A few days after Ball State finished the regular season with a 12-0 record, folks around the Mid-American Conference began referring to the Cardinals as one of the best teams in league history.
Elite programs don't cower in corners when faced with a challenge, which is exactly what Ball State did Wednesday when it declined an invitation to play Boise State in the Humanitarian Bowl.
The game would've been one of most intriguing matchups of the postseason. Both 12-0, the Broncos and Cardinals are the only two undefeated teams in college football that won't be playing in a BCS Bowl.
Yes, the Humanitarian Bowl is played on the Broncos' home field in Boise, but that shouldn't matter. The stadium would've been packed, television ratings would've been huge. Win or lose, the Cardinals would've received a level of exposure their program has never known.
Unfortunately, though, the game will never happen.
The Cardinals were too scared.
In some ways it wasn't difficult to understand Ball State's position. Coach Brady Hoke had plenty of legitimate reasons for wanting to steer clear of the Humanitarian Bowl.
With the economy in such turmoil, Hoke realizes that many Ball State fans would not make the 1,900-mile trek from Indiana to see the Cardinals play Boise State, which is just two years removed from its upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
Even more daunting was that the Broncos are 35-3 in three seasons under Chris Petersen. Over the last 10 years they tout the best winning percentage in all of college football.
Simply playing Boise State is tough enough. Doing so on its home turf would've been an even taller task.
Still, the challenge – the opportunity – is one that most up-and-coming programs would welcome. Pat Hill's "any-time-any-place" approach helped Fresno State earn a reputation as one of top non-BCS programs in college football. Even in their down years, the Bulldogs are admired for being fearless. People respect them.
Right now, not too many people respect Ball State.
Yes, the Cardinals are 12-0, and it's true Ball State has one of the top three or four quarterbacks in college football in Nate Davis. But take a look at its schedule.
The Cardinals' 12 opponents are a collective 54-88. Only three of them finished with a winning record. Ask any Ball State diehard, and they'll tell you the team's marquee victory came against in-state rival Indiana, which went 3-9.
The bottom line is that people still want to see if Ball State is for real. All season long, fans and notable alums have complained that media-types and voters haven't given the Cardinals their due, but it's tough to shower too much praise upon a program that displays such cowardice the one time they have a chance to face a quality opponent.
In trying to save face by avoiding a potential butt-kicking in Boise, Ball State actually made itself look worse. Humanitarian Bowl executive director Kevin McDonald called the situation "unfortunate for college football."
Unfortunate? Try embarrassing. Not just for Ball State, but for the Mid-American Conference, too.
MAC Commissioner Rick Chryst should've done everything in his power to convince Ball State to accept the H-Bowl's invitation. His failure to do so makes his league look small-time in comparison to non-BCS conferences such as Conference USA, the Western Athletic Conference and the Mountain West.
Also inexcusable was the comment Ball State athletic director Tom Collins made to the university's student newspaper.
"I think it would be great for television," Collins said, "but I'm not sure it's fair to our student-athletes to ask them to go out and play on Boise State's home field."
Can't help but wonder if the Cardinals appreciate their athletic director making them sound like wimps.
What Collins might not realize is that things could get even uglier for Ball State in the Motor City Bowl in Detroit, its likely destination this postseason. Although nothing has been made official, the feeling is that the Cardinals will face either North Carolina State or Notre Dame.
Let's start with the North Carolina State. The Wolfpack is 6-6, but that record is deceiving, as Tom O'Brien's squad won its last four games of the season after making a quarterback change. N.C. State will enter the Motor City Bowl high on confidence and swagger.
Think about it. If Ball State lost to Boise State on the Broncos' home field, at least the Cardinals would've had an excuse. They still would've received credit for accepting the Humanitarian Bowl bid under such adverse circumstances, and their program would've continued to rise.
But a loss – especially a bad one – to a .500 North Carolina State team would validate all of the criticism and doubt that has hovered over Ball State all season.
Even if Ball State continues to win in the future, it will be tough to gain much respect outside of its own conference.
Then there's Notre Dame. What good could come from playing the Fighting Irish? By doing so, Ball State runs the risk of losing to one of the most underachieving teams in Notre Dame history. Charlie Weis' squad is so bad that its own fans threw snowballs at players following a Nov. 22 loss to lowly-Syracuse. A week later the Fighting Irish mustered just 91 yards against USC.
Ball State would be lampooned if they lost this game – and rightfully so.
Even if the Cardinals won, they wouldn't receive much praise. The headlines the following morning would all be centered on the Fighting Irish's dismal season. No one would care that Ball State won against a bad team. The situation would be a lose-lose for the Cardinals, a group of outstanding football players who deserve better.
Brady Hoke is a good football coach. He's done wonders for a program that receives little help from Ball State's administration. Hell, Hoke doesn't even have his own office and, until a few years ago, earned less than the women's basketball coach.
Still, all good coaches make mistakes, and Hoke and Ball State's administration made a mammoth one Wednesday when they passed on invite to face Boise State in the Humanitarian Bowl.
This was Ball State's chance to become a player, albeit a small one, in big-time college football. This was how the Cardinals could've forced people to begin mentioning them in the same breath with other non-BCS schools such as Fresno State, Boise State and Utah.
Instead, the best season in Ball State's history will always be marked with an asterisk. As fondly as they'll remember the games the Cardinals played, fans will also lament the one they didn't.