Loud cheers and constant praise for the Ball State football team have filled the airwaves across campus over the last two weeks. Ball State defeated big, bad Indiana on Sept. 15 on a game-winning field goal and then triumphed with a last-minute drive over a feisty South Florida program last weekend.
But, can we please hold off on the bowl predictions and a conference championship, at least for the time being?
Look, Ball State has a long and grueling road ahead. It will no longer square off against BCS teams. Rather, it resumes Mid-American Conference play starting with Saturday afternoon’s contest at Kent State, which will be anything but a walk in the park. Kent State is 2-1 on the young season, trouncing Towson–a quality FCS team that made the playoffs in 2011–in its season opener. Kent hung with Kentucky out of the SEC and thumped MAC East member Buffalo 23-7 on Sept. 19.
Looking ahead, the rest of Ball State’s schedule is challenging to say the least. Ball State’s remaining six MAC opponents have a combined record of 18-8 and a combined conference record of 3-0. Ball State’s defense, which ranks third-to-last in the conference in total yards allowed and next to last in passing yards allowed, still has to face Ohio quarterbacks Tyler Tettleton and Derrius Vick, Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens. Tettleton is completing well over 66 percent of his passes through three games while Vick has completed over 65 percent of his passes. The two have combined to throw 12 touchdowns and three interceptions on the season. Lynch has a QB rating of 149.6 and averages over 211 passing yards per game and 109.5 rushing yards per contest, while Owens is one of three QBs in the MAC to surpass the 1,000-yard plateau this season.
Yes, a couple of wins over two legitimate BCS programs is a significant accomplishment for coach Pete Lembo and his team. Lembo has certainly changed the culture around here, and you can feel the vibe inside Scheumann Stadium each Saturday. I’m not disagreeing with that. But outside of increasing Ball State’s chances to make it to a bowl game come this winter and boost its confidence as it resumes conference play, those wins don’t mean much.
Ultimately, Ball State’s season will be evaluated on how well it does in its conference, just like every other team in the country. And as I previously mentioned, wins, especially on the road, will be tough to come by. Success will be even more difficult if Lembo fails to shore up his subpar secondary that we’ve seen over the past four weeks.
Don’t get me wrong, Ball State is a much-improved program because of those two victories over BCS opponents. But so are a handful of other programs in the conference. Ohio went into Penn State and won 24-14 in the first week of the season. Last weekend, Northern Illinois upset Kansas 30-23, Central Michigan triumphed over Iowa 32-31 and Western Michigan defeated Connecticut 30-24.
In a season where the rest of the MAC continues to prosper, it will be vital for Ball State to snag some wins over those other programs.
The beginning of Ball State’s real test begins Saturday afternoon at Dix Stadium in Kent, Ohio, and the rest of its schedule should make for an exciting and interesting journey.