Football coach Turner Gill might have been taken aback when he arrived at Liberty University and learned there is an artificial ski slope on the mountain above campus.
When asked if he lets his players get close to the university-owned ski slope, he smiled and said, "They only look at it from afar."
Of course, that's also the way Liberty football players have tip-toed around the FCS playoffs. Despite winning at least a share of five of the last six Big South titles, the Flames are still seeking their first trip to the playoffs.
The Big South champion wasn't given an automatic bid in 2010, and Liberty lost out on a tie-breaker that season and last year. The Flames were the runner-up in 2011.
Gill's second season in Lynchburg, Va., may be different. Coastal Carolina was a slight favorite in the conference's preseason poll, but Liberty has a home game against the Chanticleers, and with Stony Brook now out of the picture as a member of CAA Football, a playoff bid appears within reach of the Flames.
It seems like a two-team race in the Big South, which is down to six football programs this season. Monmouth University will join the conference next year.
Liberty has aspirations to leave the Big South for an FBS conference in the future. The Flames won't want to leave the FCS level without playing in the postseason.
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2013 Big South Conference race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
2. Coastal Carolina
4. Charleston Southern
1. LIBERTY FLAMES
LOCATION: Lynchburg, Va.
COACH: Turner Gill (6-5 in one season at Liberty; 31-54 overall)
LAST SEASON: 6-5 overall, 5-1 Big South
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Josh Woodrum, R-So. (183-of-267, 1,966 yards, 11 TD, 9 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: MLB Nick Sigmon, Jr. (52 TT, 11 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB Aldreakis Allen, Sr. (160 carries, 1,019 yards, 10 TD; 24 receptions, 160 yards, 1 TD)
RB Desmond Rice, Jr. (8 receptions, 109 yards, 1 TD)
WR Jaquan Glover, R-Jr. (7 receptions, 70 yards)
WR Darrin Peterson, So.
WR Gabe Henderson, Jr.
TE Brandon Apon, Sr.
LT Hunter Steward, Sr.
RT Mitch Hanson, Jr.
RG Malcolm Boyd, R-Sr.
DE Cory Freeman, Sr. (31 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 5 QBH)
DT Francis Bah, Sr.
NG Jibrille Fewell, Sr.
OLB Scott Hyland, Sr. (55 TT, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)
CB/RS Kevin Fogg, R-Sr. (18 TT, 2 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF in four games)
CB Walt Aikens, Sr. (51 TT, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 3 FF)
FS Jacob Hagen, Jr. (46 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FR)
PK John Lunsford, So. (8-of-12 FG, 50 long; 46 points)
BIG LOSSES: WR Pat Kelly (80 receptions, 857 yards, 3 TD) and SS Brent Vinson (68 TT, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 175.82 (35 in FCS, 4 in Big South); Passing Offense, 225.27 (45 in FCS, 3 in Big South); Total Offense, 401.09 (40 in FCS, 3 in Big South); Scoring Offense, 27.18 (53 in FCS, 45.15 in Big South); Rushing Defense, 126.09 (24 in FCS, 1 in Big South); Passing Defense, 188.64 (32 in FCS, 4 in Big South); Total Defense, 314.73 (15 in FCS, 2 in Big South); Scoring Defense, 22.18 (38 in FCS, 2 in Big South)
OUTLOOK: Realistically, Coastal Carolina is the only program standing in the Flames' way of the elusive FCS playoff bid after nemesis Stony Brook moved on to CAA Football. Gill returns a veteran team, with the defense likely to be exceptional after five players made the Big South preseason squad. Sigmon is a standout linebacker and Fogg returns after an injury-filled 2012 campaign. On offense, the Flames will start five 300-pounders on the offensive line, led by Boyd and Steward. That will delight QB Woodrum, last year's conference freshman of the year. Allen's eligibility has been in question after a team suspension in the spring. His return would give the Flames a 1,000-yard rusher. The bad news is they lost most of their key wide receivers, with Allen the only one back from last year's top six in receptions. The big date on the schedule is Oct. 19 versus Coastal Carolina (after a bye week). If the Flames win that game, they figure to be on their way to the playoffs.
Aug. 29 - at Kent State
Sept. 7 - vs. Monmouth
Sept. 14 - vs. Morgan State
Sept. 21 - at Richmond
Sept. 28 - vs. Kentucky Wesleyan
Oct. 5 - at Old Dominion
Oct. 19 - vs. Coastal Carolina
Oct. 26 - at Gardner-Webb
Nov. 2 - vs. VMI
Nov. 9 - vs. Presbyterian
Nov. 16 - vs. Brevard
Nov. 23 - at Charleston Southern
2. COASTAL CAROLINA CHANTICLEERS
LOCATION: Conway, S.C.
