, and three averaged under 10.

Four are back, though. So is quarterback Riley Neal. The junior has already started for most of two years, and after an inefficient start, he completed 63 percent over the last nine games of the season. Interceptions were an issue; after throwing only six in 2015, he doubled that. Still, the 6’6, 220-pound Neal can run (on about 10 non-sack carries per game, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry), and the efficiency potential is obvious.

Plus, he has his best possession man back in Corey Lacanaria. The 5’8 senior caught 79 percent of the passes thrown his way last year, albeit at only 10.3 yards per catch.

Still, the Cardinals have turnover in the receiving corps. KeVonn Mabon graduated after catching 304 balls in his career, and sophomore-to-be Damon Hazelton Jr. elected to transfer. That leaves Lacanaria, senior Jordan Hogue, and junior Devin Reece as the only returning wideouts to catch a pass.

Reinforcements could be on the way, but they’re young. Sophomore tight ends Danny Pinter and Kyle Schrank could feature, as could a pair of redshirt freshman tight ends, Nolan Givan (a former 247Sports Composite three-star) and Dylan Koch. Lord knows tight ends can be palatable weapons in an efficiency offense.

Meanwhile, the search for upside at wideout could lead Neu to tear off some redshirts. Three-star true freshmen Khalil Newton, Justin Gibbs, and/or Justin Hall could be tempting.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Indiana
James Gilbert
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Any big-play potential Ball State had last year was featured in the run game. James Gilbert’s average of 5.23 highlight yards per opportunity was above average, and in minimal opportunities (just 24 carries), Malik Dunner averaged 6.1 yards per carry as a freshman.

Still, the run game was also more efficient than it was explosive. And BSU returns Gilbert, Dunner, and utility man Darian Green, who both ran efficiently and caught 24 passes. And if Neu and coordinator Joey Lynch — a carryover from the Lembo era — decide they need bigger backs to go with this trio of smaller guys, then either of two three-star freshmen (226-pound Caleb Huntley or 207-pound Kevin Dominique) might carve out a niche.

Ball State’s offense will be this year what it was last year. Turnover could hinder upside, but the run game could improve, especially with what are basically 3.5 returning starters on the line.

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

Defense

Ball State defensive radar

Within a decade of his graduation from Butler University, David Elson was a head coach. He spent two years as Jack Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator in 2001-02 at Western Kentucky, then succeeded the legendary head coach.

Elson had a couple of top-15 finishes at the FCS level and oversaw the Hilltoppers’ move to FBS ... and then bombed. In 2008, WKU went 2-0 against FCS opponents and 0-10 against FBS. In 2009, the Toppers went 0-12, and Elson had a career to rebuild.

The rebuilding process has taken him a lot of places. After year as a quality control guy at Indiana (for Bill Lynch, strangely enough), he served as a high school coordinator in Kentucky, then took over as DC at New Mexico State just in time for head coach DeWayne Walker to leave. He was DC at Southern Illinois in 2015 and Western Illinois in 2016 before finding another FBS coordinator role.

Elson’s WIU defense was pretty aggressive, recording 87 tackles for loss and 69 passes defensed and logging a havoc rate of 17.2 percent, which would have ranked about 35th at the FBS level. His first Ball State defense nearly matched that; the Cardinals were 41st in havoc, 81 spots higher than Lembo’s bend-don’t-break unit managed in 2015.

The variety was impressive. Six Cardinals recorded at least 6.5 tackles for loss, seven sacked the quarterback at least twice, and six defensed at least three passes. It was quite the identity shift for this personnel, and it worked for a while.

Two problems:

  1. BSU did everything but close the deal. The Cardinals ranked 13th in standard downs line yards per carry and 21st in rushing success rate, then went hard after the quarterback once the opponent was leveraged into passing downs (25th in passing downs sack rate). And yet, they still ranked 117th in Passing Downs S&P+. If the QB wasn’t getting sacked, he was finding receivers downfield. Once per game, opponents completed a pass of 15-plus yards on third-and-10 or more. Despite best intentions, Ball State let opponents off the hook, and it backfired from a fatigue standpoint.
  2. Linemen Joshua Posley, Kevin Thurman, and John Whitman III combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. They’re all gone. Linebackers Sean Wiggins, Aaron Taylor, Zack Ryan, and Stu Stanley combined for 27 tackles for loss, five sacks, and five passes defensed. They’re gone, too. So are safeties Corey Hall and Martez Hester (4.5 TFLs, eight passes defensed).

