With a 421–381–32 record, Ball State does not rank among the top 50 most victories among NCAA FBS programs. Ball State was originally classified as a junior college, participating in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) from 1937 until 1956. In 1957, they were classified as a Small College school until 1972. Ball State received Division II classification in 1973, before becoming a Division I-AA program in 1975 and an Division I-A (now FBS) program until 1981, before dropping to Division I-AA for a single season (1982), before returning to Division I-A.
Northern Illinois – The Cardinals have played the Northern Illinois Huskies 5 times in football since the launch of the Bronze Stalk Trophy. The trophy depicts several cornstalks in tribute to the prevalence of maize around the respective home states of the rivals. In 2008, the trophy was established with Northern Illinois holding a 4-1 edge in the contests.
The Ball State Cardinals have had 16 head coaches throughout the program's history. With 68 victories, John Magnabosco is first overall in the program's history, followed by Paul Schudel (60 wins) and Dave McClain (46).
Former Ball State head coach Brady Hoke is now that head football coach at the University of Michigan.
Ball State has appeared in seven NCAA Division I postseason bowl games, where they have compiled a 0–7 record, losing all seven.