Ball State played a conference foe in its opener and downed Eastern Michigan, 37-26, to kickoff its season on a positive note. It could not keep up with an ACC opponent the next week though and lost, 52-27, at Clemson. BSU did rebound to beat BCS conference teams the next two weeks as it topped Indiana (41-39) and South Florida (31-27).
The Cardinals then returned to MAC action to face the eventual West and East Division champions. They lost to both Kent State (45-43) and Northern Illinois (35-23). However, Lembo's squad bounced back from its loss to the Huskies with six consecutive wins to close out the regular season. Ball State's list of victims during its runs included Army (30-22), Toledo (34-27) and Ohio (52-27).
Lembo's team tied for second in the West Division behind the BCS-bowl bound NIU Huskies. The Cardinals played UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl, but suffered a lopsided, 38-17 loss.
Lembo spent 10 seasons as a head coach at the FCS level before testing his skills in the MAC. He went 44-14 at Lehigh from 2001-05 and 35-22 at Elon from 2006-10. In his first year, he was the recipient of the 2001 Eddie Robinson Award, which goes to the top coach at the FCS level.
OFFENSE: Ball State had a potent and balanced offensive attack last season as it finished fourth in the MAC in both rushing (203.3 yards per game) and passing (254 ypg) to place second in total offense (577.9 ypg). The Cardinals have all of their starters at the skill positions back, including their workhorse of a rusher Jahwan Edwards, who tallied 1,410 yards and 14 touchdowns on 232 carries. Junior tailback Horactio Banks is also back after amassing 586 yards and four TDs on 113 rushes.
Senior quarterback Keith Wenning is one of the most productive players in the conference. He ranked fourth in the MAC last season in total offense with 266.7 yards per game. Wenning threw 24 TDs against 10 interceptions last season and avoided throwing a pick in the final three games.
There are plenty of pass catchers on the roster this season. "You can expect this group to come every day and compete," said wide receivers coach Keith Gaithers. "Jamill Smith is I think the best football player pound-for-pound on this team. Willie Snead is just a complete football player."
Snead (5-11, 193) is a key aspect in the aerial attack. He had a breakout sophomore campaign with 89 receptions for 1,148 yards and nine TDs. Snead led the MAC in receiving yards and is the leader among returners in receptions per game (6.9) as well. Wenning has another weapon in Smith, who was a steady contributor last year. Freshman tight end Calvin Blanks (6-4, 234) provides Ball State with an effective new red zone target.
The Cardinals' offense may still be a little less productive though because of the dramatic reconstruction needed up front. Only senior guard Jordan Hansel returns from last season's corps of starting linemen.
DEFENSE: Lembo's team took steps in the right direction defensively after being one of the worst in the FBS in his first season at the helm. The Cardinals were still ranked in the lower half of the MAC in both total defense (462.4 ypg) and scoring defense (32 ppg). All of Ball State's opponents managed to score at least 22 points and the defensive unit rarely came up with big plays.
The defensive line has plenty of experience coming back. Senior end Jonathan Newsome (6-3, 236) was an impact player in 2011 with 8.5 total sacks, which was the second most in the MAC. He also finished third in the conference in tackles for loss (12), while fellow senior end Nick Miles (6-2, 265) made 54 total stops with two sacks and 4.5 TFL.
Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman has his work cut out for him as he tries to replace all three of his starting linebackers. Ball State is hoping Ben Ingle (6-0, 224) can assume more of a leadership role after lettering as a redshirt freshman.
The secondary that allowed 255.3 yards through the air per contest brings back three of its four starters. The Cardinals should have no problem in nickel packages with three proven corners to rotate in Quintin Cooper, Eric Patterson and Jeffery Garrett. Junior free safety J.C. Wade made 51 total tackles in 2011. His tackling ability may come in use to counter the inexperience of the linebackers.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Ball State's special teams unit was one of the best in the nation last season thanks to its All-MAC kicker Steven Schott and punter Scott Kovanda. Both were lost to graduation which leaves Lembo with two unproven players stepping into those open spots. Redshirt freshman Kyle Schmidt will be the Cardinals' punter of the future, but the place kicking duties will be up for grabs through the preseason.
Smith was second in the conference in kickoff return yards (844) and also amassed 152 punt return yards on 11 attempts last season. His blinding speed and quickness make him the obvious choice to field kicks in 2012 as well, which could lead to a professional opportunity as a return specialist.
OUTLOOK: The offense of Ball State may struggle to produce at such a high rate without as much pop on the offensive line, but its defense has solid leadership and plenty of young players with potential. The Cardinals may be able to put together a campaign as impressive as last year if Wenning and company limit their turnovers.
They open up their season with two straight at Scheumann Stadium versus Illinois State and Army. Ball State then visits North Texas of the Conference USA and begins its MAC season the next week at Eastern Michigan. After hosting Toledo, it concludes its non-conference slate at Virginia.
The Cardinals do not have an easy road once they get into the heart of their MAC season. They have to face Kent State, Western Michigan, Akron, Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Miami-Ohio.
"Overall, it was a great experience, it was good to get there," said Wenning. "But we weren't satisfied just getting to a bowl. We wanted to win the bowl. We still have some things to prove to ourselves and everybody. I'm thankful for the position I am in. To be the quarterback at Ball State in the MAC Conference is a great feeling."
Wenning is a solid field general, but he is not the only capable quarterback in the league. He needs to have an all-conference caliber campaign to give Ball State a chance at the MAC Championship. The Cardinals are certainly a group that expects to be in the postseason in 2013.