It's as if Big South football coaches are stepping right into the kitchen and making tiramisu.
Nobody is taking it easy in bothering with the cupcakes.
One of the ways the seven teams have strengthened the conference is by playing difficult non-conference schedules in September.
It helped make for a tremendous finish last year, when the Big South's first automatic FCS playoff bid wasn't determined until the final day of the regular season, and Coastal Carolina secured it by winning a tie-breaker over Liberty and Stony Brook after each finished with a 5-1 record in conference play (they were 1-1 against each other).
Those three teams figure to fight to the finish again. Liberty, which has won at least a share of the last four titles, is the Big South's preseason favorite for a fifth straight year. For their strong senior class, it's now or never for securing what has been an elusive playoff bid.
"I want this year's team to be fast and play physical football," said Flames head coach Danny Rocco, whose program is a combined 34-11 over the last four seasons, including 8-3 last season. It just missed on an at-large playoff bid as well as the Big South's automatic bid.
"Our talent level continues to grow here at Liberty each year and I'm very excited about the potential of this year's team," Rocco added. "What sets this group apart from the teams of the past few years is their speed, their explosiveness and their overall power. We certainly feel like that should make a difference in our level of play during the upcoming season."
Liberty will prepare for conference play with arguably its toughest September schedule. The Flames will play FBS member North Carolina State, defending Northeast Conference champion Robert Morris, CAA Football power James Madison and defending Patriot League champ Lehigh.
The Flames are not alone, though. Among the September games, Stony Brook will open the season at two FBS opponents, UTEP and Buffalo, and Coastal Carolina will play Furman of the Southern Conference and the University of Georgia.
Also, Gardner-Webb (Ohio University and Wake Forest) and Charleston Southern (UCF and Florida State) will both play two FBS teams; VMI takes on two CAA powers, William & Mary and Richmond, as well as visits FBS member Akron; and Presbyterian will go across the country to FBS member Cal as well as take on SoCon members Wofford, Furman, and, then after Big South play begins in October, Georgia Southern
"We want to make sure we don't go into a September lull like we have in past seasons. We want to play every game like it's in October or November," Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore said.
"Our theme this year is to compete. We're going to compete on the field, in the classroom and in the weight room."
"This team can use last year and believe that, if they play together and not care who gets the credit, great things can happen," Coastal Carolina coach David Bennett said.
"We didn't get off to the start we wanted last year, but we were in every game. We were just missing that little piece to put us over the hump. We saw the tide start to turn in the second half versus Stony Brook and the final run was made possible after getting that overtime win at Gardner-Webb. From that point on, we knew we had something special. We have enough leaders on this team to hopefully not let us get so far behind the eight-ball again to start the season."
The 2011 season is the 10th for Big South football. Following is a team-by- team breakdown of the conference race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
2. Stony Brook
3. Coastal Carolina
6. Charleston Southern
Offensive Player of the Year: Mike Brown, QB, Liberty
Defensive Player of the Year: Andrae Jacobs, LB, Coastal Carolina
1. LIBERTY FLAMES (8-3 overall; 5-1 Big South)
COACH: Danny Rocco (40-16 in six seasons at Liberty)
