(STATS) - After taking over as Charleston Southern's coach in 2013, Jamey Chadwell felt like his program was trying to earn respect across the Big South Conference.
It might have built slowly within the conference, so it's been ironic how quickly it's come on a national scale.
The Buccaneers, coming off the best season in the program's 25-year history, open the 2016 season ranked No. 7 in the STATS FCS Top 25 and are a heavy favorite to repeat as Big South champions.
"It'll obviously be unique because since I've been here and really for a long time we've been fighting for respect here," Chadwell said. "At least on the outside and in our conference, you feel like you have it, so I can't go to that well too hard again. I think what we've tried to get this team to realize is, 'You know, you had one year. You had some pretty good years, but only one year. Did you have anything to show for it?'
"There's a lot of one-hit wonders out there," Chadwell continued. "To be a great team, you can have a great year. To be a great program, you have to show consistency and especially now that you're supposed to be the team."
Charleston Southern advanced to the FCS quarterfinals last season before falling to Jacksonville State. Its spot atop the Big South is stronger because Coastal Carolina, which had become the conference's recent power, has left for the Sun Belt Conference on the FBS level.
The Big South is down to six teams and hopeful of growing again in the future. The conference is at the minimum number of teams required to have an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2016 Big South Conference race and STATS' predicted order of finish:
1. Charleston Southern
4. Kennesaw State
1. CHARLESTON SOUTHERN BUCCANEERS=
LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina
STADIUM: Buccaneer Field
COACH: Jamey Chadwell (28-10 in three seasons at Charleston Southern; 53-31 overall)
LAST SEASON: 10-3 overall, 6-0 Big South (1st)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (5 offense/7 defense)
KEY LOSSES: Austin Brown, QB; Aaron Brown, LB; Malcolm Jackson, CB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Darius Hammond, RB/RS, Sr. (145 carries, 856 yards, 7 TDs; 25.1-yard KO return average; 15.5-yard punt return average)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Anthony Ellis, DE, Jr. (54 TT, 17.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 4 QBH, 3 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kyle Copeland, QB, R-Jr.; Robert Mitchell, QB, Jr. (Blinn JC transfer); Mike Holloway, RB, Sr.; Ben Robinson, RB, Sr.; Colton Korn, Sr.; Kenny Dinkins, WR, Jr.; Erik Austell, LT, R-Sr.; Jackson Williamson, C, Sr.; Frank Cirone, RG, R-Jr.; Johnny Robinson, DT, So.; Noah Oliver, NT, R-So.; Zane Cruz, MLB, Jr.; Solomon Brown, LB, R-So.; Troy McGowens, CB, Sr.; Corbin Jackson, FS, R-Sr.; D.J. Curl, SS, Sr.; Tyler Tekac, PK, So.; Joseph Smith, LS, R-Sr.
OUTLOOK: Coming off their first outright Big South championship, the Buccaneers are heavy favorites to go back-to-back. While they lost a terrific senior class that led them to the FCS quarterfinals, they return a potent run game and the conference's best defense. QB Copeland is expected to take over the read option offense, which features a physical offensive line and three senior running backs - Hammond, Holloway (731 yards, 12 TDs) and Robinson (422 yards, 4 TDs). With their style of play, the Bucs controlled the ball for over 33 minutes per game last season. Ellis and Robinson, who are cousins, help form a stout defensive line, and LB Solomon Brown was the 2015 Big South freshman of the year. The Bucs' nonconference schedule has been raised in a big way and they play four of their first five games on the road, including against five-time reigning FCS champion North Dakota State, Florida State and Coastal Carolina.
