Pete Lembo has already built it up once during his tenure in Muncie. He faces the challenge of potentially starting that trek again in 2014.
After back-to-back bowls for his Cardinals, several new faces will need to make an impact for Ball State in Lembo's fourth season.
And for the first time in that time span, Keith Wenning will not be the starting quarterback in Muncie. He's likely heading to the practice squad of the Baltimore Ravens. Wenning's favorite targets Willie Snead IV (Cleveland), Jamill Smith (Ottawa in the CFL), and Zane Fakes are all now former Cardinals as well.
Even a defense that played second fiddle to a prodigious offense lost key players, most notably Jonathan Newsome, now of the Indianapolis Colts.
This is a position Cardinal fans remember from the recent past. After rattling off 12 straight wins to start the 2008 campaign, Ball State lost most of its key offensive personnel, not to mention head coach Brady Hoke.
That didn't happen this time around, at least in terms of the head coach. Pete Lembo stayed, and that should help prevent the precipitous fall off the occurred in 2009 and 2010. Ball State won six games and Stan Parrish was out of a job.
Ball State in '09 went with a young quarterback, with freshman Kelly Page seeing a large chunk of the playing time. Many thought that this fall the reins would be handed to redshirt freshman Jack Milas. But instead, Ozzie Mann, who played at Delta, won the job early in fall camp. Mann played in six games and completed two passes a season ago.
The Cards will rely heavily on the running game led by senior Jahwan Edwards. The North Carolina native (one of Lembo's first recruits to Muncie) has already piled up over 3,300 yards on the ground in three seasons. If not Edwards, then Horactio Banks is equally able to chip in, having averaged 5.7 yards per carry in his first two collegiate seasons.
And while the defense will miss the aforementioned Newsome and leading tackler Ben Ingle, several other key pieces return.
The schedule offers a bit of a break for the Cardinals this year, as they'll play two teams from the FCS ranks in Colgate and Indiana State. It should be noted that Ball State will have to win five other games besides those two to qualify for a bowl. Only one win against FCS competition can count for postseason play. There's the seemingly standard game against a Big Ten school in Iowa, and a return date with Army in early October.
In league play, Ball State resides in the same division as now prennial power Northern Illinois, and will have their standard tough test in Toledo. In cross-divsional games, the Cards get a tough draw in finishing at Bowling Green, but also get a breather in playing UMass.
Last year, there was conversation of perhaps an outside shot of making a BCS bowl, a win over a BCS-level school in Virginia, and a national spotlight game against Northern Illinois. Those things are unlikely to happen this time around.
But what's also unlikely is completely hitting the reset button as happened five years ago. Expect Ball State to take a step back or two this season, but not to the bottom of the league. The Cards found a way to win six games in Pete Lembo's first season, and just might be in that neighborhood again in 2014. It doesn't have to be a bowl season to make this one a good one in Muncie.
And if it is a bowl campaign for the Cardinals...then let the Pete Lembo free agent watch start up all over again in Cardinal country.