Like any other team from the Mid-American Conference, Ball State will begin the 2020 season with heightened expectations. Yes, Ball State is eager to begin playing in 2020, albeit in an abbreviated fashion, but the Cardinals have other reasons to turn the page from last season and hope to get things started off on the right foot Wednesday night on the road against Miami (Ohio), the defending MAC champions.
Coming off a 5-7 season in 2019, Ball State has had to wrestle with the fact that the Cardinals were the MAC's No. 1 offense but lost three conference games four or fewer points. Losses at Western Michigan (35-31), at home against Central Michigan (45-44), and at Kent State (41-38) came by a total of eight points. Eight points made the difference between sitting at home with a 5-7 record, and an 8-4 record that could have meant a bowl berth to a possibly warmer climate in late December.
With 17 returning seniors, the Cardinals believe that they are primed for their own MAC championship season in 2020. Ball State head coach Mike Neu stated, "The seniors have worked really hard since they stepped foot on campus... We worked hard every year to try and get closer, and we have improved tremendously as a team, and they stayed together during adversity earlier in their careers. We feel like, as a program and as a team, we have put ourselves in a position where we feel strongly there is no reason why it can't be us in Detroit."
One of the teams Ball State was able to defeat in 2019 was Miami. The RedHawks went 8-5 in the regular season, including a win over Central Michigan in the MAC Championship Game. Miami went on to lose to Louisiana from the Sun Belt in the LendingTree Bowl, but the RedHawks are eager to defend their conference crown.
Miami head coach Chuck Martin is being very diplomatic, considering the late start to the college football season. "It's hard to wrap your brain around knowing we're playing a game. I know everyone involved is very excited. It's been an interesting year. It doesn't feel like a normal opener at all."
Redshirt junior safety Sterling Weatherford is anxious for the 2020 season to begin. "Obviously, we look forward to those Power 5 games we have at the beginning of the year, but ultimately, our mindset is stuck on winning a MAC championship," Weatherford said. "We wanna win a conference championship. We wanna try and two-peat this year."
Ball State at Miami (Ohio)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Miami (Ohio) -4.5
When Ball State Has the Ball
Among the reasons for Ball State's optimism is the return of starters such as redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt, senior running back Caleb Huntley, senior wide receiver Justin Hall, and junior wide receiver Yo'Heinz Tyler. Plitt led the MAC in passing touchdowns in 2019, Huntley finished third in the conference in rushing yards, and Hall and Tyler combined for 13 touchdowns. Neu is optimistic about his offense's potential heading into 2020.
"We feel like we are well-balanced," Neu said. “We can run it when we want to run it. We can throw it when we want to throw it — and not just to one guy. We have multiple weapons offensively, and, obviously, with Drew, his confidence and responsibilities at the line of scrimmage have grown tremendously."
For Miami to slow down the Ball State attack, look for the RedHawks to rely upon Kameron Butler to lead the charge on defense. Butler had 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2019, along with 5.5 sacks. His ability to put pressure on Plitt will be a necessary ingredient for Miami to disrupt the confident Cardinals' offensive attack.
When Miami (Ohio) Has the Ball
Miami is confident that returning sophomore quarterback Brett Gabbert is the key to the RedHawks' offensive success in 2020. Gabbert had a strong freshman showing, starting nine games and helping Miami won the MAC championship. Gabbert will need support from his running game, which won't be at full strength as senior Jaylon Bester and sophomore Tyre Shelton, who combined for 1,328 rushing yards last season, won't play against Ball State. Shelton is out for the season due to injury and Bester will miss several games at minimum, according to head coach Chuck Martin. That leaves junior Davion Johnson, who ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns in 2019 but averaged less than three yards per carry, in line for a bigger workload.
Gabbert has talented receivers to aid in the passing game, led by Jack Sorenson and Jalen Walker. Tight end Andrew Homer, who had receptions and two touchdowns (tied for second on the team) a year ago, will miss the entire season due to injury.
Ball State returns seven starters on defense, so the continuity may help the unit take another step forward this season. The Cardinals did a really good job of creating turnovers in 2019, leading the MAC with 24, 15 of those being interceptions. A pair of All-MAC cornerbacks return in senior Antonio Phillips (first) and junior Amechi Uzodinma II (second), so keep an eye on how the RedHawks' passing attack fares against Ball State's talented and experienced secondary.
This should be one of the more entertaining matchups as the MAC opens its season with a bang on Wednesday night. Ball State is on a quest to claim the MAC, and that road will go straight through the red-brick streets of Oxford, Ohio. Miami is the defending conference champion but is already down several key pieces on offense. But even though fans won't be in attendance at Yager Stadium, the RedHawks' home-field advantage and championship experience will be just enough to help them get by the Cardinals.