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Mike Brown, R-Sr. (223 of 351 for 2,956 yards, 23 TDs and 11 INTs; 160 carries, 854 yards, 9 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: NG Asa Chapman, Sr. (41 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB SirChauncey Holloway, R-Jr. (108 carries, 524 yards, 10 TDs) RB/KR Aldreakis Allen, So. (not part of team last year) RB Korrey Davis, R-Jr. (58 receptions, 201 yards, 1 TD) FB Peter Gagliardi, R-So. WR Chris Summers, R-Sr. (76 receptions, 1,081 yards, 15 TDs) WR/RS B.J. Hayes, R-Sr. (56 receptions, 546 yards, 1 TD; 10.2-yard punt return average; 21.1-yard KO return average) WR/PR Pat Kelly, Jr. (39 receptions, 635 yards, 4 TDs) WR Ervin Garner, R-Sr. (12 receptions, 208 yards, 1 TD) TE Tommy Shaver, R-Sr. (8 receptions, 104 yards) LT Stan Herring, R-Jr. LG Malcolm Boyd, Jr. C Jay Weatherington, Jr. RG Aaron Lundy, R-Jr. RT Mark Tomlin, R-Sr. RT Toney White, R-Sr. DE Greg Schuster, R-Jr. (23 TT, 1 FR as a linebacker) DE Cory Freeman, R-So. (12 TT, 2 PD, 1 QBH) OLB Mike Connolly, R-Sr. (19 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR) OLB Demetrius Ward, Jr. (17 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR) OLB Brent Vinson, Jr. (25 TT, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 1 blocked kick) ILB Nick Sigmon, R-Fr. ILB Marques Jenkins, R-Jr. (7 TT) ILB Scott Hyland, So. (17 TT, 1 TFL, 1 PBU) CB KaJuan Lee, R-Sr. (17 TT) CB Ron Hobby, R-Jr. (11 TT, 3 PBU) CB Walt Aikens, R-So. (Illinois transfer) CB Kenny Scott, R-Fr. WS Brandon Robinson, Sr. (29 TT, 2 TFL, 3 PBU) FS Jeffrey Henderson, R-Sr. (North Carolina Central transfer) FS Jacob Hagen, R-Fr. PK Matt Bevins, Sr. (20 of 27 FG, 52 long; 45 of 46 PAT) P Mike Larsson, Sr. (33 punts, 41.7 ypp)
OUTLOOK: At Liberty, "The Quest Continues," or so goes the program's 2011 mantra. The Big South power is going for its fifth straight conference title, and the first FCS playoff berth they have craved in recent seasons. Many key pieces are in place for another big season, but some positions offer potential problems. The Flames ranked third in the FCS with a 36.5-point average last season and the offense seems set to soar again behind QB Brown, who shattered the school's single-season record last year with 3,810 total offensive yards, or a nation's-best 346.4 per game. His top receiver, Summers, led the conference in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. Plus the running game is strong. The problem offensively is up front, where LG Boyd is the only returning offensive lineman with starter's experience. Thus, the O-line will have to mature quickly. Defensively, they lost a lot, too, as only one of last year's top seven tacklers is back - Chapman, the 6-foot-5, 380-pound mountain at nose guard. Schuster moves from linebacker to defensive end and Vinson moves from safety to linebacker. The secondary, led by Robinson, should be a strength. Plus Rocco likes the depth he has developed within the program, so players should stay fresh throughout games. Bevins is the All-America first- team place-kicker in each of the past two seasons. The Flames will have to go to Stony Brook, but it seems they will fulfill their quest this season.
2. STONY BROOK SEAWOLVES (6-5 overall; 5-1 Big South)
COACH: Chuck Priore (28-27 in five seasons at Stony Brook; 67-36 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB/KR Brock Jackolski, Sr. (149 carries, 1,029 yards, 9 TDs; 17 receptions, 149 yards, 2 TDs; 26.3-yard KO return average, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Craig Richardson, Jr. (85 TT, 6.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Michael Coulter, Sr. (133 of 210 for 1,811 yards, 17 TDs and 10 INTs) RB Miguel Maysonet, Jr. (176 carries, 1,128 yards, 12 TDs; 9 receptions, 99 yards, 2 TDs) FB Chris Fenelon, Jr. WR Matt Brevi, Sr. (39 receptions, 668 yards, 5 TDs) WR/PR Jordan Gush, Sr. (39 receptions, 525, 5 TDs) WR Chris McMillan, Jr. (2 receptions, 16 yards) WR Kevin Norrell, Jr. (Washington State transfer) C Phillip Vournazos, Sr. LG Joe Faiella, Sr. LT Scott Hernandez, So. RT Michael Bamiro, So. RG Cody Precht, R-Fr. RG Joe Danaker, Jr. (Lackawanna Junior College transfer) DE Ryan Haber, Sr. (30 TT, 7 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF) DE Alex Probasco, So. (17 TT, 2 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR) DE Roosevelt Kirk, Sr. (15 TT, 2 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 blocked kick) NT Andrew Nelson, Sr. (27 TT, 4 TFL, 2 FF) DT Michael Marino, Sr. (11 TT) NT Masengo Kabongo, Jr. (Maryland transfer) LB Jawara Dudley, So. (49 TT, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QBH) LB Grant Nakwaasah, So. (35 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 PBU) LB Reginald Franklin, So. (injured last season) CB D.J. Porter, Sr. (4 TT) CB Al-Majid Hutchins, Sr. (32 TT, 1 INT, 2 PBU) CB Davonte Anderson, So. (34 TT, 4 INT, 7 PBU) S Dominick Reyes, Jr. (67 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF) S Cedrick Moore, Sr. (39 TT, 3 INT, 1 PBU) S Dan Mulrooney, Jr. (Boston College transfer) PK/P Wesley Skiffington, Jr. (7 of 12 FG, 44 long; 44 of 46 PAT)