Aug. 27, at North Dakota State
Sept. 3, Kentucky State
Sept. 10, at Florida State
Sept. 24, at Monmouth*
Oct. 1, at Coastal Carolina
Oct. 8, Albany State
Oct. 22, Presbyterian*
Oct. 29, Bucknell
Nov. 5, Gardner-Webb*
Nov. 12, at Liberty*
Nov. 19, Kennesaw State*
* - Big South game
2. LIBERTY FLAMES=
LOCATION: Lynchburg, Virginia
STADIUM: Williams Stadium
COACH: Turner Gill (29-19 in four seasons at Liberty; 54-68 overall)
LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 3-3 Big South (Tie/3rd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Josh Woodrum, QB; Darrin Peterson, WR; Chima Uzowihe, DL
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Zac Parker, WR/PR, Sr. (49 receptions, 464 yards, 1 TD; 10.4-yard punt return average, 1 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Nick Newman, LB, Sr. (74 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Stephon Masha, QB, Jr.; Todd Macon, RB, Jr.; B.J. Farrow, WR, So.; Damian King, WR/RS, So.; Kendall Couamin, TE, Jr.; Tanner Hartman, OL, Sr.; Michael Henderman, OL, Jr.; Juwan Wells, DL, So.; JaRon Greene, DL, Sr.; Erwin Dessources, DE, Sr.; Dexter Robbins, LB, Sr.; Corbin Jackson, CB, So.; Chris Turner, CB, So.; Alpha Jalloh, S, Sr.; Trey Turner, P, Jr.
OUTLOOK: Last season was humbling for the Flames, who had lofty expectations following their first FCS playoff appearance - and win - in 2014. They should be in a transition season, but the loss of Coastal Carolina keeps the perennial Big South power in the title mix - with their Nov. 12 game against Charleston Southern in Lynchburg. New offensive coordinator Joe Dailey has moved the offense from a pro-style that fit four-year QB Woodrum to the spread that works best for the new signal-caller Masha. While Parker and Farrow (32 receptions, 448 yards, 2 TDs) are both go-to wide receivers, the offense needs to jump-start its running game, which slumped last year amid injuries on the line. Despite the loss of Uzowihe, the Big South's 2015 defensive player of the year, the young defense has grown up together. Greene and Dessources hope to put pressure on opposing backfields and CB Turner was a Big South preseason choice after an excellent freshman campaign.
Sept. 3, at Virginia Tech
Sept. 10, Jacksonville
Sept. 17, at SMU
Sept. 24, Jacksonville State
Oct. 1, Robert Morris
Oct. 15, at Kennesaw State*
Oct. 22, Monmouth*
Oct. 29, Gardner-Webb*
Nov. 5, at Presbyterian*
Nov. 12, Charleston Southern*
Nov. 17, at Coastal Carolina
* - Big South game
3. MONMOUTH HAWKS=
LOCATION: West Long Branch, New Jersey
STADIUM: Kessler Field
COACH: Kevin Callahan (131-108 in 23 seasons at Monmouth)
LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-3 Big South (Tie/3rd)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (6 offense, 6 defense)
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Lavon Chaney, RB, Sr. (182 carries, 806 yards, 7 TDs; 23 receptions, 176 yards, 1 TD)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Mike Basile, S, Jr. (119 TT, 7 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 4 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 1 BK)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Hakeem Valles, TE; Rotchill Medor, OT; John Sieczkowski, LB
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Cody Williams, QB, So.; Zach Welch, RB, Jr.; Darren Ambush, WR, Sr.; Reggie White Jr., WR, So.; Matt Stoneberg, OT, Jr.; Alex Thompson, C, Jr.; Dimitrius Smith, DT, Sr.; Darnell Leslie, DL, Sr.; Zach Talley, DL, R-So.; Payton Minnich, MLB, Sr.; Marcus Leslie, S, Jr.; Tymere Berry, CB, So.; Matt White, PK, Jr.