COACH: Joe Moglia (8-5 in one season at Coastal Carolina)
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 5-1 Big South; No. 24 TSN Ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Matt Hazel, Jr. (61 receptions, 799 yards, 8 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Quinn Backus, Jr. (139 TT, 8 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FR, 3 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Alex Ross, So. (26-of-48, 427 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT)
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro, Jr. (80 carries, 357 yards, 5 TD)
RB Travis Small, Jr. (37 carries, 152 yards, 1 TD)
WR Niccolo Mastromatteo, Sr. (47 receptions, 517 yards, 3 TD)
WR DeMario Bennett, Sr. (43 receptions, 599 yards, 7 TD)
WR Tyrell Blanks, So. (29 receptions, 314 yards, 2 TD)
LT Chad Hamilton, Jr.
LG Jamey Cheatwood, Sr.
RG Mo Ashley, Jr.
RT Drew Herring, Sr.
DT Jeffery Salley, Sr. (38 TT, 3 TFL)
DT Marcus Crowder, So.
DE Dominique Whiteside, R-Sr.
LB Mike McClure, Jr. (92 TT, 8.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 3 QBH)
LB Colton Blackburn, R-So.
CB LaDarius Hawthorne, Sr. (65 TT, 2.5 TFL, 3 INT, 6 PBU, 1 FF)
S Pernell Williams, Jr. (59 TT, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
S Johnnie Houston, Sr. (53 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 3 FF)
S Richie Sampson, So.
PK Alex Catron, So.
P Austin Cain, So.
BIG LOSS: QB Aramis Hillary (226-of-352, 2,665 yards, 21 TD, 8 INT; 130 carries, 567 yards, 4 TD)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 199.23 (25 in FCS, 3 in Big South); Passing Offense, 238.54 (34 in FCS, 1 in Big South); Total Offense, 437.77 (18 in FCS, 1 in Big South); Scoring Offense, 34.31 (13 in FCS, 2 in Big South); Rushing Defense, 183.38 (84 in FCS, 3 in Big South); Passing Defense, 241.00 (88 in FCS, 6 in Big South); Total Defense, 424.38 (98 in FCS, 5 in Big South); Scoring Defense, 28.38 (71 in FCS, 4 in Big South)
OUTLOOK: Moglia had his detractors entering last season, but the Chanticleers justified a lot with a Big South tri-championship and then the program's first FCS playoff win in three tries. His team is the Big South preseason favorite this year. Ross impressed in a backup role, totaling 404 yards of offense and three touchdown passes in a start against Gardner-Webb. Still, it will be hard for the Chanticleers to replace Hillary, last year's All-Big South quarterback. If the transition is smooth, then the Chants could repeat as conference champions. Ross will have a dynamite receiving corps, including the Hazel-Mastromatteo-Bennett trio which combined for 151 receptions and 18 touchdowns last season. The offensive line is fortified by four returning starters, led by Cheatwood, and RB Taliaferro is expected to put up much better numbers. Backus, last year's Big South defensive player of the year, is a beast at linebacker. He collected a school-record 139 tackles while teaming with McClure in a dual wrecking crew. The non-conference schedule is manageable, but the way to get back to the playoffs is to win at Liberty and move forward from there.
Aug. 31 - at South Carolina State
Sept. 7 - vs. Furman
Sept. 14 - at Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 21 - vs. Hampton
Sep 28 - at Elon
Oct. 12 - vs. Gardner-Webb
Oct. 19 - at Liberty
Oct. 26 - vs. VMI
Nov. 2 - vs. Charlotte
Nov. 9 - at Charleston Southern
Nov. 16 - vs. Presbyterian
Nov. 23 - at South Carolina
3. GARDNER-WEBB BULLDOGS
LOCATION: Boiling Springs, N.C.
COACH: Carroll McCray (first season at Gardner-Webb; 16-39 overall)
LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 2-4 Big South
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (10 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Kenny Cook, R-Jr. (48 receptions, 666 yards, 7 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: ILB Tanner Burch, Jr. (113 TT, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU, 3 QBH, 2 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Lucas Beatty, R-Jr. (215-of-334, 2,483 yards, 12 TD, 13 INT)
RB Juanne Blount, R-Jr. (133 carries, 489 yards, 6 TD)
RB/RS J.J. Hubbard, Jr. (32 carries, 109 yards, 2 TD; 15.2-yard punt return average)
FB Earnest Harmon, R-Jr.
