Big South spring outlook
(STATS) - The Big South appears to have become the epicenter for conference realignment.
In an 18-month span, the Big South has lost Coastal Carolina to the FBS level, gained Campbell beginning with the 2018 season and North Alabama in 2019, and, two weeks ago, learned Liberty will be leaving for the FBS level after this season.
This following Stony Brook's departure after the 2012 season and VMI's after the 2013 season.
With Liberty a lame duck, not eligible for the conference title or an FCS playoff bid this year, the conference race is thinned of another power. Since Big South football began in 2002, the Flames had won a record eight titles and Coastal Carolina seven.
The conference hopes this year's title race can be as tight as last year's, when Charleston Southern and Liberty shared the title and Gardner-Webb and Kennesaw State were only one game back in the standings.
One intriguing factor is Charleston Southern, which has represented the conference in the last two FCS playoffs, has undergone a head coaching change.
Following is a look across the Big South with spring practices underway in college football:
Head Coach: Mark Tucker (first season)
2016 Records: 7-4, 4-1 Big South
Spring Practices: March 20-April 13
What to Know: After four seasons as the quarterbacks coach under former head coach Jamey Chadwell, Tucker takes over the two-time defending Big South champion. QB Shane Bucenell is coming off a standout freshman season, but Tucker must replace the trio of running backs Mike Holloway, Darius Hammond and Ben Robinson, who combined for 9,326 all-purpose yards and 62 touchdowns during their careers. The defense, which returns eight starters, has a standout front seven, led by defensive end Anthony Ellis and linebackers Solomon Brown and Zane Cruz. The Buccaneers recruited hard for the secondary, which lost three starters.
Head Coach: Carroll McCray (20-26, four seasons; 36-65 overall)
2016 Records: 5-6, 3-2 Big South
Spring Practices: Completed
What to Know: The Runnin' Bulldogs were one of the first FCS teams to hold spring practices. They must have been anxious to get going considering their late-season success (Big South wins at Charleston Southern and in overtime versus Monmouth). There are eight returning starters on each side of the ball. Quarterback Tyrell Maxwell and running back Khalil Lewis provide a dangerous 1-2 duo, and the offensive line was bolstered by the addition of Eastern Michigan transfer Brandon Leahey. It will be difficult to replace linebackers Chad Geter and Aaron Cook.
Head Coach: Brian Bohannon (14-8, two seasons)
2016 Records: 8-3, 3-2 Big South
Spring Practices: Feb. 24-March 24
What to Know: The bar has been set high for the third-year startup program. The next step is to beat top-tier programs Charleston Southern and Liberty. This year's team is highly experienced with 17 returning starters (nine on offense), but the Owls have to replace the big-play ability of running back Chaston Bennett and defensive back Dante Blackmon. Junior quarterback Chandler Burks, the first verbal commitment under Bohannon, broke out last season while leading the option offense. On the defensive line, Desmond Johnson and Tonarius Portress are a combo that no offense wants to deal with.
Head Coach: Turner Gill (35-24, five seasons; 60-73 overall)
2016 Records: 6-5, 4-1 Big South
Spring Practices: March 21-April 20 (spring game is April 15)
What to Know: The Flames are already making preparations for their move to the FBS as an independent. They'll look to mature as a team after quarterback Stephen Calvert, running back Frankie Hickson and wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden all played significant roles during their first season on the field. But the offensive line needs to stay healthy after injuries led to seven different starting combinations. Safety Solomon McGinty has moved to linebacker in a 4-2-5 defensive scheme that returns seven starters and features emerging defensive end Juwan Wells. The special teams should be dominant this season.
Head Coach: Kevin Callahan (135-115, 24 seasons)
2016 Records: 4-7, 0-5 Big South
Spring Practices: March 27-April 22
What to Know: The Hawks will seek a boost this season by their move into a renovated stadium. They have an experienced team with 15 returning starters (eight on offense), including special talents in safety Mike Basile and wide receiver Reggie White Jr. Quarterback was an inconsistent position, and Kenji Bahar hopes to solidify it after starting the final three games over Cody Williams, who has transferred out of the program. Although the Hawks return all five starting offensive linemen, they've lost three senior running backs, so it will be interesting to see if incoming freshmen Justin Brown and Erik Zohouri can work themselves into the mix.
Head Coach: Tommy Spangler (42-24, six seasons)
2016 Records: 2-9, 1-4 Big South
Spring Practices: N/A
What to Know: The 55-year-old Spangler is his second stint as the Blue Hose coach, having led them for six seasons from 2001-06. His team will play seven home games, the most in the program's 103-year history. Spangler had coordinated the defense the last four seasons and the unit returns seven starters, including standout defensive lineman Obinna Ntiasagwe and veteran linebackers. The defensive linemen are inexperienced, so the position is a focal point of the spring. While there are eight starters back on offense, the Blue Hose's 8.9 points per game were the low mark in the FCS. Plus, running back Darrell Bridges (2,182 career rushing yards) is expected to pursue a graduate transfer for his final season of eligibility.