OUTLOOK: Monmouth will have a new stadium in 2017, but the Hawks are paying the price this year with only three home games (the existing stadium will be torn down after the home portion of the schedule concludes Oct. 29). The Road Warriors, er, Hawks, face a tough task as they seek to build on last year's encouraging second season in the Big South. Williams took over at quarterback as a freshman and will keep developing as he again teams with his top two wideouts, Ambush and White. Defenses will be kept busy by All-Big South RB Chaney, although the Hawks are replacing three starters on the offensive line. The defense features an All-American in safety Basile. It lacked a consistent pass rush after standout DE Leslie was sidelined by injury last season, but he returns this year to team up with Talley up front. Oh yes, those three home games? Not so easy with Charleston Southern, Patriot League power Fordham and Kennesaw State.
Sept. 3, at Lehigh
Sept. 10, at Delaware State
Sept. 17, at Kent State
Sept. 24, Charleston Southern*
Oct. 1, Fordham
Oct. 8, at Howard
Oct. 13, at Presbyterian*
Oct. 22, at Liberty*
Oct. 29, Kennesaw State*
Nov. 5, at Coastal Carolina
Nov. 19, at Gardner-Webb*
* - Big South game
4. KENNESAW STATE OWLS=
LOCATION: Kennesaw, Georgia
STADIUM: Fifth Third Bank Stadium
COACH: Brian Bohannon (6-5 in one season at Kennesaw State)
LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 2-4 Big South (Tie/5th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 20 (10 offense/10 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: P.J. Stone, WR; Brett Gillespie, OL; Mason Harris, DL
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Trey White, QB, R-Sr. (49-for-103, 1,059 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs; 218 carries, 964 yards, 9 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Taylor Henkle, S, R-So. (65 TT, 1 TFL, 4 INTs, 4 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Chaston Bennett, RB, Sr.; Jake McKenzie, RB, R-So.; Darnell Holland, RB, So.; Justin Sumpter, WR, R-So.; Malik Letatau, OL, Sr.; Zach Mitchler, OL, R-So.; Nick Perrotta, DL, R-Sr.; Anthony Gore, Jr., LB, R-So.; Dez Billingslea, LB, R-So.; Izzy Sam, LB, R-Jr.; Derrick Farrow, DB, Sr.; Dante Blackmon, DB, R-Sr.; Jace White, DB, R-So.
OUTLOOK: That QB White, WR Sumpter, OL Letatau and S Henkle all made the Big South preseason team indicates how Kennesaw's second-year program has been built well from the start. The Owls sold out Fifth Third Bank Stadium for every game in their excellent inaugural season, going 5-1 there. As expected, much of the nucleus returns this season, led by White. He's the trigger in an option offense that averaged 293 rushing yards, but White also seeks to improve as a passer. Some of the goals of the offseason were to improve at running back and on the offensive line as well as build depth at linebacker and in the secondary. RBs Bennett and McKenzie combined for over 1,000 rushing yards, so the Owls appear in great shape. With Henkle and Farrow as standouts in the secondary, the front units of the defense should increase their sack total (only 18 last season).
Sept. 3, East Tennessee State
Sept. 10, Point
Sept. 24, at Duquesne
Oct. 1, at Furman
Oct. 8, Missouri S&T
Oct. 15, Liberty*
Oct. 22, at Gardner-Webb*
Oct. 29, at Monmouth*
Nov. 5, Clark Atlanta
Nov. 12, Presbyterian*
Nov. 19, at Charleston Southern*
* - Big South game
5. GARDNER-WEBB BULLDOGS=
LOCATION: Boiling Springs, North Carolina
STADIUM: Spangler Stadium
COACH: Carroll McCray (16-20 in three seasons at Gardner-Webb; 31-59 overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-7 overall, 2-4 Big South (Tie/5th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (10 offense/7 defense)
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Mike Estes, TE, Grad (29 receptions, 353 yards, 5 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Chad Geter, OLB, Grad (92 TT, 13 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 PBU, 4 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)
THREE KEY LOSSES: O.J. Mau, NG; Jebrai Regan, DE; Ivan Toomer, CB
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Tyrell Maxwell, QB, Jr.; Ramsey Rigby, QB, Fr. (Troy transfer); Khalil Lewis, RB, R-So.; Braylin Collins, WR, R-Fr. (Eastern Michigan transfer); Caleb Smith, C, Grad; Will Millikan, OT, So.; Blaine Hudson, OL, Fr. (Troy transfer); P.J. Fuimaono, DE, Jr.; Davis Neilands, DE, R-Fr.; Jeffrey Pegues, ILB, Jr.; Aaron Cook, OLB, Sr.; Kenyatta Dunbar, ILB, Jr.; Triston Dozier, CB, So.; Angel Guzman, CB, R-Jr.; Spencer Havird, FS, R-Jr.; Paul Schumacher, PK, Jr.
