(STATS) - Coming off its best season on the FCS level, Charleston Southern will be the favorite to repeat as Big South champion this year even though the Buccaneers face a road game at perennial conference power Liberty.
It also would have been CSU's turn to visit the conference's most successful program, Coastal Carolina. But Coastal has departed the Big South, set for a transitional year as an FCS independent before joining the Sun Belt Conference on the FBS level for the 2017 season.
The devastating blow raises questions about the Big South's future viability as it drops to six programs - the minimum for keeping its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, where last season Charleston Southern advanced to the national quarterfinals while two-time quarterfinalist Coastal bowed out in the first round.
Coastal Carolina was one of the Big South's founding members in 1983, winning seven conference titles and having the league's most success in the postseason after football was instituted in 2002.
Like Coastal, Liberty, whose seven Big South titles also share the all-time high, is pursuing a move up to the FBS level. While the addition of Kennesaw State as a start-up program last year was a big boost to the conference, Monmouth enters the third of a four-year commitment as an associate member, and its membership will always be in doubt considering the New Jersey school is not in the conference's geographic footprint. Stony Brook, from Long Island, New York, left the Big South after the 2012 season.
Charleston Southern and the five teams chasing the defending champ can't control what happens off the field within the Big South, so they're working hard to control what happens on it.
Following is a look across the Big South Conference with spring practices getting underway in college football:
2015 Records: 10-3 overall, 6-0 Big South (1st)
Spring Practices: Feb. 5-March 1
Storyline: The Buccaneers didn't want to mess with karma, as they repeated early spring practices after last year's preceded their best FCS season, which included winning their first outright Big South title. Quarterback Kyle Copeland hopes to take over for Austin Brown at running the read option offense, although junior college transfer Robert Mitchell arrived this semester to push him, and redshirt freshman London Johnson is a candidate. The Bucs will still steamroll teams with a physical offensive line and run game (running backs Darius Hammond, Mike Holloway and Ben Robinson will all be seniors). One of the better defenses in the FCS lost two leaders in linebacker Austin Brown and cornerback Malcolm Jackson, but it still returns significant talent, especially on the D-line with Anthony Ellis. With spring practices over, the Bucs will transition into their offseason lifting program.
2015 Records: 4-7 overall, 2-4 Big South (Tie/5th)
Spring Practices: Feb. 17-March 19
Storyline: Coach Carroll McCray will have an athletic defense, and the strength of the team is at outside linebacker with the return of longtime forces Aaron Cook and Chad Geter. The defense is now working under Travis Cunningham, who was promoted to offensive coordinator, and has some jobs up for grabs. The offense is even more experienced, losing only one regular starter (guard Dylan Hopper). Dual-threat quarterback Tyrell Maxwell is working toward becoming a more efficient passer (45.7 percent) and should do so as he teams again with one of the best tight ends in the FCS, Mike Estes. But the Runnin' Bulldogs offense needs improvement from, well, the running backs.
2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 2-4 Big South (Tie/5th)
Spring Practices: Feb. 29-March 28 (spring game is March 26)
Storyline: The Owls' first season was quite successful as they lived up to coach Brian Bohannon's prediction of a winning record. They were in the conference title race early before fading. But after being a fledging program, they lose only one starter on each side of the ball. Competition still remains high in the spring, and areas of improvement are at running back and on the offensive line as well as with building depth at linebacker and in the secondary. Trey White ran an option offense that averaged 293 rushing yards per game, but he has to improve as a passer. Three returnees - safeties Taylor Henkle (first team) and Derrick Farrow (second) and center Malik Letatau (second) - earned All-Big South honors in the Owls' first season.
2015 Records: 6-5 overall, 3-3 Big South (Tie/3rd)
Spring Practices: March 22-April 16
Storyline: Last season's record was a bit humbling considering the Flames had lofty expectations following their first FCS playoff appearance - and win - in 2014. Coach Turner Gill elevated quarterbacks coach Joe Dailey to offensive coordinator, and Dailey will switch from a pro-style offense to more of a spread as he works to ready one of his protégés, junior signal-caller Stephon Masha, who replaces four-year starter Josh Woodrum. They also have to replace running backs Desmond Rice and D.J. Abnar, likely with Todd Macon. Despite the loss of Big South defensive player of the year Chima Uzowihe, last year's young defense has grown up under fire. Defensive end Erwin Dessources hopes to fill some of Uzowihe's production. The spring is a time for the Flames to gain a comfort level because the non-conference schedule includes Virginia Tech, SMU and FCS national runner-up Jacksonville State.
2015 Records: 5-6 overall, 3-3 Big South (Tie/3rd)
Spring Practices: March 30-April 24
Storyline: Officially, the Hawks return six offensive starters and seven defensive starters, but some probable starters were injured last season, including All-Big South defensive end Darnell Leslie. Coach Kevin Callahan is counting on the continued development of quarterback Cody Williams, who impressed as a freshman, and the production of running back Lavon Chaney, but the Hawks are replacing three starters on the offensive line. Safety Mike Basile is an all-conference talent moving toward All-America status. The Hawks need a better pass rush and could get it from Zach Talley. Last year's sack leader, Andrew Jurczynski, only had four sacks and is graduating.
2015 Records: 2-9 overall, 1-5 (7th)
Spring Practices: March 11-April 15
Storyline: Only one of Presbyterian's five all-conference players - running back Darrell Bridges - returns to a team that will face a rugged schedule, including Florida, Central Michigan, Chattanooga and Coastal Carolina out of conference. As a freshman, Ben Cheek eventually settled in at quarterback, but the passing game needs improvement because opponents will zero in on Bridges, a 1,000-yard rusher, until the rest of the offense becomes consistent. The defense is being hit hard by graduation, with only four starters returning. Some of this year's defensive signees could have an impact this season, but coach Harold Nichols has to build a two-deep system this spring.