Cards to face another Big Ten opponent in Ohio State

It’s been anything but a cakewalk for Ball State this season. A group of just seven seniors leaves a gaping hole of inexperience. And this season’s schedule has plagued the Cardinals, who enter today’s non-conference contest versus No. 20 Ohio State with a 1-7 mark.

Just how difficult has this roller coaster of a season been for second-year coach Beth Maddox and her gang?

For starters, they’ve squared off against against four Big Ten opponents, including 9th-ranked Boston (7-2), 13th-ranked Indiana (7-2) and 14th-ranked Michigan (7-3). Making matters worse, the Cardinals will also face 12th-ranked Iowa (8-2) later this month.

Despite the brutal schedule and youth, the Cardinals haven’t given up on the season. A 3-0 triumph over Mid-American Conference rival Ohio gave the Cardinals their first win of the season. Eight of the Cardinals final 10 regular season games are against MAC opponents, which favors them.

For now, the Cardinals will have their hands full with the Buckeyes, who bring a high-powered offense. Four Ohio State players have tallied 20 or more shots through the first 10 games. As a whole, the Buckeyes have fired off 141 shots, netted 17 goals and 83 of those have been on goal.  The team’s .121 shot percentage is rather low, but the Buckeyes are averaging over 14 shots per game.

It will most certainly be a challenge for Maddox and her squad, but the veteran coach is optimistic.

“If we connect and support each other, then we will have a fighting chance,” Maddox said.

New season with plenty of questions

After the longest work stoppage in league history, the NFL is finally back in business. Football is upon us, at last. With that said, so many questions remain unanswered, many of which will remain unsolved until the regular season rolls around on Sept. 11.

All 32 teams are in the same position. Each team begins this 16-week marathon with a clean slate, and for the most part a healthy roster. The dust from training camp has settled, with the season just days away.

Who has the edge in 2011? Can the Packers, who will begin their quest of defending their title, repeat as Super Bowl champions? Do the Patriots, with newly acquired wideout Chad Ochocinco, be able to regain superiority in the AFC? Are the Colts, who finished with just 10 wins, still the team to beat in the AFC South? Can second-year-man Mike Shanahan figure out his quarterback situation?

Will the Eagles, with newly signed quarterback Michael Vick, along with a revamped roster full of big-name free-agent acquisitions, be able to make it to the ultimate game, come Feb. 5, in Indianapolis?  Can the Jets finally make the leap and emerge as champions of the AFC? Can Jay Cutler, amidst his postseason criticism in the NFC Championship game last season, rebound in 2011?

Can rookies Cam Newton (Carolina), Andy Dalton (Cincinnati) and Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville) have remarkable first seasons, or will they stumble? How will first-year head coaches Jason Garrett (Dallas), Leslie Frazier (Minnesota), Ron Rivera (Carolina), Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco), Pat Shurmer (Cleveland), Mike Munchak (Tennessee), John Fox (first season with Denver) and Hue Jackson (Oakland) pan out?

-All of these questions need answering. For now, let’s dive into the new season and take a look at what the NFL has in store for 2011.

*My projected finishes:

NFC East

1) Philadelphia Eagles: Andy Reid shook up his coaching staff by changing defensive coordinators. Nonetheless, the offense lead by 2010 Comeback Player of the Year Michael Vick, remains explosive.

2) Dallas Cowboys: There’s no doubt that Jason Garrett will get the most out of his team. Tony Romo is finally healthy and ready to lead the Cowboys.

3) N.Y. Giants: If Eli Manning can return to his Super Bowl XLII form and cut down his interceptions, then the Giants will challenge for the division crown.

4) Washington Redskins: Mike Shanahan will be entering his second full season at the helm of this bunch. His decisions, especially the benching of his former starting quarterback Donovan McNabb and his numerous run-ins with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth have drawn heavy scrutiny. The quarterback situation remains a mystery, but Rex Grossman has been named the starter, for now.

NFC North

1) Green Bay Packers: They are the defending Super Bowl champions. Defending their title won’t come easy, as the Bears will be right behind them.

2) Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler needs to bounce back after a questionable exit in last season’s NFC Championship game. He should thrive in year two of offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s system.