OUTLOOK: Priore likes the chemistry on his team, and his Seawolves, like Liberty, are trying to secure their first FCS playoff bid. They get to host both of the teams with which they shared last year's Big South title, Coastal Carolina (Oct. 29) and Liberty (Nov. 19). Also, like Liberty, the Seawolves return a lot of skills position players while retooling on the offensive line. Jackolski and Maysonet are Hofstra transfers who gave the team a pair of 1,000-yard rushers last season. Coulter is back for his third season as the starting quarterback. The Seawolves obviously think run first, but Brevi averaged over 17 yards per reception. New defensive coordinator Rob Neviaser inherits an aggressive unit which helped the Seawolves to a plus-13 turnover ratio last season. The secondary is especially deep and NT Kabongo is expected to make an impact after transferring in from Maryland. LB Richardson tied for the team lead in tackles last season. The Seawolves have finished 6-5 or 5-6 in each of the last six seasons. They very well can surpass that level despite opening the season against FBS members UTEP and Buffalo.
3. COASTAL CAROLINA CHANTICLEERS (6-6 overall; 5-1 Big South)
COACH: David Bennett (56-35 in eight seasons at Coastal Carolina; 119-52 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: TE David Duran, Sr. (34 receptions, 472 yards, 2 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Andrae Jacobs, Jr. (104 TT, 12 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Aramis Hillary, Jr. (13 of 25 for 132 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs) QB Jamie Childers, Sr. RB Marcus Whitener, Jr. (35 carries, 112 yards, 1 TD) RB Aaron Jones, So. (26 carries, 152 yards, 1 TD) RB Jeremy Height, Jr. (30 carries, 80 yards, 1 TD) WR Akeem Wesley, Jr. WR Matt Hazel, So. (20 receptions, 276 yards, 5 TDs) WR Adrian Sullivan, Jr. TE Jamie Childers, Sr. LT Jamey Cheatwood, So. LG Kaled Dees, So. C Pat Williams, Jr. RG Tim Franklin, Sr. RT Bryan Brooks, Sr. DE Jamel Davis, Jr. (24 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FR) DT Chad McField, Sr. (30 TT, 3 TFL, 1.5 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FR) DT Johnny Hartsfield, Sr. (22 TT, 6.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 QBH) DT Jeffrey Salley, So. (3 TT) DE Quinton Davis, R-So. (12 TT) LB Desmond Steward, Sr. (80 TT, 6 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF) CB Josh Norman, Sr. (56 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 9 PBU, 1 FF, 1 blocked kick) CB Tre Henderson, Jr. (24 TT, 1 INT, 1 PBU) CB/LB Marcus Lott, Jr. (67 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 3 PBU, 1 FF) S Philip George, So. (6 TT) S Johnnie Houston, So. (9 TT) PK/P Grant Clayton, So.
OUTLOOK: Bennett believes Jacobs said it best that this team has to be humble about preseason respect and hungry about returning to the top of the conference. The Chanticleers have some key veterans, but they must replace QB Zach MacDowall, their No. 2 all-time passer. Hillary, who is more acclimated to the system a year after transferring in from South Carolina, is mobile, and the Chanticleers are excellent at protecting their QB. He has a safety valve in Duran, who arguably is the best tight end in the FCS. They are replacing their leading wide receivers and starting running back Eric O'Neal, so the offense may be slow to fire early in the season. The defense should carry the team, though, behind a dominant linebacker in Jacobs, the 2010 Big South Defensive Player of the Year, and a secondary boasting CBs Norman and Henderson and S Lott, who also can play linebacker. After losing three straight games to open last season, they have a chance to post a big first half of the season.
4. GARDNER-WEBB RUNNIN' BULLDOGS (4-7 overall; 2-4 Big South)
COACH: Ron Dickerson (first seasons at Gardner-Webb)
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (8 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/PR James Perry III, R-Sr. (65 receptions, 673 yards, 3 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Marty Patterson, R-Sr. (injured last season)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Chandler Browning, So. (91 of 169 for 863 yards, 4 TDs and 5 INTs) QB Lucas Beatty, R-Fr. QB Exavier Johnson, Jr. (L.A. Pierce JC transfer) RB Juanne Blount, So. (126 carries, 494 yards, 3 TDs; 17 receptions, 125 yards, 1 TD) RB Kenny Little, R-Jr. (5 carries, 45 yards, 1 TD) RB J.J. Hubbard, Fr. FB Luke Stein, Sr. (defensive lineman last season) WR Marquis Sanders, R-Sr. (14 receptions, 167 yards, 1 TD; injured last season) WR Lyndon Leslie, R-Sr. (10 receptions, 156 yards) TE James Dugas, Sr. (3 receptions, 53 yards, 1 TD) LT Harrison Martin, Jr. LG Jamie Dunaway, Jr. C Austin Sargent, Jr. RG Zach Welch, Sr. RG Zac Blackwell, Jr. (Pearl River JC transfer) RT Steve Demilio, R-Jr. RT David McConnell, R-Fr. DE Preston Pemasa, So. (65 TT, 14.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 9 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF) DE Jordan Woods, Sr. (42 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF) DE Zach Shelton, So. (3 TT, 1 PBU) DT Matt Goods, So. (academic redshirt last season) DT Dylan Taylor, Jr. (7 TT) DT Tyler Hough-Jenkins, R-Fr. DT Maurice Dickson, So. (29 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR) LB Lyndrez Leslie, Sr. (55 TT, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 QBH) LB Devin Johnson, Sr. (31 TT, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF) LB Brian Wittenberger, Jr. (55 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 QBH) CB Keon Williams, So. (13 TT, 2 FR) CB Sean Davis, Jr. (7 TT) CB Brian Covington, Fr. CB Kamar Morrison, Jr. (Cerritos JC transfer) CB Ivan Toomer, Fr. FS Courtney Roundtree, Jr. (51 TT, 1.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF) SS Gianni Olivas, So. (50 TT, 4 INTs, 4 PBU, 1 QBH) PK Trever Austin, Fr. P Bo Lindsey, Jr. (13 punts, 38.8 ypp) LS/DE Hudson Smith, R-So. (23 TT, 2.3 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FR)
OUTLOOK: Dickerson, who has been the wide receivers coach the last three years at Ole Miss, has replaced longtime coach Steve Patton. His father, Ron Dickerson Sr., the first black major college football head coach at Temple during the 1990s, is serving as the team's defensive line coach. The Runnin' Bulldogs will live up to their team nickname because their rookie head coach believes in having a strong running game, and that will start with Blount and Little. Their offensive line lost two four-year starters, but is still fairly experienced, led by LT Dunaway. Perry already has three seasons of at least 50 receptions, so his return will help keep the offense balanced. The strength of the team, though, is the defense, and the Runnin' Bulldogs will play an aggressive style. Patterson, the 2010 Big South Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, was hurt before last season began and returns from the hip injury. DT Goods also sat out last season, so he also returns to a defense that already boasts excellent players in DEs Pemasa and Woods, LB Leslie and SS Olivas. It appears the Runnin' Bulldogs will improve slightly on last year's record.
