By Myron Hosea
College Sporting News
When you think about it, the Big South’s first season with the automatic qualifier spot couldn’t have gone much better.
Three teams battled for the title.
The outcome went to the end of the regular season.
The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers joined Liberty and Stony Brook in the league-leading triumvirate with 5-1 Big South records.
A tiebreaker involving points allowed eventually determined that Coastal Carolina would represent the conference in the FCS playoffs.
It doesn’t seem likely that the Big South’s 2011 season – it’s 10th gridiron season – will feature a three-team tie when it’s over.
The pieces, though, are in places for a league that could be more competitive top to bottom.
Liberty, Stony Brook, and Coastal Carolina should again take the top three spots, but the remainder of the conference should be improved, giving the Big South better depth. Such depth would represent a good point of growth for the Big South.
The conference has become an automatic qualifier.
Two teams knocked off FBS schools last year (Akron and Ball State, but you understand).
The Big South sent a team to the playoffs for the second time (both Coastal Carolina).
Now the conference teams will look to take the next steps in development.
Coastal Carolina head coach David Bennett, whose team lost at home to Western Illinois in the first round of the FCS playoffs, said one of the next steps for the Big South is getting two teams in the playoffs – the AQ and an at-large.
Another step is winning one – or more – playoff games.
For a Big South team to capture an at-large big, it would need to avoid a non-conference slip-up, beat a top-flight non-conference team, and probably lose only to the eventual conference champ.
Last year, for example, Liberty (8-3) finished tied for the crown but lost out in the tiebreaker. The Flames’ loss to Robert Morris, considered an upset at the time, and the seven-point loss to James Madison contributed to not receiving an at-large.
This season, if Liberty were to come up short of the title, it would help the Flames to defeat Robert Morris and Lehigh.
And finally knocking off James Madison – which comes to Liberty on Sept. 17 - would certainly help.
Stony Brook’s key FCS games are Brown on Sept. 17 and Lafayette on Sept. 24, both at home. Coastal Carolina starts the season with an important game – for playoff positioning and in-state pride – when it hosts Furman.
The Chanticleers would also want to take care of business in the regular-season finale at Western Carolina.
So how do the seven Big South teams shake out in 2011? Here’s a quick preview of the programs.
Liberty (8-3, 5-1 in 2010)
Danny Rocco's program has been one of the best in the FCS in terms of wins and losses. In six seasons under Rocco, the Flames have won 40 games overall, have posted a 21-4 Big South record, and have won or shared the last four league titles.
Yet, they haven't locked up a postseason spot. The 2011 season may be the best shot Liberty has had to capture the elusive playoff bid, whether AQ or at-large.
Liberty brings one of the most productive offenses in all of FCS to Saturdays this fall.
Quarterback Mike Brown has generated more than 5,000 yards of offense in his career by throwing, running, and catching the ball.
The 2011 Big South Preseason Offensive Player of the Year will be the focus of the plans — and nightmares — of 11 defensive coordinators.
Last year, he averaged 346 yards of total offense, ran for nine touchdowns, and passed for 23 more scores. Brown was the third-leading rushing in the Big South as well as its top passer.
It would be challenging enough to stop the Flames if Brown was the only weapon, but he's not.
Wide receiver Chris Summers caught 76 passes for 1,081 yards and 15 touchdowns. Running back SirChauncey Holloway ran for 524 yards and 10 scores.
Aldreakis Allen returns to give Liberty a second option at running back.
Throw in wide receivers B. J. Hayes (56 catches) and Pat Kelly (39), and the Flames have the resources to top the 36.5 points they averaged per game in 2010.
Oh, don't forget placekicker Matt Bevins (105 points, 20 of 27 field goals). Four starters graduated from the offensive line, but left guard Malcolm Boyd leads the next group of Flames linemen.
Liberty's defense doesn't present a pack of well-known names like the offense, but it's a good unit, one that led the Big South in scoring defense a year ago. Asa Chapman, a 380-pound nose guard who is likely NFL bound after the season, provides a big central point for the defense.
Cory Freeman, Greg Schuster, and Paco Varol are the defensive ends.
The Flames lost key members of the linebacking corps, so they will look to Scott Hyland, Marques Jackson, and Nick Sigmon on the inside and Brent Vinson, Mike Connolly, and Demetrius Ward on the outside. Walt Aikens, Ron Hobby, KaJuan Lee, and Kevin Fogg will vie for time at cornerback.
The safeties will come from a group including Jacob Hagen, Jeffrey Henderson, and Brandon Robinson. Like Bevins, punter Mike Larsson (41.7 yards per punt) was named to the 2011 preseason All-Big South team.