3) Minnesota Vikings: With Brett Favre finally retired, the Vikings, with McNabb now taking the snaps, are a viable threat. McNabb will complement the run game cemented by Adrian Peterson.

4) Detroit Lions: This team is riding on the health of heavily invested quarterback Matthew Stafford. They are on the rise, but will Stafford be able to remain healthy for 16 weeks?

NFC South

1) Atlanta Falcons: Although they made an early postseason exit in 2010, look for the Falcons, led by veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, to be playing in January. Rookie receiver Julio Jones will give Ryan another downfield threat to play with.

2) New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees will have the Saints contending for the division, but he’s got to limit his interceptions. The departure of running back Reggie Bush could hurt, despite drafting Mark Ingram, from Alabama.

3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This is a much-improved bunch, and will only make this division more competitive. Look for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and quarterback Josh Freeman to put up some numbers.

4) Carolina Panthers: Steve Smith will be rookie Cam Newton’s primary target in 2011, but Newton will have a number of hills to climb. Looks to be more like a rebuilding year for the Panthers.

NFC West

1) St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford is by far the best quarterback in the division, and will be entering his sophomore year. A record around .500 could claim the division yet again, especially with their brutal schedule.

2) Arizona Cardinals: By trading for veteran Kevin Kolb, the Cardinals finally landed a quarterback to hook up with Larry Fitzgerald.

3) San Francisco 49ers: First-year head coach Jim Harbaugh sees something in quarterback Alex Smith that others don’t. Could Smith mature and become a consistent leader?

4) Seattle Seahawks: Pete Carroll landed Tavaris Jackson, but that may not be the answer Seattle is hoping for at quarterback. The acquisition of receiver Sidney Rice is a plus, but who can consistently throw the ball to him?

Wild Cards: New Orleans, Chicago

NFC Championship Game: Philadelphia vs. Green Bay

AFC East

1) New England Patriots: As long as the Pats still have Tom Brady under contract, they’re the division favorites. Preventing the Jets from getting home-field advantage will be their only obstacle.

2) N.Y. Jets: Rex Ryan insists that his 2011 squad will make it to Indianapolis, but they will need more than his words to take down the Patriots.

3) Miami Dolphins: If Tony Sporano has another dismal 1-7 home record, he’ll be given the pink slip.

4) Buffalo Bills: The biggest concern is their defense. They ranked third to last in team scoring and allowed the most net yards in the AFC in 2010.

AFC North

1) Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger will be active (baring injury and another run-in with the law) for the whole season. Their defense is as tough as they come.

2) Baltimore Ravens: If Joe Flacco can emerge as a game changer, then the Ravens will be in the hunt for the division title.

3) Cleveland Browns: Colt McCoy will be better in his second season as the Browns starting quarterback, but the team needs a great deal of help around him.

4) Cincinnati Bengals: Carson Palmer has officially retired; meaning second-round draft pick Andy Dalton will be the starter. Starting from scratch on offense wont bode well for the Bengals.

AFC South

1) Indianapolis Colts: The Colts will rebound from a 10-6 season in 2010, and are still the class of the division. If Peyton Manning can stay healthy, look for the Colts in the postseason.

2) Houston Texans: Former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is now the defensive coordinator. Yikes. The offense will score in bunches, but the defense will drown the Texans in 2011.

3) Tennessee Titans: With Matt Hasselback taking over at quarterback, the Titans will improve, but not enough. Chris Johnson will lead the way once again.

4) Jacksonville Jaguars: David Garrard was cut and rookie Blaine Gabbert will ride the bench for now. The load will be handed to running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

AFC West

1) San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers needs a successful postseason to enter the elite category of quarterbacks.

2) Kansas City: The Chiefs are on the rise, and will only build off last season’s 10-6 division championship.

3) Denver Broncos: John Fox needs a drastic remodeling for his defense and possibly his offense, as Josh McDaniels bolted to St. Louis.

4) Oakland Raiders: There’s a slight chance the Raiders are moving in the right direction.

Wild Cards: Baltimore, N.Y. Jets

AFC Championship Game: New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens

***Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis: Rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. Michael Vick leads the birds to glory.