In 2004, Central Florida was a program scratching, clawing and fighting at building something bigger. The Knights were still in the infancy stages of a football program, and at the time ending a less than stellar run in the stepping stone of the Mid-American Conference. The Knights took the field in Muncie, IN on that cold day with tons of talent and an eye toward the move up to Conference USA.
At that same time, Ball State was in the middle of a long rebuilding process. The Cardinals hadn't won the MAC since 1995-96 and had just recently endured through "the streak that shall not be named". In 2004, Ball State was eyeing a return to respectability – which later culminated in the 2008 season that almost was great. The Cardinals of 2004 resembled the community that the school is based in – tough, hardworking, underappreciated, undervalued, heck, maybe even disregarded.
The end result of the brittle cold battle in 2004? Ball State 21, Central Florida 17.
Eight years and a month later, the two teams find themselves squaring off in a far different place – a bowl game, and one in a much nicer climate no less – but with eerily similar goals as before.
Central Florida, now eyeing another conference move and this time, a jump to the BCS level, is set to move to the Big East. The program is still very young, but moving towards adulthood and the high profile conference that it has craved since its birth. The Knights are much more talented than even that 2004 team (which boasted 3 future NFL players) as would be expected for a team that is looking to jump into the BCS pool, is located in the fertile recruiting ground of Florida and is helmed by George O'Leary. The big picture goal, however, remains the same since that day – upward mobility into a national power program.
Ball State also finds itself in a similar position as 2004. Today's edition of the Cardinals, are also on the rebuilding track, albeit further along and with a higher set of goals than the last time the two met. They reached respectability, and even "darling of the nation" status for a short time in 2008, now they are looking to get back, and this time, capitalize on the opportunity. They also want and desperately need to stay a lot longer in the respectability area. In 2004, Ball State was on the long rebuilding road to competitiveness that had been pot holed and almost destroyed by lack of care in the athletic department. Now, Coach Pete Lembo is in the process of again rebuilding the program from the ruin of a quick, and ill-conceived decision of a coaching hire back in 2008. Much like Central Florida, the talent level since 2004 has changed, for the better, for Ball State, but the make up of this team remains the same – blue collar, hard working.
Not a lot has changed since 2004, but then again a lot has. The conferences and names have changed, but end goal of each remains the same. What will the end result be this time? We will find out on Friday night.