In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
I'm going to sue myself for intentional infliction of emotional distress after subjecting myself tape, stats and notes from Ball State's 2017 season.
The Cardinals will be better in 2018 — if they're not annihilated by injuries again. Quarterback Riley Neal is back, along with a two-headed monster at running back and many key pieces on both sides of the ball.
They have a remarkable amount of talent for a team coming off a two-win season and had no staff changes.
Ball State went winless in the MAC for the first time since 1999. They failed to score 10 points four times and aside from a 51-point explosion vs. UAB, their offense was horrifying. They lost seven games by at least 21 points and five games by at least 40 points, including a 55-3 demolition vs. Western Michigan.
The Cardinals did very few things mediocre, let alone well, largely thanks to a barrage of injuries. They couldn't pass the ball, couldn't stop the pass and couldn't force turnovers.
“Just because I’m coming back here as the head coach, it’s (still) a results-oriented business. So even though it’s exciting right now, I know how fast that can all change . . . You’ve got to win.”
That was Mike Neu during his introductory press conference in January 2016. His homecoming hasn't included many positive results.
An Indianapolis native who played for the Cardinals in the early 1990's, Neu returned to Muncie two years ago after two decades bouncing around arena leagues, college football and the NFL. He's won just six games in two years but isn't approaching the hot seat — yet.
WR Jordan Hogue, OL Vinnie Palazeti, OL Kadin Booker, DE Anthony Winbush, DT John Swisher, DT Kevin Willis, LB Damon Singleton
Anthony Winbush's dominating season (11.5 sacks ranked third in the FBS) was lost in the mess, as was Vinnie Palazetti's jack-of-all-trades performance. Palazeti, an all-conference selection, battled through injuries to start 10 games at three different positions.
Jordan Hogue appeared prime for a breakout senior season after showing some flash in 2016. He remained healthy the entire season. Kidding, of course he didn't; no one did. Hogue played in one game and is now gone.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Riley Neal, RB James Gilbert, RB Caleb Huntley, RB Malik Dunner, WR Corey Lacanaria, WR Justin Hall, OT Danny Pinter
Riley Neal is back for his senior season after missing all but three games last year. The three-year starter appeared on the verge of turning the corner in coordinator Joey Lynch's offensive system that relies on short, quick passes to methodically move the chains. He completed 68 percent of his attempts before missing the final nine games with a leg injury.
“He’s doing such a good job of making quick decisions,” Neu said of Neal after the spring game. “Once you have something taken away from you, you appreciate it that much more, and that’s one thing you can definitely see from Riley.”
Justin Hall emerged from an injury-plagued receiver group to have a strong season but Corey Lacanaria will likely be Neal's top target in 2018.
Running back James Gilbert was a stud in 2016 but missed most of 2017, allowing Caleb Huntley to have a strong freshman season. The wild card is Malik Dunner, an all-conference return man who averaged eight years per carry over the season's final month.
Danny Pinter, who also missed significant time last year, moved from tight end to offensive line, a unit that started nine players and couldn't block a toddler last year. Seven of those nine players return.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Fred Schroeder, DT Chris Crumb, LB Christian Albright, LB Jacob White, LB Brandon Martin, CB Josh Miller, CB Marc Walton, S Romero Wade, S Bryce Cosby, S Brett Anderson II
Under first-year coordinator and former Western Kentucky head coach David Elson, the defense forced 12 total turnovers, allowed five yards per carry (188 yards per game) and couldn't stop anyone over the final two months.
“There’s been some really good stuff, " Elson said last November. "I get that it doesn’t feel that way, and when you look at the scores, you could say, that guy must be crazy. When you watch every play and you see the sequence of a game and you see there are really some things that you can say, you’re showing you can do it.”
Elson was technically right; the Cardinals did some things right and they return more experienced players at all three levels, including middle linebacker Jacob White. He broke his hand in the Tennessee Tech game and played the rest of the season with a cast. Still, the now-junior led the team in tackles (72) and ranked third in sacks (three) and tackles for loss (five).
Safeties Bryce Cosby (above) and Brett Anderson II were thrown into the fire from day one and mostly struggled but occasionally flashed athleticism and good instincts. Upperclassmen Romero Wade and Marc Walton also return with more experience.
Up front, Chris Crumb is ready for his breakout season. The 6-foot, 285-pounder had seven tackles and one sack in the spring game.
QB Hank Hughes
This is Riley Neal's team but Texas A&M transfer Hank Hughes could apply pressure during fall camp.
“He knows the quarterback room is competitive,” Neu said of Hughes in April. “He’s a competitive guy, and I think he’ll embrace the competition throughout the rest of the spring.”
Ball State has their first-ever meeting with Notre Dame in Week 2, the first of two straight Power Five road games. They head two hours southwest to Bloomington a week later for their seventh meeting with Indiana in the last 12 years.
The Cardinals play four of their final six games on the road and have four MACtion games.
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