August 14, 2017

(STATS) - The buzzword in the Big South appears to be "consistency" - Charleston Southern has it, and the teams chasing the two-time defending champion want more of it.

It's a unique season for the smallest conference in the FCS. Liberty, which has more titles than any program in Big South history, is ineligible this season as it plays its final campaign before moving up to the FBS. Also, in a rarity, all six teams return their primary quarterback.

Charleston Southern and Kennesaw State were installed as co-favorites in the Big South preseason poll, splitting 18 first-place votes. Gardner-Webb was third over Monmouth and Presbyterian.

"Obviously, I'm looking for our team to continue to learn how to finish games, and show more consistency from week to week," Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon said. "We enjoyed some more success last season than in year one of our program, but we still had some difficulty brining the same energy and emotion each game. This year, our schedule only gets tougher. So it'll be even more important for us to have that instinct to finish."

"We must be more consistent in all three phases - offense, defense, special teams," Gardner-Webb coach Carroll McCray said. "I thought we were really good the final three weeks last season and were able to be the physical team we want to be with the run game and hitting the play-action pass. We want to continue that and have a capable group. Our defense improved as well and we are headed in the right direction to compete for the top spot in our league. Our downfall has been a lack of consistency."

Adding to the uncertainty in the Big South race is that Charleston Southern has a new coach in Mark Tucker. He was elevated to the top spot after the highly successful Jamey Chadwell left to become the offensive coordinator and associate head coach at Coastal Carolina, the former Big South power that departed for the FBS level after last season.

"Our team and the players in this program understand what it takes to win conference championships," Tucker said. "We have some different players and a new coaching staff that are a part of this equation now, but our identity is still our young men. The thing we have to fight and what we've fought for the last three years is complacency. We have a very blue-collar mentality here and that certainly has not changed. We're going to be physical, run the ball very, very well, and we will compete."

Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2017 Big South race and STATS' predicted order of finish:

1. Charleston Southern

2. Kennesaw State

3. Gardner-Webb

4. Monmouth

5. Presbyterian

Ineligible for title: Liberty

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TEAM CAPSULES=

1. CHARLESTON SOUTHERN BUCCANEERS=

LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina

STADIUM: Buccaneer Field

COACH: Mark Tucker (first season)

2016 RECORDS: 7-4, 4-1 Big South (Tie/1st); No. 15 in final STATS FCS Top 25

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (5 offense/8 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Mike Holloway, RB; Darius Hammond, RB; Erik Austell, LT

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Shane Bucenell, QB, R-So. (67 of 113, 1,100 yards, 15 TD, 6 INT; 88 carries, 325 yards, 4 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Anthony Ellis, DE, Sr. (45 TT, 16 TFL, 7 Sacks, 1 PBU, 8 QBH, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Robert Mitchell, QB, Sr.; Ellijah Henry, RB, Fr.; Geoffrey Wall, RB/WR, So.; Kameron Brown, WR, R-So.; Jackson Williamson, OL, R-Sr.; Gage Bostwick, OL, R-Jr.; Frank Cirone, OL, R-Sr.; Johnny Robinson, DL, Jr.; Noah Oliver, DL, R-Jr.; Solomon Brown, LB, R-Jr.; Bobby Ruff, LB, Sr.; Zane Cruz, LB, Sr.; Shadarius Hopkins, CB, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Tucker, the quarterbacks coach over the last four seasons, will try to guide the Buccaneers to a third straight Big South title. The defense, which returns eight starters, boasts a standout front seven, led by Ellis (the 2016 Big South defensive player of the year) and linebackers Brown and Cruz, but the graduation-depleted secondary could be vulnerable. Still, the big question with the Bucs is whether their offense can replace the running back trio of Holloway, Hammond and Ben Robinson, who combined for 9,326 all-purpose yards and 62 touchdowns during their careers. Bucenell is coming off a standout freshman season and will be asked to increase his production. The toughest games are on the front and back ends of the schedule.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Mississippi State

Sept. 9, at South Carolina State

Sept. 16, at Elon

Sept. 23, Point

Sept. 30, Mississippi Valley State

Oct. 14, at Presbyterian*

Oct. 21, Savannah State

Oct. 28, Monmouth*

Nov. 4, at Gardner-Webb*

Nov. 11, at Kennesaw State*

Nov. 18, Liberty*

* - Big South game

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2. KENNESAW STATE OWLS=

LOCATION: Kennesaw, Georgia

STADIUM: Fifth Third Bank Stadium

COACH: Brian Bohannon (14-8, two seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 8-3, 3-2 Big South (Tie/3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Chaston Bennett, RB; Dante Blackmon, DB; Derrick Farrow, FS

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Chandler Burks, QB, Jr. (74 of 138, 1,250 yards, 13 TD, 4 INT; 161 carries, 799 yards, 5 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Tonarius Portress, DE, Sr. (56 TT, 13 TFL, 3 Sacks, 1 FR, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Daniel David, QB, So.; Darnell Holland, RB, Jr.; Jake McKenzie, RB, Jr.; Shaquil Terry, RB, R-Fr.; Justin Sumpter, WR, Jr.; Xavier Harper, WR, Jr.; Matt Frank, OL, Sr.; Zach Mitchler, OL, R-Sr.; Desmond Johnson, DE, So.; Izzy Sam, LB, Sr.; Anthony Gore Jr., LB, Jr.; Paris Bostick, LB, Sr.; Taylor Henkle, SS, Jr.; Dorian Walker, DB, So.

