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Ball State carries a unique burden in college football

Christopher Anderson/Icon Sportswire

Most people know that Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament.

Everyone knows the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions have never made the Super Bowl.

Everyone knows the Chicago Cubs haven’t won the World Series in over 100 years, and that the Cubbies haven’t even made a Series appearance since the year World War II ended (1945).

Canadians know that an NHL team based in their country has not won the Stanley Cup in over 20 years.

NBA fans know the Los Angeles Clippers have never even made the Western Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals.

Did you know, however, that the Ball State Cardinals are 0-7 in bowl games? (Go to the bowls subsection in this link and click on the “G” tab to read the ugly details.)

Ball State has made more bowl games than 62 other bowl teams (both active and inactive) plus five active FBS programs which have not yet made a bowl game.

As a point of reference, Ball State has made as many bowl games as a Power Five school, Vanderbilt. Wake Forest and Indiana, two other Power Five schools, have made 10 bowl games, just three more than the Cardinals.

Yet, the men of Muncie, Indiana, have never managed to win a bowl game since joining Division I in 1975.

It’s one of the least-discussed “o-fers” in sports, this “empty bowl syndrome” belonging to the Mid-American Conference school which went 12-0 at the start of the 2008 season, only to lose the MAC Championship Game and then fall in its bowl battle.

Someway, somehow, Ball State has never won a bowl.

Only two other active programs have made more than one bowl appearance without winning at least once: Buffalo and Kent State are both 0-2. Wichita State, no longer an active FBS (Division I-A) program, went 0-3.

Ball State’s 0-7 mark is an historical oddity. It’s also a heavy burden for a program which made four bowls in a seven-season span from 2007 through 2013 under Brady Hoke and Pete Lembo (with no help from Stan Parrish). Not once in those four instances could BSU capture lightning in a bowl. As our European friends would say, Ball State has “bottled it” in bowl games.

Following a 3-9 season in 2015 and the departure of Lembo to Maryland as an assistant, it’s natural to wonder if this program can acquire fresh momentum.

One thing’s for sure: This is a new era — or more precisely, a “Neu” era — in Muncie.

September 12, 2015: Ball St. Cardinals quarterback Riley Neal (15) releases a second half pass during the Ball State Cardinals vs Texas A&M Aggies game at Kyle Field, College Station, Texas. -- Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

September 12, 2015: Ball St. Cardinals quarterback Riley Neal (15) releases a second half pass during the Ball State Cardinals vs Texas A&M Aggies game at Kyle Field, College Station, Texas. — Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

Ball State enters 2016 with a first-year collegiate head coach. Mike Neu spent the past several years in New Orleans — coaching the Arena Football League team, scouting for the NFL Saints, coaching quarterbacks for Tulane, and then coaching Drew Brees last year in a return engagement with the Saints.

An alumnus of Ball State, Neu’s natural affection for his school will make him an enthusiastic recruiter and ambassador, but his offense-first background doesn’t directly address the Cardinals’ foremost on-field need. This team suffered primarily on defense last season, though it needs to be acknowledged that even modest improvement can bring Ball State bouncing back to a bowl in 2016, with a chance to erase an unwelcome piece of history.

Say this for Ball State in 2015: If you’re going to be bad, be bad. Some teams go 3-9 despite producing respectable statistics. That scenario is particularly hard for a fan base to absorb; if the numbers say a team should have been 6-6 or even 5-7, going 3-9 feels like a missed opportunity. On the other hand, when a team goes 3-9 and the numbers say the team should have gone 3-9, it’s a little easier (not a lot) to sleep peacefully at night.

Last year, Ball State was defenseless: 35.8 points allowed per game; over 220 rushing yards allowed; over 290 passing yards; and 51.4 percent of third downs converted by opposing offenses. It didn’t matter that Ball State committed only 44 penalties during the season, an average of fewer than four per game and far fewer than the next-least-penalized team in the MAC (80 penalties). Penalties sometimes mean that a team has players who are physical enough to break a rule. Ball State got pushed around.

This is not to suggest that the Cardinals are about to turn the corner; Neu must prove himself as a tactician and leader before one can say that Ball State is on the mend. However, the extent to which Ball State hemorrhaged on defense last year should counterintuitively provide hope to the Cardinals and their fans.

It’s hard to give up 51.4 percent of third-down conversions on defense. It’s hard to concede more than five touchdowns per game, every game. What if Ball State’s 2016 defense gives up “just” 30 points; 440 yards; and 45 percent of third downs?

Those numbers wouldn’t be good on an absolute scale, but they might be good enough to get a 7-5 record and a return to a bowl game.

Then the eighth time could be a charm for the FBS program with the biggest bagel you’d never heard of … until today.

Here’s hoping that the Cardinals turn a zero into a one. In sports, breadsticks are almost always better than bagels — it’s especially true at Ball State University, where a program is trying to do something Neu.

Ball State carries a unique burden in college football

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