Stony Brook (6-5, 5-1)
The Seawolves appeared to be in a good position late last season to capture the league title and the automatic playoff bid.
They lost three tough non-conference games (by three in overtime at Brown, by five at home to Massachusetts, and by seven at Lafayette), but won their first five Big South games.
It all crashed on the last Saturday of the regular season when they lost 54-28 at Liberty while Coastal Carolina won big. Stony Brook tied for the conference title but missed the playoffs.
Head coach Chuck Priore's team again faces a challenging non-conference slate featuring two FBS teams along with home games against Brown and Lafayette.
On the plus side, Liberty and Coastal Carolina have to venture to Stony Brook.
Regardless, the Seawolves are stocked for the challenge with eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters returning.
Stony Brook's system has been producing big rushing numbers, twice posting a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in a season. Miguel Maysonet (1,128 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Brock Jackolski (1,029 and nine) burst onto the gridiron to take the top two spots in Big South rushing. Former 1,000-yard man Edwin Gowins is expected to return from injury.
Opposing defenses that focus too much on the Seawolves' runners could find themselves vulnerable to the passing game.
Quarterback Michael Coulter has started every game the past two seasons. Coulter threw for 1,811 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his passes.
He also has back his top two receivers — Matt Brevi and Jordan Gush, who caught 39 passes each in 2010. Three-hundred pounders Michael Bamiro and Joe Faiella lead the offensive line.
Defensively, the Seawolves have to replace all-Big South defensive back Arin West but not much else.
Both cornerbacks, Davonte Anderson and Al-Majid Hutchins, return along with free safety Dominick Reyes. Ryan Haber, Michael Marino, Andrew Nelson, and Alex Probasco form the front wall. Craig Richardson and Jawara Dudley fill out two of the linebacker spots.
Stony Brook also is well set on special teams. Placekicker Wesley Skiffington scored 65 points. Jackolski averaged 26 yards per kickoff return and brought one back for a score.
Coastal Carolina (6-6, 5-1)
Looking back on a season in which his team came back from the brink and grabbed the Big South's first automatic playoff bid, Coastal Carolina head coach David Bennett said his players learned some valuable lessons.
Those lessons involved being disciplined and selfless not to mention never throwing in the towel.
The Chanticleers won their last four regular season games in 2010, forcing a three-way tie for the league title.
They got the AQ bid by winning the points allowed tiebreaker and retained the school's status as being the only Big South football to make the playoffs.
Coastal Carolina has the talent to stay at the top of the league, though the team may not have the experience at key offensive positions that Liberty and Stony Brook possess.
Quarterback Zach MacDowall, a multi-year starter, has to be replaced.
Also, the Chanticleers need someone to step forward at running back and could use some depth at wide receiver.
It may be a matter, though, of players finally getting their opportunity.
Among those getting an opportunity is Aramis Hillary.
The quarterback, the brother of former Appalachian State receiver and return star Coco Hillary, is in his second year in the program after transferring from South Carolina.
Hillary entered fall camp as the number one quarterback.
Senior Jamie Childers is number two at quarterback — and tight end. Bennett expects packages for both of them, but he also said three other players - including a true freshman - will be in the mix in the fall.
Tight end David Duran (34 catches) has all-america credentials. He leads the receiving corps along with wide receiver Matt Hazel (20 catches, five touchdowns).
Marcus Whitener and Aaron Jones are among the running back candidates, but they combined for just 51 carries a year ago.
The Chanticleers do have four returning starters on the offensive line — Jamey Cheatwood (preseason all-Big South), Pat Williams, Tim Franklin, and Bryan Brooks.
Eight starters return on defense, led by linebacker Andrae Jacobs. With 104 tackles, Jacobs was named Big South Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 and in this preseason.
He's joined at linebacker by Desmond Steward (80 tackles).
The Chanticleers have had some quality players in the secondary, and that will continue this year as cornerback Josh Norman (56 tackles) returns.
Cornerback Tre Henderson and safety Marcus Lott are back as well, but Coastal will look to new players to step up at the other safety positions. Dexter Holman, Chad McField, and Chris Thomas anchor the defensive front.
On special teams, return specialist Niccolo Mastromatteo is the only veteran.
Gardner-Webb (4-7, 2-4)
Awash with injuries, the Runnin' Bulldogs could never find their footing and slipped to one of their worst records in years, which ultimately ended the long and mostly successful head coaching tenure of Steve Patton.
Gardner-Webb has turned to a young, first-time head coach who has followed in the footsteps of his father by pursuing a coaching career.
Ron Dickerson, Jr. accepted the not small task of reviving a program that has to catch up with the three schools already mentioned in this piece.
