MUNCIE, Ind. – For a peek at the epicenter of quintessential 2021 college football optimism, drive north on Interstate 69 from Indianapolis past the Nestle Chocolate factory. Pull over near the 22,500-seat stadium and the sparkling new $15 million indoor practice facility at Ball State University, and feel the buzz inherent to championship football.
Ball State won its first MAC title in nearly a quarter century last season. And on paper, with 18 starters returning and 16 so-called Super Seniors, there’s arguably no program in the country more prepared to repeat as league champions. The school whose most famous alumnus is David Letterman is no longer a punch line, as it achieved the school’s first end-of-season ranking (No. 23) and first bowl victory over No. 19 San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl.
Ball State is a portrait of the glut of veteran riches that will abound in college football in 2021. The Cardinals won the school’s first MAC title since 1996, completing a gradual ascent to the top of the league under coach Mike Neu that saw patient and gradual growth that’s rare in the sport — four losing seasons that culminated last year with a program flip to 7-1.
“Our goal is to go to a New Year’s Six bowl,” star quarterback Drew Plitt told Yahoo Sports. “In order to do that, we have to win the MAC and go to a bowl game. You have to have one of the best seasons you’ve ever had.”
Ball State’s generational run in 2020 came amid the backdrop of empty stadiums and family postgame celebrations that took place primarily on FaceTime. Even Neu’s wife, Charmin, didn’t go to the MAC title game.
And that disconnect is part of the reason why so many Super Seniors returned. Ball State’s 93 scholarship players are eight over the normal NCAA threshold, which athletic director Beth Goetz says will be a “six-figure expense” for the school to carry in 2021. It should be worth it, as Ball State essentially replaces one player on the defensive two-deep and brings back Plitt for his sixth season. The players get one more shot at the NFL and can celebrate home wins at The Chug and Brothers along the way.
“Everyone was like, ‘If you’re staying, I’m going to stay,” said Plitt, who has already received his MBA. “Everyone wanted to be around each other, it’s a testament to the bond we have.”
That bond can be tied, in part, to a lesson in administrative patience. Goetz saw the data points of improvement after Neu went 2-8, 4-10 and 5-7 from 2017 to 2019. Her research transcended statistical tells. “It was unquestionable that he had the locker room,” Goetz said. “We were positioned to have a chance to make the jump.”
In a climate in college athletics where athletic directors often see firing coaches as a path to career advancement, Goetz showed rare patience.
“It is a results-oriented business and everybody wants the quick fix,” Neu said. “And it's unpopular to choose this avenue of, ‘Let's give them some time here to grow the program.’ I'm very proud and appreciative of the fact that they stayed patient and let us see that process through.”
When Ball State has predawn offseason workouts, Neu greets every player at the door of the facility to fist bump them as they walk in. He’s from the area, starred at quarterback at Ball State and brings a neighborly Midwest manner that resonates with the players.
“That’s another huge reason everyone came back,” Plitt said. “They wanted to play for Coach Neu.”
There certainly won’t be anyone around the MAC conceding the title to Ball State. The MAC’s talent differential is minuscule between penthouse and basement, and favorites reliably get caught from behind.
Six different programs have won the MAC over the past six seasons – Bowling Green (2015), Western Michigan (2016), Toledo (2017), Northern Illinois (2018), Miami (2019) and Ball State (2020) – making the MAC an ode to annual unpredictability.
Famous coaching alums like Urban Meyer (Bowling Green) and Matt Campbell (Toledo) never won league titles as head coaches, and no team has repeated since Northern Illinois in 2011 and 2012. “There are no guarantees,” Neu said. “Just because you got there a year ago doesn't mean it's going to happen again. You get what you work for.”
The Cardinals went 1-15 in MAC play during Neu’s first two years, which is part of the reason defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton has a saying on the white board in his office borrowed from former Virginia coach Al Groh: “Don’t want to feel like [crap] on Saturdays? Then recruit your tail off.”
In 2017, Ball State endured a stretch of three straight conference games without a touchdown — a 142-15 gauntlet against Western Michigan, Akron and Central Michigan. Over time, it transformed from nail to hammer within the league, winning six straight MAC games, including upsetting No. 23 Buffalo in the league championship. Ball State averaged 34.3 points per game last year, with Plitt throwing 17 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
Neu, who calls the plays, brings a unique perspective from playing in Canada and the Arena League, and nearly a decade coaching in the Arena League. Ball State’s offense is a gumbo of the New Orleans Saints offense Neu learned as Drew Brees’ quarterbacks coach in New Orleans mixed with his life experience. It’s “a West Coast offense on steroids,” including an RPO game similar to the one Joe Burrow and Joe Brady made outlandishly famous at LSU in 2019.
Plitt’s championship season got him invited to the Manning Passing Academy this summer. Star receivers Justin Hall (an FBS-leading 257 career catches) and Yo’Heinz Tyler (16.1 yards per catch) also return for second-year offensive coordinator Kevin Lynch. They’ll roll behind five returning starting offensive linemen, including NFL prospect Curtis Blackwell at right guard.
Defensively, 31-year-old Tyler Stockton debuted as a play-caller last season, and Neu and Goetz rave about his long-term future. The goal of his BCD — Blue Collar Defenses — is to be varied and active enough pre-snap that Ball State is never “a sitting duck” for perfect-play seeking opposing coordinators. “We'll check to a bunch of different formations and change a lot of things,” Stockton said. “It's a lot on our guys, so I'm glad we get the guys who played a lot back. We started to get a feel for it as the year went on.”
Ball State returns three first-team All-MAC players on defense, including MAC Co-Defensive POY Brandon Martin at linebacker, rush specialist Anthony Ekpe (7 TFLs) and ballhawk safety Bryce Cosby. All four Ball State linebackers made some version of All-MAC. There’s so much experience returning on defense that Stockton runs two walkthroughs, one for the veterans and another for the inexperienced players because they’re on such different learning levels.
All the defensive development last season culminated when the Cardinals held undefeated San Jose State 17 points below its scoring average in a 34-13 win. “The championship swagger that he coached with every single day, that was so infectious among our players,” Neu said of Stockton. “They would run through a wall for him.”
Ball State carries a seven-game win streak into the season, and after opening against Western Illinois it will travel to Penn State for a marquee Week 2 matchup. The school’s patience in allowing Neu to methodically rebuild has yielded one of the sport’s oldest and most promising teams for the season. “There may be some lessons here,” Goetz said.
Ball State’s throwback story of patience has yielded a karmic kickback that could end up helping one championship run fuel another.
More from Yahoo Sports: