The Big South Conference is in a little bit of a waiting mode this season.
Liberty is a lame duck, anxious to move to FBS independence next year, but ineligible for the Big South title and an FCS playoff bid this fall.
Meanwhile, Campbell will be joining the conference next year and then North Alabama comes aboard in 2019.
But there will still be some interesting play on the field with two-time defending champ Charleston Southern facing a serious challenge from Kennesaw State and Gardner-Webb on the upswing, although standout running back Khalil Lewis was dismissed from the team in the offseason.
With the college football season fast approaching, here are five key questions for the Big South season ahead:
Pass the Bucs a three-peat?
Charleston Southern is coming off four terrific seasons under former head coach Jamey Chadwell (35-14 record, two conference titles) and is moving forward under elevated-quarterbacks coach Mark Tucker. While the transition has been smooth, the Buccaneers’ power-running game is tasked with replacing three backs that combined for 9,326 all-purpose yards and 62 touchdowns in their career. As the offense matures, the defense will have to carry them, led by a superb front seven that features defensive end Anthony Ellis and linebacker Solomon Brown. November will decide it all because the Bucs go to Gardner Webb and Kennesaw State and host Liberty, whose Big South games still count in the standings.
Is Kennesaw State ready to win the title?
Kennesaw State has been one of the more successful start-up programs in the FCS, going 14-8 in its first two seasons under head coach Brian Bohannon. The Owls have yet to beat Charleston Southern and Liberty, so that is a must this year if they are going to break through in the conference race. Their bid is bolstered by the return of 17 starters. Bohannon has built the team with speed and their triple-option offense is always troubling for opponents. Also, their defensive line is stacked with Desmond Johnson and Tonarius Portress.
What to expect in Liberty’s swan song?
Liberty is allowed to go above the FCS scholarship limit of 63 as it transitions toward the FBS, and the Flames should be in the mid- to upper 70s for head coach Turner Gill’s sixth season. They should be better than last year’s 6-5 record and have a young offensive trio to build around – quarterback Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert, running back Frankie Hickson and wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden. Senior defensive end Juwan Wells fuels the defense, while the special teams are among the best in the FCS.
What’s with the national tour?
As the smallest FCS conference, Big South members have to find six non-conference games, so it’s not surprising they’re playing more teams from conferences than any other – nine. Some are natural, like the five each against MEAC and Southern Conference teams and Monmouth taking on four Patriot League members. But the games also stretch far, like Kennesaw State visiting Montana State out in Big Sky country.
Who are the NFL prospects?
The Big South has produced 10 NFL draft picks, including Josh Norman, Rashad Jennings and Justin Bethel, as well as plenty of undrafted free agents. The top senior prospects are Monmouth safety Mike Basile (6-1, 200) and Charleston Southern defensive end Anthony Ellis (6-1, 245), whose size is more suited for outside linebacker.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Charleston Southern University Athletics)