The MAC West is on the line tonight

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
After tonight, the argument that Ball State hasn't played anyone will no longer be valid.

The Cardinals square off against Central Michigan, the two-time defending Mid-American Conference champion and the team currently in first place with Ball State in the MAC West. The Chippewas are 8-2 this season including a 6-0 mark in MAC play.

But this game has more than just conference ramifications.

Ball State, at 10-0 this season, is hanging on to the slim hope for a BCS bowl. The Cardinals are ranked 17th in the most recent BCS standings behind four other non-BCS teams. They would need some losses by their non-BCS brethren to have a shot at a BCS bowl, but that won't matter if they don't get through the final two games on their schedule -- CMU and Western Michigan -- which are considered to be the toughest games of their season.

"This is a great football game between two great football teams, who have very good players on their teams, and it's going to be a lot of fun," Ball State coach Brady Hoke said, trying to downplay the importance of the game. "We've just got to go out there and play our best football, and execute, and have fun doing it."

Ball State has played just two teams with winning records this season -- Navy and Northern Illinois. The game against Navy was actually the closest the Cardinals have played, winning by a measly 12 points. Ball State has defeated its opponents by an average of 22 points this season.

But Central Michigan presents a different challenge. Not only do the Chippewas have the experience of being the frontrunner for the MAC title, but they've also owned the Cardinals in past seasons. Ball State has not beaten Central Michigan since 2003, but up until last year's 58-38 debacle, the Cardinals had not lost by more than 11 points, including a 1-point loss in 2004.

But this year's Ball State team seems better equipped to handle Central Michigan, or at least match the Chippewas on offense. For the first time in recent history, the Cardinals have a running game to go along with a potent passing attack. Tailback MiQuale Lewis (5-foot-6, 184 pounds) ranks seventh in the country in rushing, averaging 127.30 yards per game. He's rushed for at least 100 yards in eight of 10 games this season and he hasn't rushed for fewer than 75 yards all year.

"Next to [Knowshon] Moreno at Georgia, [Lewis] is the best back that we'll have faced," Central Michigan coach Butch Jones said. "He brings so much to the table. First of all, his size is to his advantage. Personally, being a former running back coach, I love running backs that are at his stature because he's extremely difficult to tackle. He's very, very strong and he's got great, great balance. He's going to be a great, great challenge for us, and then you couple him with their offensive line.

"But they're very, very balanced on offense and to me that's probably the biggest difference this year. They've been multi-dimensional this year and when they're like that they're extremely difficult to stop."

Lewis and quarterback Nate Davis, who is eighth in the country in passing efficiency, should find success against a CMU total defense that ranks 99th nationally. The Chippewas are decent against the run, but atrocious against the pass. They rank 113th out of 119 FBS teams, allowing 273.70 yards per game. That should make a fun time for Davis, who has thrown for 289 or more yards five times this season.

But the problem for Ball State during last year's loss was not the Cardinals' offense, it was the Cardinals defense against quarterback Dan LeFevour. LeFevour torched Ball State last season for 506 yards of total offense and six total touchdowns. While he hasn't had an effort like that against an opponent this season, Ball State knows that's he's capable of putting up ridiculous numbers, especially in crucial games.

"[LeFevour's] a tremendous athlete when you look at what he can do with his legs and what he does with his arm and how he runs that offense," Hoke said. "He's a great competitor that has a lot of toughness mentally in how he plays the game.

"I think this game for us is going to be a great challenge. We've got to be able to take care of the football and make some plays to help yourself with field position and the kicking game is going to be huge."