(STATS) - Big South football appears to be heading in the direction of the conference's name.
Coastal Carolina's announcement Tuesday that it will be leaving for the Sun Belt Conference was a big blow to the Big South, especially in football, which had just returned to seven member schools this season.
Coastal, one of the Big South's founding members in 1983, has had the league's most successful football program in recent years, appearing in the FCS Top 10 and advancing to the national playoff quarterfinals in each of the past two seasons. The Chanticleers also have won conference titles in each of coach Joe Moglia's first three seasons while he has brought a national spotlight to the school because of his unusual story: a former Wall Street executive leaving the business world to return to coaching.
This year, Coastal installed a teal-colored field, drawing even more attention to the school located in Conway, South Carolina, near Myrtle Beach.
All Coastal sports, with the exception of the football team, will leave for the Sun Belt to start the 2016-17 school year. The football team will go through an FBS transitional season and then join in the fall of 2017. After it becomes the Sun Belt's 12th football member, the conference will be eligible to host a postseason championship game.
"While the Big South Conference is disappointed in Coastal Carolina's departure, we recognize that membership movement is a normal part of the current environment in Division I athletics," Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said. "The Big South has seen relatively little membership change recently, and is confident in its ongoing stability. In fact, this move illustrates the strength of the Big South and the competitive excellence of its members.
"Regardless, the Big South will continue to achieve at a high level by providing outstanding athletic and academic opportunities to all its student-athletes, and developing leaders through athletics."
The Big South is stable in the sense that it is home to 11 full members and 19 sports, but considering Coastal's impending move, the future of football in the conference - which began in 2003 - is under an all-out blitz. Without Coastal, the conference will lose much of its relevancy on the FCS national scene.
The conference previously lost associate member Stony Brook - a school on Long Island, New York, that never fit geographically but had become a power in the conference - to the Colonial Athletic Association in 2013. Liberty, the other main titan in football, has not been shy about its desire to move up to the FBS level as well. The Sun Belt was Liberty's most viable option, but it never received an invitation during talks in recent years.
If Liberty finds another landing place - perhaps further Sun Belt expansion would be a possibility - the Big South would be in jeopardy of losing its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. Plus, Monmouth, another Big South member out of place in New Jersey, likely wants to find a conference closer to home after its four-year associate membership expires following the 2017 season. And the new Kennesaw State program, which offers promise with its proximity to Atlanta, facilities and alumni support, could be a candidate for another conference as its program grows.
The other Big South teams are Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian, whose enrollment is the smallest among FCS schools. Among all Big South programs, only Liberty (17,016, fifth-highest in the FCS) and Coastal (8,729) had home attendance averages over 4,366 last season.
During conference realignment, the Great West Conference disbanded on the FCS level, as did the Western Athletic Conference on the FBS level.
They're still hoping to think "Big" in the Big South. But as the dominoes start falling again, it's hard not to think about a "South" direction.