Fortunately for Dickerson, he has a good bit of returning talent, especially with some of those key players back on defense.
The Bulldogs placed three players on the preseason all-conference defense, including two players who suffered injuries a year ago in linebacker Marty Patterson and defensive lineman Matt Goods.
Defensive end Preston Pemasa shone as a freshman, registering 66 tackles to lead the team. Jordan Woods mans the other defensive end spot.
Also back is defensive back Lyndrez Leslie (55 tackles) and linebacker Brian Wittenberger (55). Defensive back Gianni Olivas led the team in interceptions (four) last season as a freshman.
Offensively, Dickerson said he is looking for balance. He has an experienced returning quarterback in Chandler Browning (863 yards passing, four touchdowns), and he added a junior college transfer quarterback from Los Angeles, Exavier Johnson.
Whoever is behind center will have one of the Big South's best receivers in James Perry, III, who snared 65 passes last season. Juanne Blount (494 yards rushing) is the top returning back, but Kenny Little figures into the plans as well.
Preseason all-conference pick Jamie Dunaway leads the offensive line from the left guard position. He's joined up front by left tackle Harrison Martin, center Austin Sargent, right guard Zach Welch, and right tackle David McConnell.
Freshman Trever Austin is expected to take over placekicking while Bo Lindsey is the punter.
VMI (3-8, 2-4)
After a few years of a high-powered ground attack, the Keydets made the dramatic switch to a pro-style passing offense in 2010.
The transition was not without difficulties as three quarterbacks struggled to generate yards and points. The hope is that another cycle of experience will produce better results.
Two of the three signal callers, both sophomores, return. Eric Kordenbrock and Adam Morgan combined for 1,093 yards passing with six touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Leading receiver T. J. Talley (35 receptions) is back along with Tracy Hairston (17). Chaz Jones showed ability at the running back position, rushing for 502 yards and six scores while also catching 24 passes. Helping all of these players are four returning starters on the offensive line: Rob Bailey, D'Angelo Smith, Robert Collins, and James Boatright.
Kicker Jeff Sexton looks to surpass his 42 points from a year ago.
The Big South's top tackler in 2010 paces the VMI defense. Linebacker A. J. Gross made 110 tackles and is a preseason all-conference pick.
Josh Sneed will be alongside at the other inside linebacker spot while Emilio Calvin and Chris Harper man the outside linebacker spots.
Byron Allen (78 tackles) is another preseason all-Big South pick at defensive back. Seniors Greg Walker and Trae Watkins return in the secondary as well.
The Keydets are looking for new starters up front.
Charleston Southern (3-8, 1-5)
When was the last time you heard someone say their motto was "No days off?"
Charleston Southern cornerback Charles James, a preseason all-conference and All-American, said that was the rallying cry for the Buccaneer football players this summer as they prepared for what they hope is a turnaround season.
And in another mind-bender sort of thing, needing a turnaround season could be a nice thing for a program that once suffered seasons of losing.
Under Jay Mills, Charleston Southern has had four winning seasons, a conference title, and two other records at break even in eight years.
So having to bounce back from a 3-8 record is something the Bucs haven't had to do since they went 1-11 in Mills' first season as head coach.
James and his mates on the defensive side of the ball may have to be the difference makers at least early on. Charleston Southern's offense lost most of its playmakers.
Mills has seven of the teams's top 10 tacklers from a year ago returning.Returning with James (six interceptions) in the secondary is Chris Kuzdale (56 tackles).
Linebacker Cornelius Sterling (57 tackles) is another key leader of the defense. Brad Sweatt (47) joins Sterling at linebacker.
In front of them are linemen Jacque Carter and Will Hunt.
The offense suffered through the loss of starting quarterback A. J. Toscano midway through the season, but that situation eventually led to finding true freshman Malcolm Dixon, who switched back to quarterback after a brief time at wide receiver.
Now a sophomore, Dixon has the control of the Bucs' offense in his hands. He showed running ability but also completed 21 of the 27 passes he attempted.
Mills said Dixon offers the team the most balance it's had at quarterback since Collin Drafts.
Almost all of the other skill position players from last year departed. B. J. Hackworth has some experience at running back after gaining 182 yards in 2010.
Kirby Broome — who went from not on the roster just prior to the 2010 season to earning a scholarship this past spring - is the top returning receiver with a mere seven receptions.
The Bucs do have experience on the offensive line with players like left tackle Levi McFatter — a preseason All-Big South selection, left guards Nick Kemper and Kayson Wharton, center Jeff Hartung, right guard B. J. Baker, and right tackle James Nicholson.
Punter Andy Brown is expected to add placekicking duties to his assignments this fall.