5. VMI KEYDETS (3-8 overall; 2-4 Big South)
COACH: Sparky Woods (9-24 in three seasons at VMI; 72-70-5 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: TB Chaz Jones, R-Sr. (133 carries, 502 yards, 6 TDs)
DEFENSIVE STAR: ILB A.J. Gross, R-Sr. (110 TT, 11 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Eric Kordenbrock, So. (67 of 134 for 723 yards, 3 TDs and 7 INTs) QB Adam Morgan, R-So. (35 of 76 for 370 yards, 3 TDs and 4 INTs) TB/KR T.J. Talley, Sr. (35 receptions, 407 yards, 3 TDs as a wide receiver last season) FB Hardy Temoney, R-Jr. WR Tracy Hairston, R-Sr. (17 receptions, 242 yards, 2 TDs) WR James Rogers, R-Fr. WR Trent White, So. (10 receptions, 104 yards, 1 TD) WR Dexter Bridge, Fr. LT Rob Bailey, Sr. LG James Boatright, R-Sr. C D'Angelo Smith, Sr. RG Andy Marcotte, R-Fr. RT Aaron Blue, R-Sr. DE Shawn Chapman, Jr. (13 TT) DE Justin Smith, R-So. (23 TT, 2 TFL) DE Patrick Goulden, R-So. (2 TT) NT Charlie Jones, Jr. (25 TT, 1 FR, 1 FF) OLB Emilio Calvin, R-Sr. (11 TT, 1 PBU, 1 QBH) OLB Byron Allen, R-Sr. (78 TT, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 QBH) OLB Chris Harper, R-So. (29 TT, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 QBH) ILB Josh Sneed, Sr. (33 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF) CB Mike Smith, So. (20 TT, 3 PBU) CB Greg Walker, So. (27 TT, 2 INTs, 6 PBU) CB Miguel Marshall, So. (1 TT) SS Michael Johnson, Jr. (41 TT, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 blocked kick) SS Demetri Phillips, R-Fr. FS Trae Watkins, Sr. (53 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 PBU, 1 FR) PK Jeff Sexton, Jr. (7 of 15 FG, 44 long; 21 of 21 PAT) P Cameron Murray, Sr. (handled kickoffs last season)
OUTLOOK: Last year's Big South-worst offense appears more suited to do damage now that the Keydets are in their second season running a pro-set. They need more consistency at quarterback, starting with Kordenbrock. Jones is coming off a solid season at tailback and Woods has moved Talley from wide receiver to tailback, which is somewhat odd considering he led the team with 35 receptions last season. The strength of the team - literally and figuratively - is up front, where Bailey (6-4, 325 pounds) and Smith anchor a veteran offensive line which has 55 career starts. It's a different story on the defensive line because all three starters in the 3-4 have graduated. Although the Keydets appear to be vulnerable up front, NT Jones should have a breakout season. LB Gross was the Big South's leading tackler last season and the secondary is stocked with veteran players. The Keydets will be more formidable than last season, but they have to improve last season's 15.8-point average and their usual inability to win on the road.
6. CHARLESTON SOUTHERN BUCCANEERS (3-8 overall; 1-5 Big South)
COACH: Jay Mills (43-46 in eight seasons at Charleston Southern; 46-67 overall)
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (4 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: LT Levi McFatter, R-Sr.
DEFENSIVE STAR: CB/PR Charles James, R-Jr. (40 TT, 6 INTs, 11 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Malcolm Dixon, So. (21 of 27 for 236 yards and 4 TDs; 48 carries, 182 yards) QB Richard Mounce, R-Jr. (3 of 7 for 20 yards and 1 INT) RB B.J. Hackworth, R-Sr. (39 carries, 182 yards) RB Teddy Allen, So. (24 carries, 79 yards) WR Kirby Broome, So. (7 receptions, 92 yards, 1 TD) WR Nathan Perera, So. (1 reception, 0 yards) WR Estevan Cintron, R-Fr. TE Mike DeTerlizzi, R-So. (1 receptions, 1 yard) LG Nick Kemper, R-Jr. LG Kayson Wharton, R-Sr. C Jeff Hartung, So. RG B.J. Baker, R-Sr. RT James Nicholson DE Jacque Carter, Sr. (15 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack) DE Will Hunt, R-So. (23 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 4 QBH, 1 FR) NT Coril Joseph, R-So. (9 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 QBH) LB Brad Sweatt, Jr. (47 TT, 1 PBU, 1 QBH) LB Cornelius Sterling, R-Jr. (57 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 5 QBH) LB Mike Chocholousek, Jr. S Chris Kuzdale, Sr. (56 TT, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FR) CB Matt Hardy, So. (20 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FR) CB O'Brian Campbell, Sr. (28 TT, 1.5 TFL) SS Jordan Fulford, R-So. (21 TT, 3 PBU) FS Demaris Freeman, So. (23 TT, 1 FR) FS Daniel Dieudonne, Sr. (45 TT, 2 INTs, 2 PBU, 1 FF) PK/P Andy Brown, Sr. (1 of 1 FG, 43 long; 59 punts, 34.1 ypp) RS Kevin Glears, Fr.