OUTLOOK: Gardner-Webb's veteran squad returns each of its statistical leaders in seven main categories - passing (Maxwell), rushing (Maxwell), receiving (Estes), tackles (Geter), sacks (Geter), interceptions (Cook, Guzman and Havird) and scoring (Schumacher). The strength of the team is at outside linebacker with the return of longtime forces Cook (77 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Geter. The offense is even more experienced than the defense, and while dual-threat QB Maxwell became the first player in school history to lead the team in both rushing and passing yards, he has to become a more efficient passer (45.7 percent). Estes is a fourth-year starter and one of the better tight ends in the FCS. While four starters return on the offensive line, the Runnin' Bulldogs need more production from their running backs.
Sept. 3, at Elon
Sept. 10, at Western Carolina
Sept. 17, The Citadel
Sept. 24, at Ohio
Oct. 1, Benedict
Oct. 8, Presbyterian*
Oct. 15, Coastal Carolina
Oct. 22, Kennesaw State*
Oct. 29, at Liberty*
Nov. 5, at Charleston Southern*
Nov. 19, Monmouth*
* - Big South game
6. PRESBYTERIAN BLUE HOSE=
LOCATION: Clinton, South Carolina
STADIUM: Bailey Memorial Stadium
COACH: Harold Nichols (17-58 in seven seasons at Presbyterian)
LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 1-5 Big South (7th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)
THREE KEY LOSSES: Ugonna Akoh, DE; Donelle Williams, LB; Ed Britt, DB
ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Darrell Bridges, RB, R-Jr. (224 carries, 1,065 yards, 8 TDs)
ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Obinna Ntiasagwe, DL, R-Jr. (41 TT, 7 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ben Cheek, QB, R-So.; Daryl Wilson, WR, Sr.; Dashawn Davis, WR/RS, So.; Joseph Purter, TE, Sr.; Ryan Bristow, OL, Sr.; Zach Cooper, OL, R-So.; Frank Keller, OL, R-So.; Khari Rosier, DE, Sr.; Gyasi Yeldell, DL, Jr.; Kamren Mack, DL, Sr.; Steve Osondu, DB, Jr.; Kevin Green, DB, Sr; Rock Ya-Sin, DB, So.; Brett Norton, PK, So.
OUTLOOK: The smallest FCS school (enrollment of about 1,200) fell by four wins from 6-5 in 2014, but it ended last season with an encouraging victory over Kennesaw State. The Blue Hose averaged only 12.5 points, and while they feature the Big South's top returning rusher in Bridges, opposing defenses will focus on him until the offense gains consistency. As a freshman, QB Cheek eventually settled in at quarterback, yet he threw only two touchdowns with six interceptions. The defense has been solid in recent seasons, but it suffered key losses, especially with Williams and Britt. The Blue Hose's top returning tackler, Green, was fifth on the team. Some of this year's defensive signees could have an impact. It's probably not the season for the Blue Hose to end the regular season at Florida.
Sept. 1, at Central Michigan
Sept. 10, at Chattanooga
Sept. 17, at Campbell
Sept. 24, Florida Tech
Oct. 8, at Gardner-Webb*
Oct. 13, Monmouth*
Oct. 22, at Charleston Southern*
Oct. 29, Coastal Carolina
Nov. 5, Liberty*
Nov. 12, at Kennesaw State*
Nov. 19, at Florida
* - Big South game