Presbyterian College (2-9, 1-5)
The Blue Hose broke out of the losing skein that covered parts of three seasons with a Big South win at Gardner-Webb last fall. PC enters 2011 coming off of a win in the season finale over Davidson.
This year's Blue Hose squad features a lot more veteran players than the team has been used to the past couple of seasons, offering hope for continued improvement in coach Harold Nichols' third year at the helm.
Two quarterbacks with experience return.
Senior Brandon Miley missed some of 2010 with injuries, which opened the door for Ryan Singer to play as a true freshman.
They should battle for playing time along with Chris Sanders. Nichols hopes running back Lance Byrd avoids the injuries that limited his season last year.
If Byrd can run as he did in 2009 as a freshman, PC could make some offensive noise. Seth Moreland or a newcomer such as Cameron Jones will provide depth behind Byrd.
The Blue Hose will turn to veterans Michael Ruff and Patrick McCoy to lead the receiving corps.
Arthur Williams also has experience. Nichols brought in a promising group of freshmen wide receivers such as Jeremiah McKie who could figure into the mix.
It will help all of these skill-position players to have four returning starters on the offensive line: Blake Dowd, Max Travis, Stephon Williams, and Billy Kaylor.
PC's defense features nine returning starters.
Preseason All-Big South defensive back Justin Bethel, a three-year starter, is one of those returnees. He registered 59 tackles a year ago.
The leading returning tackler is linebacker CeeJay Harris (75) who made seven tackles for loss as junior college transfer last year.
L. J. Perry earned a starting nod as a true freshman in 2010.
Manning the front wall position are Brian Davis, Keyadd Miller, and Xavier Boatwright. Joining Bethel in the secondary are Damon Lawrence (48 tackles), Matthan Burton (60), and Cedric Byrd.
Nichols has a lot of confidence in third-year punter Patrick Morgano. The Blue Hose will lean on a new placekicker.
Big South Order of Finish
2. Stony Brook
3. Coastal Carolina
6. Charleston Southern
7. Presbyterian College
Offensive Player of the Year: Liberty Quarterback Mike Brown
Defensive Player of the Year: Coastal Carolina Linebacker Andrae Brown
Biggest Shoes to Fill: Coastal Carolina Quarterback Zach MacDowall
Big South Games of the Week
September 3 – Furman at Coastal Carolina
The Chanticleers broke through in 2010 to take the Big South’s first automatic playoff bid. It would be a huge boost to the program to follow that season by knocking off cross-state rival Furman. The Paladins will be a tough out in the first game for the new coaching staff.
September 10 – Robert Morris at Liberty
Liberty seemed to be riding a strong wave early last season until they ran into Robert Morris. The Flames have narrowly missed playoff action for four straight seasons. Every game is a must win.
September 17 – James Madison at Liberty
Again, every game is a must win for Liberty. Especially this one. A win over the Dukes adds weight to the Flames’ argument.
September 24 – Presbyterian College at Furman
This game matches a new FCS program trying to make its place in the world – PC – against a program with an established pedigree – Furman. So while Furman will be a strong favorite, the Blue Hose will see this game as an opportunity for a huge win over their neighbors just an hour up the road.
October 1 – Gardner-Webb at Samford
New coach Ron Dickerson, Jr. could gain a nice FCS win if his Runnin’ Bulldogs can capture a win in Birmingham. Samford plays hard-nosed, competitive football, so this will be a tough one for Gardner-Webb to capture.
October 8 – Liberty at Gardner-Webb
Big South games begin, and Liberty’s visit to North Carolina highlights the slate. The Flames have dominated the series of late, and for the Bulldogs to become a factor in the league race, they’ll have to win this game.
October 15 – Coastal Carolina at Liberty
The Chanticleers and the Flames – along with Stony Brook – are expected to battle for the conference title. So making this the game of the week is a no-brainer. As last year showed, a loss doesn’t eliminate you, but the advantages of winning are clear. You take control and force everyone else to chase you.
October 22 – Gardner-Webb at Coastal Carolina
These teams tend to play close and exciting games. Don’t expect that to change in 2011. The Chanticleers can’t let this one get away from them.
October 29 – Coastal Carolina at Stony Brook
Big Game No. 2. Stony Brook will try to own the home field using its stout running game
November 5 – Stony Brook at Charleston Southern
Stony Brook must avoid a letdown on the road to keep its title hopes alive.
November 12 – Coastal Carolina at Charleston Southern
CCU and CSU have developed a memorable rivalry in a very short time and there should be more fireworks in this matchup.
November 19 – Liberty at Stony Brook
Liberty knocked Stony Brook out of the playoffs last year and Stony Brook cost the Flames an NCAA berth the year. This game could again be for all the Big South marbles.