OUTLOOK: The Owls' third-year startup program may be ready to win the Big South. Of course, they're likely going to have to beat Charleston Southern for the first time. This year's Owls team is fast and highly experienced, boasting 16 returning starters. The option offense (320.6 rushing yards per game) is in good hands with Burks, who broke out last season, and Holland and Sumpter are breakaway threats. Bookends Johnson and Portress combine on a fierce defensive line. The Owls have even upgraded their schedule, dropping to only one sub-FCS opponent after playing three in both of their first two seasons.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, at Samford

Sept. 9, Tennessee Tech

Sept. 16, at Alabama State

Sept. 30, North Greenville

Oct. 7, Texas Southern

Oct. 14, at Liberty*

Oct. 21, Gardner-Webb*

Oct. 28, at Presbyterian*

Nov. 4, at Montana State

Nov. 11, Charleston Southern*

Nov. 18, Monmouth*

* - Big South game

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3. GARDNER-WEBB BULLDOGS=

LOCATION: Boiling Springs, North Carolina

STADIUM: Spangler Stadium

COACH: Carroll McCray (20-26, four seasons; 36-65 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 5-6, 3-2 Big South (Tie/3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Mike Estes, TE; Chad Geter, LB; Aaron Cook, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Tyrell Maxwell, QB, Sr. (131 of 235, 1,657 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT; 168 carries, 965 yards, 8 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Corey Horne, LB, Jr. (55 TT, 4 TFL, 1.5 Sacks, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Jayln Cagle, RB, So.; Kerry Bernard, RB, Sr.; Adonus Lee, WR, Jr.; Will Millikan, LT, Jr.; Brandon Leahey, LG, R-So. (Eastern Michigan transfer); Charlie Eudy, RT, R-Jr.; Brayden Briggs, RG, R-So.; P.J. Fuimaono, DE, Sr.; Davis Neilands, DE, R-So.; Laron Glenn, NG, Sr.; Josh Ramseur, NG, R-Jr.; Triston Dozier, CB, Jr.; Thomas Adams, SS, R-Sr.; Devin Mines, FS, So.; Paul Schumacher, PK, Sr.; Andrew Komornik, P, Gr.

OUTLOOK: Last year's late-season success (wins at Charleston Southern and in overtime versus Monmouth) has the Runnin' Bulldogs confident in title contention. Their only Big South titles were the first two in conference history (2002 and '03). Maxwell, the 2016 Big South offensive player of the year, is outstanding, but he needs Cagle, who has speed on the edge, to replace standout Khalil Lewis and keep defenses honest. Gardner-Webb's defense is missing the star power of last season, but there's still experience. The Bulldogs will know where they stand in the conference race after opening with Kennesaw State, Liberty and Charleston Southern.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, North Carolina A&T

Sept. 9, at Wyoming

Sept. 16, Western Carolina

Sept. 23, at Wofford

Oct. 7, Shorter

Oct. 14, at North Carolina Central

Oct. 21, at Kennesaw State*

Oct. 28, Liberty*

Nov. 4, Charleston Southern*

Nov. 11, at Monmouth*

Nov. 18, at Presbyterian*

* - Big South game

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4. MONMOUTH HAWKS=

LOCATION: West Long Branch, New Jersey

STADIUM: Kessler Field

COACH: Kevin Callahan (135-115, 24 seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 4-7, 0-5 Big South (6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Lavon Chaney, RB; Darren Ambush, WR; Darnell Leslie, DL

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Reggie White Jr., WR, Jr. (69 receptions, 934 yards, 7 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Mike Basile, SS, Sr. (110 receptions, 9 TFL, 2 Sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 3 FR, 1 FF, 3 BK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kenji Bahar, QB, R-So.; Justin Brown, RB, Fr.; Erik Zohouri, RB, Fr.; Robbie Cantelli, WR, R-Sr. (Fordham transfer); Jake Powell, TE, R-So.; Alex Thompson, OL, Sr.; Matt Stoneberg, OL, R-Sr.; Ryan Wetzel, OL, R-Sr.; Manny Maragoto, DL, R-Sr.; Evan Powell, LB, So.; Diego Zubieta, LB, Jr.; Marcus Leslie, FS, Sr.; Tymere Berry, CB, R-Jr.; Wendell Allen, CB, So.; Matt White, P/PK, Sr.

