A year ago Ball State would have been a major headache as a non-conference opponent. Now, the Cardinals provide a relative break in Auburn’s schedule.
The Tigers (3-0), fresh off their biggest victory of the season against West Virginia, are trying to keep things even-keeled as they prepare for a struggling Ball State, aiming to get through September unblemished.
“It’s only three games into the season,” Auburn running back Ben Tate said. “You can be confident, but you really can’t be overconfident. You still have to be humble, because there’s a lot of ball still left to play.”
Auburn has been very diplomatic when speaking about Ball State — no doubt a reflection of its straight-laced coach — despite being as much as 33-point favorites heading into Saturday’s game.
“I think our football team is smart enough to understand that we’re not good enough to (overlook) anybody,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. “And they are also smart enough to understand that we’ve got to fix Auburn, and that’s a lot of fixing left.”
The Cardinals (0-3) have plenty of fixing to do themselves. Ball State has gone from the highest of highs to a major rebuilding project in less than a year’s time.
Led by quarterback Nate Davis, the Cardinals reeled off 12 straight wins to start last year (their first perfect regular season since 1949), making The Associated Press poll for the first time in school history and rising as high as No. 12.
They won the Mid-American Conference Western Division crown and advanced to the conference championship game, a dream season if there ever was one.
Things unraveled from there, though. Ball State lost 42-24 to an underdog-Buffalo squad led by Turner Gill in the MAC championship.
Ten days later, coach Brady Hoke, who engineered the team’s turnaround from MAC doormat to division champion, left for the head job at San Diego State. As an unfitting denouement, the Cardinals got hammered by a Gus Malzahn-led Tulsa offense 45-13 in the GMAC Bowl, not long before Davis opted to leave for the NFL.
This season has only continued that downward trend. Stan Parrish, the team’s offensive coordinator who was a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant last year, succeeded Hoke to keep continuity in the program. But the roster has undergone a major overhaul.
In addition to Davis, Ball State lost four starters from its offensive line in 2008 plus seven defensive starters. Of the seniors on the team, only three start.
“We can’t get down in the dumps with where we’re at,” Parrish said.
“We’re re-learning how to win. I have an all-new football team. We’re in that process, but I thought we played very hard and I like our attitude and am very optimistic.”
Parrish has been in situations like this before. Despite great success as a coordinator, winning a national championship at Michigan in 1997 and a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, the 63-year-old’s only other head coaching job at the Division I level was a disaster.
He went 2-30-1 in three years at Kansas State from 1986-88, before Bill Snyder revived the dormant program.
Parrish has used that experience to help this year’s group, which, despite playing close games against North Texas, New Hampshire and Army, remains winless.
“I told them I don’t need a pity party,” Parrish said. “I’ve been in this too long. The football gods make you pay, and I’ve had a lot of wonderful days and they’re making me grind out this last job. In the end, I think everything will be fine, but the process is very difficult.”
Chizik, meanwhile, has tried to keep his players’ minds focused on this week’s game, not on next week’s SEC road opener at Tennessee.
“Obviously, we have big games coming up, but the biggest game is your next game,” Auburn linebacker Adam Herring said. “That’s what the coaches preach to us, and we’re not going to overlook anybody.”