Ball State football has an interesting 2019 season in front of them. Head Coach Mike Neu is on some thin ice after a three season start that has been less than ideal at his Alma mater.
I generally don’t like to speculate about coaches losing jobs. It can be fun to think about and what directions schools go in the future, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that a bunch of football players are losing the staff they committed to. The coaches on staff just had a major wrench thrown in their personal lives.
Even so, it’s the nature of being a football coach. How did they get to this point, and more importantly, how do they get out of it?
Three Seasons: 10-26
After three seasons of being the head coach for the Cardinals, he still has work to do. Ball State is 10-26 under Coach Neu. Pete Lembo didn’t leave the program in the best shape. He resigned after the 2015 season to be the special teams coordinator at Maryland. Lembo had a 10 win season in 2013, then dropped to 5 wins, then 3 wins.
Mike Neu took the job at his Alma mater and went 4-8 in his first year. The next season was a disaster. Injuries absolutely destroyed the two deep depth chart. The 2017 season started 2-2 with a 3 point loss it Illinois, and a 20 point win against a newly revived UAB. That’s not bad.
Before the fifth game, they were on the third string quarterback. At the same time the defense fell apart. The point differentials the rest of the season, all in conference losses, were 52, 28, 47, 41, 42, 46, 16, and 21. The most points they scored in that stretch was 24 points.
While there was a pretty compelling reason for the results, it’s very hard to watch. Neu used up a lot of his leash in 2017. To follow that up, the Cardinals produced a 4-8 record. There was an improvement from 0 to 3 conference wins but they can’t go 4-8 in 2019 and keep Neu.
Two starters from last season’s offense transferred to P5 competition. Quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert both left Muncie. A recent article by Pro aFootball Focus has Drew Plitt as a higher performer than Vanderbilt’s Riley Neal, according to their own analysis. Due to the injuries and being in a rebuild, there is a lot of returning production. The entire offensive line returns and their top receiver. Nine of the starters return on the defensive side of the ball.
How to Survive 2019
I don’t know how what the line is that keeps Mike Neu in Muncie. Bare minimum feels like a bowl game. It also feels like 6-6 in 2019 kicks the can down the road for another season. A 6-6 season or worse in 2020 may not show enough progress for the patience shown by the administration.
The out of conference schedule looks like two losses for sure. A neutral site game against Indiana and a game at NC State don’t look like wins right now. An FCS opponent should be a win, avoiding an outright disaster, and a home game against Florida Atlantic looks like a must win. Definitely not a given.
The next five conference games are not easy. They open at Northern Illinois and at Eastern Michigan. Then the Cardinals get the East and West favorites at home.
If things go the way the betting lines will most likely be established, Ohio could be the seventh loss and the end of the line. After Ohio at home, they travel to Kalamazoo to play an experienced Western Michigan team. They finish with Central Michigan, Kent State, and Miami is the soft part of the schedule. Miami isn’t an easy out either.
Both sides of the ball need to improve. Scoring offense was 100th in the nation and 64th in yards per game. Neither is a number to write home about but the gap suggests they moved the ball better than they pushed it across the goal line.
The defense needs to improve in all areas. There’s really not much else to it. They best part of the defense by yards per game was their pass defense, but their opponents ran the ball 47 times on average against them in 2018. The volume of pass attempts was not their to drive that number higher. With six of the front seven returning, it seems reasonable that the run defense is better this year. Maybe it evens out a little.
For them to win 4 or 5 conference games, their going to need to catch some teams. On their schedule they need to reproduce their wins against Kent State and Central Michigan. Their win against Western Michigan a season ago is probably not a game they win more than half the time.
Who can they catch? Eastern Michigan might be a target. The Eagles lose a ton in their defense and three of their offensive lineman. It’s hard to compare depth but their recruiting has been very similar since Mike Neu took the job.
Miami might be vulnerable too. The Redhawks break in a new quarterback after long time starter Gus Ragland graduated. Health may have a ton to say about that game since it’s the final of the regular season.
Seven Win Goal
Ball State has to be targeting seven wins to really feel like they’re moving in the right direction. To pull that off, the Cardinals need 5 conference wins. The teams that seam to have clear advantages, not including the teams already discussed, would be Northern Illinois, Toledo, Ohio, and Western Michigan. You have to assume wins against FAU, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Kent State, and Miami. That already feels uneasy.
Even with Toledo and Ohio being at home, I have a really hard time seeing Cardinal wins there. That leaves road games at NIU and WMU. They did pull off a win against the Broncos when they stopped a 2 point conversion attempt. Can they find that MACtion magic again?
The Huskies are under new management. They struggled all season on offense until they tried throwing the ball down field in the MAC Championship game. Sutton Smith was drafted and left NIU after the season, but that defense is still strong. Maybe they’re going to be in rough shape after three road games at Utah, Nebraska, and Vanderbilt.
I want to be optimistic here but I think it’s a stretch. A 5-3 Ball State Cardinal team would throw the West into chaos on the way to the MAC Championship game. I’m a fan of weird football, so lets hope for that.