OUTLOOK: Mills is looking for players to emerge as standouts this season. The Buccaneers' offensive and defensive lines are experienced, but they are so young in the skills positions that the team's navy blue and gold colors might as well be green. Their receiving corps was especially decimated by graduation. New offensive coordinator Patrick Nix is breaking in dual-threat Dixon, who was solid as a freshman, as the starting quarterback. The offensive line returns four starters, led by LT McFatter. The defense has veterans, but it was awful last season in allowing 443.3 yards and 41.5 points (second-worst in the FCS) per game. CB James tied for the Big South high with six interceptions and is a shutdown player. LB Sterling is coming off a breakout season. The Bucs face a difficult September start to the schedule (three straight games in Florida, where the Buccaneers recruit heavily) and all three of the 2010 Big South tri-champs come to Charleston for games.
7. PRESBYTERIAN BLUE HOSE (2-9 overall; 1-5 Big South)
COACH: Harold Nichols (2-20 in two seasons at Presbyterian)
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (6 offense/9 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/RS Michael Ruff, R-Jr. (33 receptions, 487 yards, 6 TDs; 18-yard KO return average; 6.4-yard punt return average)
DEFENSIVE STAR: CB Justin Bethel, Sr. (59 TT, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 blocked kick)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Ryan Singer, So. (45 of 81 for 560 yards, 4 TDs and 4 INTs; 29 carries, 147 yards, 3 TDs) QB Brandon Miley, R-Sr. (59 of 107 for 509 yards, 4 TDs and 6 INTs) RB Lance Byrd, Jr. (76 carries, 339 yards, 2 TDs) RB Demarcus Rouse, Fr. WR Patrick McCoy, Sr. (24 receptions, 218 yards, 1 TD) WR Anderico Bailey, Jr. (7 receptions, 106 yards, 1 TD) WR Jalen Simmons, Fr. WR Derl Howard, Jr. (L.A. Harbor College transfer) LT Blake Dowd, Sr. RT Max Travis, Sr. RG Stephon Williams, R-Jr. C/OG Billy Kaylor, R-Sr. DE Keyadd Miller, R-Sr. (35 TT, 5 TFL, 1 PBU) DE Derren Evans, Sr. (19 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU) NT Brian Davis, Sr. (40 TT, 7.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 QBH) DT Xavier Boatright, R-Jr. (33 TT, 6 TFL, 1 QBH) LB CeeJay Harris, Sr. (75 TT, 7 TFL, 4 QBH) LB L.J. Perry, So. (39 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FF) LB Joe Wideman, R-Jr. (23 TT, 1 sack) CB Matthan Burton, So. (60 TT, 1 INT) CB Damon Lawrence, Sr. (48 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 PBU) CB Jimmy Pruitt, So. (27 TT, 2 TFL, 4 PBU, 1 FF) FS Cedric Byrd, So. (42 TT, 4 PBU) PK/P Patrick Morgano, Jr. (68 punts, 39.5 ypp)
OUTLOOK: The Blue Hose may not win any of their six road games, but the home portion of the schedule is favorable and may allow them to rise in the standings after back-to-back last-place finishes in their first two seasons in the Big South. Their 26-24 win at Gardner-Webb last season was their first Big South victory and ended a 20-game overall losing streak. Nichols, a former Presbyterian quarterback, eased Singer into that position as a true freshman and the youngster has grown into the starter. Ruff gives the offense a dynamic playmaker and new offensive coordinator Todd Varner has a solid offensive line with tackles Dowd and Travis as its anchors. Linebacker and leading tackler Derek Brown is gone, but the next 10 on last year's tackler chart are back. CB Bethel brings physicality to the secondary as does NT Davis up front as a pass rusher. The Blue Hose have laid the groundwork for an improved season. Unlike recent seasons, they have to finish off wins in tight games.