Ball State’s defense was a weird mix of super-aggressive against the run and bend-don’t-break against the pass. That combo didn’t always work, but it will be far more difficult to pull it off without the eight starters and one chief backup I listed.

There’s still some play-making talent here, especially in the secondary. BSU cornerbacks gave up a few too many big plays, but the three leading CBs were two sophomores and a junior, and the trio (Marc Walton, Josh Miller, David Moore) also combined for four interceptions and 27 breakups. If you’re going to give up plays, you might as well make some, too.

Meanwhile, in Anthony Winbush, the Cardinals still have one bona fide pass rusher, and in tackles Kevin Willis and John Swisher, they do return a couple of seniors who have been around the block.

Linebacker is a mystery, though. Juniors Jeremiah Jackson and Damon Singleton combined for 26 tackles and 2.5 sacks as backups last year, but the two-deep has otherwise gotten a complete makeover. Higher-upside youngsters like sophomore AJ Jaffal (a former three-star recruit), redshirt freshman Brandon Martin, and maybe one of three three-star true freshmen (Shahid Reece, Brock Burns, Jimmy Daw) will need to prove some of that upside quickly.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Indiana
Anthony Winbush
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Western Michigan v Ball State
Marc Walton
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Special Teams

If you had to bring one, and only one, guy back from last year’s Ball State special teams unit, you’d choose place-kicker Morgan Hagee, who was virtually automatic on kicks under 40 yards last year and made half of his longer kicks. And hey, good news: Hagee’s basically the only one back. (Part-time kickoffs guy Ryan Rimmler is, too.)

The rest of an otherwise mediocre unit isn’t, and while that might not be awful news, it’s not automatically good.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Illinois 85 -3.6 42%
9-Sep UAB 130 23.6 91%
16-Sep Tennessee Tech NR 17.1 84%
23-Sep at Western Kentucky 51 -13.7 21%
30-Sep at Western Michigan 74 -7.5 33%
7-Oct at Akron 122 6.0 64%
21-Oct Central Michigan 97 4.2 60%
26-Oct Toledo 59 -7.9 32%
2-Nov at Eastern Michigan 96 -0.9 48%
9-Nov at Northern Illinois 86 -3.2 43%
16-Nov Buffalo 128 15.6 82%
21-Nov Miami (Ohio) 88 2.1 55%
Projected S&P+ Rk 90
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 66 / 109
Projected wins 6.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -5.2 (84)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 96 / 106
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -10 / -3.5
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (65%, 62%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.6 (-1.6)

Ball State went 1-4 in one-possession finishes in 2016. Some combination of poor turnovers luck (nearly three points per game), a lack of big plays on offense, and a slow degrading of the defense turned the tide late. A 3-2 record in those contests would have meant a bowl bid.

This being the parity-centric MAC, the Cardinals can expect close finishes this fall. They are projected 90th in S&P+, just about the same as last year’s No. 84 ranking, and five Cardinal games have a win probability of between 40 and 60 percent.

Getting UAB, Tennessee Tech, and Buffalo at home should give BSU some baked-in wins and make bowl eligibility likely. Still, the Cardinals’ fortunes could turn on whether last year’s deficient areas change. It’s hard to say they will. The Cardinals should have a strong run game, and the passing game should be about as efficient as it was last year, but unless a freshman emerges, big plays might still be a rarity. The defense will boast some exciting corners, an excellent pass rusher ... and who knows what else.

Neu’s first year was encouraging. Per 247, his first full recruiting class ranked fourth in the MAC, a solid improvement over the Lembo years. Ball State might be destined to be the most MAC MAC team of all, but that probably means some postseason action in the Cardinals’ future. And whatever the Cardinals are in 2017, they should be even further along in 2018.


Team preview stats

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