OUTLOOK: The Hawks seek a breakout season to match the excitement of playing in a newly renovated stadium. In White and Basile, they have two of the Big South's top players and NFL prospects. But the Hawks need improvement in a number of spots. Bahar hopes to solidify the No. 1 quarterback duties after starting the final three games last season. He's helped by the return of five starters on the offensive line. The defense has to figure out a way to stop the run.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, Lafayette

Sept. 9, Lehigh

Sept. 16, at Albany

Sept. 23, at Hampton

Sept. 30, at Bucknell

Oct. 7, at Holy Cross

Oct. 21, Liberty*

Oct. 28, at Charleston Southern*

Nov. 4, Presbyterian*

Nov. 11, Gardner-Webb*

Nov. 18, at Kennesaw State*

* - Big South game

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5. PRESBYTERIAN BLUE HOSE=

LOCATION: Clinton, South Carolina

STADIUM: Bailey Memorial Stadium

COACH: Tommy Spangler (42-24, six seasons)

2016 RECORDS: 2-9, 1-4 Big South (5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Darrell Bridges, RB; Khari Rosier, DE; Obinna Ntiasagwe, DE

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: DaShawn Davis, WR/RS, Jr. (42 receptions, 455 yards, 1 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Grant Beidel, LB, R-Sr. (75 TT, 4 TFL, 2.5 Sacks, 2 INT, 1 PBU, 3 QBH)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Ben Cheek, QB, R-Jr.; Will Brock, QB, R-Sr.; Zola Davis, RB/WR, Jr.; Cedric Frazier, WR, So.; DarQuez Watson, WR, Sr.; Riley Hilton, TE, R-Jr.; Thomas Hughes, OL, Sr.; Gyasi Yeldell, DT, R-Jr.; Nick Moss, LB, So.; Rock Ya-Sin, DB, Jr.; Kenneth Coleman, DB, Jr.; Ryan Burgess, DB, R-Jr.; Brett Norton, PK/P, Jr.

OUTLOOK: Spangler, 56, starts his second stint as the Blue Hose coach, having gone 42-24 on the Division II level over six seasons from 2001-06. He benefits from having seven home games, the most in the program's 103-year history. The Blue Hose were last in the FCS in averaging 8.9 points per game, but Cheek is a year wiser with running the offense. Bridges, their star running back, left for Chattanooga as a graduate transfer, so DaShawn Davis is their go-to player. The defense, coordinated by Spangler the last four seasons, will rely on younger players. There will be more growing pains.

SCHEDULE:

Aug. 31, at Wake Forest

Sept. 9, at The Citadel

Sept. 16, Campbell

Sept. 23, Cumberland

Sept. 30, Wofford

Oct. 7, Saint Francis

Oct. 14, Charleston Southern*

Oct. 28, Kennesaw State*

Nov. 4, at Monmouth*

Nov. 11, at Liberty*

Nov. 18, Gardner-Webb*

* - Big South game

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INELIGIBLE FOR BIG SOUTH TITLE=

LIBERTY FLAMES

LOCATION: Lynchburg, Virginia

STADIUM: Williams Stadium

COACH: Turner Gill (35-24, five seasons; 60-73 overall)

2016 RECORDS: 6-5, 4-1 Big South (Tie/1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

THREE KEY LOSSES: Dante' Shells, WR; Nick Newman, LB; Dexter Robbins, LB

ONE TO WATCH ON OFFENSE: Carrington Mosley, RB, R-Sr. (144 carries, 663 yards, 5 TD)

ONE TO WATCH ON DEFENSE: Juwan Wells, DE, Jr. (79 TT, 11 TFL, 5.5 Sacks, 1 PBU, 9 QBH, 2 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Stephen Calvert, QB, So.; Frankie Hickson, RB/RS, R-So.; Todd Macon, RB, R-Sr.; B.J. Farrow, WR, R-Jr.; Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR, R-So.; Michael Henderman, OL, Gr.; Dontae Duff, OL, R-So.; Dia'Vante Brown, DL, Gr.; Corbin Jackson, CB, R-Jr.; Solomon McGinty, LB, Gr.; Jeremy Peters, CB, Jr.; Chris Turner, CB, R-Jr.; Alex Probert, PK, So.; Trey Turner, P, R-Sr.

OUTLOOK: As they transition toward FBS independence next year, the Flames' games will count in the Big South standings, but they aren't eligible for the title or an FCS playoff bid. In fact, their scholarships are in the mid- to upper-70s, which is way above the FCS scholarship limit of 63. The Flames will have an excellent running game with Mosley, Hickson and Macon splitting carries, and Calvert was outstanding as the freshman starter under center. McGinty, a safety, has moved to linebacker in the 4-2-5 defensive scheme, which features Wells as an outside edge rusher. The Flames filled all four special teams spots on the Big South preseason squad.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 2, at Baylor

Sept. 9, Morehead State

Sept. 16, Indiana State

Sept. 23, at Jacksonville State

Sept. 30, Saint Francis

Oct. 14, Kennesaw State*

Oct. 21, at Monmouth*

Oct. 28, at Gardner-Webb*

Nov. 4, Duquense

Nov. 11, Presbyterian*

Nov. 18, at Charleston Southern*

* - Big South game

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