(STATS) - Heading into the 2015 season, Charleston Southern wasn't even the biggest FCS program in the Holy City, let alone the Big South.
A lot can change in six months.
The best season in the school's 25-year football history didn't just put a target squarely on the Buccaneers' backs. It also has the Big South hoping it has an emerging power that isn't just a potential top dog for years to come, but also one that doesn't plan on straying.
Coastal Carolina has been the conference's preeminent program since Joe Moglia arrived in 2012, but after winning Big South titles in each of his first three seasons, the former Wall Street CEO is taking his Chanticleers to the FBS - first for a transitional season this year and then full-fledged membership in the Sun Belt in 2017.
That again leaves six football programs in the Big South - Kennesaw State began play as the seventh in 2015 - and questions abound, none of which were more urgent for the conference upon Coastal Carolina's September bombshell than this: "Is the league in danger of losing any semblance of national relevancy?"
Not if Jamey Chadwell has a say.
The 39-year-old head coach is 28-10 in three years in North Charleston, and the Buccaneers' second 10-win season in that span was enough to give them their first outright Big South title and first playoff trip in 10 years. They beat the Chanticleers in the regular season to knock off the league's reigning heavyweight and took down local rival The Citadel twice, the second giving Charleston Southern its first-ever postseason victory.
"It's a special group," Chadwell said of his team, which lost to Jacksonville State in the quarterfinals and finished sixth in the final STATS FCS Top 25. "They're really good football players, but even better people.
"They forever changed the perception of what Charleston Southern is, and that's pretty special. What these players have done for this university and putting Charleston Southern on the national map. Not a lot of people knew about us and I'm thankful for the journey they took us on. I didn't want it to end this way, but I'm proud of our team and the way we represented our school and the Big South Conference."
They did it largely with a defense that owned the FCS through the regular season. Charleston Southern gave up a subdivision-low 252.9 yards per game before closing its regular slate at eventual FBS national champion Alabama, though it was exposed a bit on the ground in the playoff loss by letting the Gamecocks run for 506 yards.
OWLS TAKE FLIGHT: Kennesaw State had never played a college football game at this time a year ago, but it still managed to make its debut season memorable. The Owls finished 6-5 and won a pair of conference games, topping Monmouth and Gardner-Webb, and nearly took down a Dayton team that won the Pioneer League. With the rest of the conference getting a chance to see what Brian Bohannon has been building since being hired in March 2013, Kennesaw State has the potential to be a Big South power sooner rather than later. "I told our guys that I've never had more fun coaching football in my 20-year-whatever career than I've had this year," Bohannon said. "... They're awesome and a great group of kids who bought into a vision and a plan. They fight, compete and play hard. I'm pleased where we are. The future is bright for Kennesaw State football."
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: De'Angelo Henderson didn't put up quite the gaudy numbers he did as a sophomore, but he was still easily the Big South's biggest playmaker. His 1,346 rushing yards were 281 more than anyone else in the conference and he ran for 16 touchdowns, setting the FCS record for consecutive games finding the end zone at 26. There was talk that Henderson might transfer to an established FBS program for his senior season - he'd have been eligible immediately - or declare for the NFL draft, but he'll be back in Conway to ease the transition to the FBS.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chima Uzowihe gave opposing offenses headaches all season, leading the league in both tackles for loss (17) and sacks (eight) to become the fifth player in Big South history to lead in both categories. He's the conference's all-time sacks leader with 25 and just the second player to lead the league in tackles for loss in back-to-back seasons. He has a legitimate chance to be an NFL draft pick in April and would likely play outside linebacker at the next level, but in 2015 he became the first defensive lineman to be named the Big South's best defender since Gardner-Webb's Brian Johnston in 2007.
SURPRISE OF THE YEAR: Back to Kennesaw State. It was hard to imagine the Owls' triple option offense having much success in Year 1, but they somehow managed to average 293 rushing yards, sixth-most in the FCS. The panel of head coaches and media picked Kennesaw State to finish a distant seventh in the conference, but instead the Owls were a consistently pleasant surprise. The team's Fifth Third Bank Stadium is already 10th on StadiumJourney.com's list of the best game-day atmospheres in the FCS after Kennesaw State went 5-1 there, outscoring their opponents 181-82.
DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR: Big things were expected from Liberty after the Flames opened 15th in the STATS poll and were picked second in the Big South, where they got six first-place votes. Though they beat FBS opponent Georgia State and won three of their last four - capping their season with a win over Coastal Carolina - they never quite put it all together. A 31-21 win over Montana in Week 3 seemed to indicate Liberty was a national force, but it went out the following week and lost 34-13 to a bad Southern Illinois team and later lost to Big South lightweight Gardner-Webb.
BY THE NUMBERS:
14 - Coastal Carolina players on the Big South's all-conference squads, including a league-high eight on the first team
66.7 - Liberty kicker John Lunsford's percentage on field goals of at least 50 yards (4 of 6). No other kicker made more than two.
50.0 - Lunsford's percentage on field goals inside 50 yards (9 of 18)
122 - Presbyterian's rank among 125 FCS teams in both points per game (12.5) and third-down conversion percentage (24.8)
11 - Turnovers by Liberty, 15 fewer than last season's total for a team that made it to the FCS playoffs
14 - Turnovers created by Liberty, 18 fewer than last season's total that was third-highest in the nation
1 - Big South players with more than 50 receptions (Liberty's Darrin Peterson, 68), six fewer than in 2014
4 - Kick return touchdowns the past two seasons by Coastal Carolina's Devin Brown, one more than the rest of the conference combined
8 - Successful 2-point conversions by Coastal Carolina, twice as many as any other FBS or FCS program
119 - School-record and conference-best tackle total by Monmouth sophomore cornerback Mike Basile, who has made the Big South's all-conference first team in both of his collegiate seasons
NEXT YEAR: So much for sneaking up on anyone: Charleston Southern should be the Big South's heavy favorite in 2016. The Chanticleers are moving on up, Liberty's stars on both sides of the ball (Uzowihe and quarterback Josh Woodrum) are moving on, and Kennesaw State is probably a year away from moving into conference title contention. Eight of the Buccaneers' 11 defensive starters are back, meaning the conference's new king should reign for another year.