ATLANTA (STATS) - There's an edge to Charleston Southern's football program this season that third-year head coach Jamey Chadwell has felt before.
Chadwell was the receivers coach a decade ago when the Buccaneers earned a share of their only Big South Conference championship.
"That group was hungry to prove that they could play and that they weren't the old Charleston Southern," he remembered. "They had this chip on their shoulder that (said), 'We don't doubt we're pretty good.' We just need something to bring it together.
"I notice that here, too, that there's this little chip. Even though we've had success, I don't think there's a respect out there enough."
The way Coastal Carolina and Liberty have basically come to own the Big South is the reason others like Charleston Southern continue to be renters in the conference title race. The two power programs have won seven titles each in a conference that only formed in 2002, and they have aspirations that extend onto the national scene.
But they first must deal with the likes of Charleston Southern, which was picked third Thursday in the conference's preseason poll on media day, behind the favored Coastal - an FCS quarterfinalist each of the last two seasons - and equally talented Liberty.
It might seem like all the news out of the Big South's emerging conference is coming from the two defending co-champions, but Charleston Southern has 18 wins under Chadwell for the best two-year run in program history. Just as significant, the Bucs beat Coastal in 2013 and then Liberty last year, and host both of them this season.
"We've been fortunate to beat the last two conference champions, just not in the same year," Chadwell said. "I think our guys understand now that we can do it. I think that was part of it - 'Can we do that?' And now we've got to the point that we just need to be more consistent. We beat some teams we maybe shouldn't have and we lost one game a year maybe we should have won."
All-conference linebacker Aaron Brown wasn't laughing when he said Charleston Southern is "like the red-headed stepchild" compared to the big two. But, he added, "I expect for us to win a lot of games, just to compete with the best of them because we have the talent."
Charleston Southern returns nine starters on offense, with quarterback Austin Brown more seasoned and running back Mike Holloway ready to replace the school's all-time leading rusher, Christian Reyes. Plus they welcome back playmaking wide receivers Kevin Glears and Larry Jones III from ACL tears.
"We expect this year to be right there at the end," Chadwell said, "playing for the championship and then the playoffs."
Coastal and Liberty led the way with eight players each on the Big South preseason team. Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb followed next with four each.
Coastal senior quarterback Alex Ross, the 2014 Big South offensive player of the year, was named the preseason choice for that award. He sported a full beard at media day, perhaps with an eye forward from a hot summer day.
"Well, I'm hoping we're going to be playing late into December," he said. "Like I said, we're going to take it a week at a time. This is just prepping for that."
Gardner-Webb senior nose tackle O.J. Mau was tabbed the Big South's preseason defensive player of the year, becoming the seventh in program history to receive the honor. The big senior has never returned home to his native American Samoa since stepping on campus as a 17-year-old in 2012.
"It's really hard for me," Mau said. "On the other side, it's the best for me, too. Stay here, finish school, play football and try to take a chance for the next level."
Charleston Southern also has the next level in mind, something Coastal Carolina and Liberty can't take for granted in the Big South.
"As a coach, I'm thankful that because of their success it's brought notoriety to our conference," Chadwell said. "But I also think ourselves and some other teams have been able to beat some other people ... that's why people are saying there's depth in this conference, not just those two."
BIG SOUTH PRESEASON POLL=
1. Coastal Carolina (15 first-place votes), 139.
2. Liberty (6), 129.
3. Charleston Southern, 106.
4. Presbyterian, 72.
5. Gardner-Webb, 57.
6. Monmouth, 53.
7. Kennesaw State, 32.
BIG SOUTH PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive Player of the Year - Alex Ross, QB, Coastal Carolina
Defensive Player of the Year - O.J. Mau, DT, Gardner-Webb
QB - Alex Ross, Coastal Carolina, R-Sr.
RB - De'Angelo Henderson, Coastal Carolina, R-Jr.
RB - D.J. Abnar, Liberty, R-Sr.
WR - Darrin Peterson, Liberty, Sr.
WR - Bruce Mapp, Coastal Carolina, R-Jr.
WR - John Israel, Coastal Carolina, R-Sr.
TE - Mike Estes, Gardner-Webb, R-Jr.
OL - Jonathan Burgess, Liberty, Sr.
OL - Erik Austell, Charleston Southern, R-Jr.
OL - Max Sommer, Liberty, R-Sr.
OL - Voghens Larrieux, Coastal Carolina, R-Jr.
OL - Alex Thompson, Monmouth, So.
DL - O.J. Mau, Gardner-Webb, Sr.
DL - Chima Uzowihe, Liberty, Sr.
DL - Roderick Holder, Coastal Carolina, Sr.
DL - Calvin Hollenhorst, Coastal Carolina, R-Sr.
LB - Donelle Williams, Presbyterian, R-Sr.
LB - Aaron Brown, Charleston Southern, Sr.
LB - Aaron Cook, Gardner-Webb, Jr.
LB - John Sieczkowski, Monmouth, Sr.
DB - Mike Basile, Monmouth, So.
DB - Ed Britt, Presbyterian, Sr.
DB - Ivan Toomer, Gardner-Webb, R-Sr.
DB - Troy McGowens, Charleston, Southern, Jr.
PK - John Lunsford, Liberty, Sr.
P - Trey Turner, Liberty, R-So.
LS - Hunter Winstead, Liberty, R-So.
KR - Devin Brown, Coastal Carolina, Jr.
PR - Darius Hammond, Charleston Southern, Jr.
FIVE KEY BIG SOUTH GAMES=
Presbyterian at Coastal Carolina (Oct. 10) - The Blue Hose's strong defense led impressive wins over Furman, Western Carolina and Charleston Southern last season. Of course, Coastal offers a bigger challenge.
Gardner-Webb at Kennesaw State (Oct. 17) - Coach Brian Bohannon and the start-up Owls will have played five games by the time they take on their first conference opponent.
Coastal Carolina at Charleston Southern (Oct. 31) - Halloween can be a scary and upsetting day, right?
Liberty at Charleston Southern (Nov. 14) - Oh yes, Charleston Southern did upset Liberty last season.
Coastal Carolina at Liberty (Nov. 21) - It's hard to imagine the Big South title not being on the line in this terrific matchup.