WR Richard Jules, Sr.
WR Deonte Swinton, R-Jr. (41 receptions, 467 yards)
TE Seth Cranfill, R-Jr. (37 receptions, 366 yards, 2 TD)
TE Hudson Smith, R-Sr.
LG Dylan Hopper, So.
RG Jeff Harris, R-Sr.
RT David McConnell, R-Jr.
DE Preston Pemasa, Sr. (43 TT, 7 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 QBH, 1 FR)
DE Shaquille Riddick, Jr. (37 TT, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 2 PBU, 10 QBH, 1 FF)
DE Zach Shelton, R-Sr.
NG Matt Goods, R-Sr. (41 TT, 4.5 TFL, 5 QBH)
OLB Chad Geter, So.
OLB Bradley Taylor, Jr. (53 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
ILB Azziz Higgins, So.
CB Tiko Thompson, So.
CB Ivan Toomer, R-So.
CB Drew White, Sr.
FS Lonnie Johnson, R-Sr. (40 TT, 6 TFL, 2 sacks)
BIG LOSS: RB Kenny Little (167 carries, 762 yards, 7 TD; 18 receptions, 137 yards)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 107.64 (105 in FCS, 6 in Big South); Passing Offense, 228.55 (44 in FCS, 2 in Big South); Total Offense, 336.18 (87 in FCS, 4 in Big South); Scoring Offense, 20.45 (93 in FCS, 4 in Big South); Rushing Defense, 185.36 (87 in FCS, 4 in Big South); Passing Defense, 244.82 (96 in FCS, 7 in Big South); Total Defense, 430.18 (101 in FCS, 6 in Big South); Scoring Defense, 35.45 (105 in FCS, 6 in Big South)
OUTLOOK: McCray is the first alumnus to serve as the Runnin' Bulldogs' head coach since Woody Fish did so from 1984-1996. Last year, McCray posted a 5-6 record in his only season as the head coach at Division II North Greenville. He inherits a veteran squad that underachieved last season. The defensive line will be terrific with the return of ends Pemasa and Riddick and tackle Goods. Behind them is Burch, an inside linebacker who ranked second in the FCS with 12.6 tackles per game last year. In the secondary, Toomer should have a breakout season. The offense suffered a big loss in Little, but QB Beatty still has good options, including Cook and Cranfill, who set the Big South record for receptions by a tight end. Although Beatty has to cut down on interceptions, he led the conference in passing yards per game (225.7). A difficult first third of the schedule will set the Runnin' Bulldogs up for the rest of the season.
Aug. 31 - vs. Furman
Sept. 7 - at Marshall
Sept. 14 - vs. Richmond
Sept. 21 - at Wofford
Sept. 28 - vs. Point
Oct. 5 - at Charlotte
Oct. 12 - at Coastal Carolina
Oct. 26 - vs. Liberty
Nov. 2 - vs. Warner
Nov. 9 - at Va Military
Nov. 16 - vs. Charleston Southern
Nov. 23 - at Presbyterian
4. CHARLESTON SOUTHERN BUCCANEERS
LOCATION: Charleston, S.C.
COACH: Jamey Chadwell (first season at Charleston Southern; 25-21 overall)
LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-3 Big South
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Teddy Allen, Sr. (111 carries, 576 yards, 9 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: CB Elijah Lee, Sr. (70 TT, 1 INT, 3 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Malcolm Dixon, Sr. (66-of-128, 1,096 yards, 9 TD, 5 INT; 105 carries, 462 yards, 7 TD)
QB Briar Van Brunt, R-So.
RB Christian Reyes, Jr.
FB Zac Frazier, Jr.
WR Nathan Perera, R-Jr. (11 receptions, 149 yards, 1 TD)
WR Larry Jones III, So. (21 receptions, 431 yards, 4 TD)
LT Zach Sibrava, So.
LG Jean Bazile, R-Jr.
RG Mose Countryman, Jr.
RG Clayton Truitt, Jr.
DE Will Hunt, R-Sr.
NT James Smith, Jr.
MLB Calvin Bryant, Sr. (35 TT, 2 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FR)
MLB Aaron Brown, So. (41 TT)
OLB Zac Johnston, R-Jr. (42 TT, 6 TFL)
OLB Zack Johnson, R-So. (55 TT, 3.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
CB Damian Dixon, Sr.
CB Malcolm Jackson, So.
PK Mark Deboy, R-So.
P Cameron Mitchell, R-So.
BIG LOSS: CB/RS Charles James
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 201.91 (23 in FCS, 2 in Big South); Passing Offense, 129.36 (113 in FCS, 7 in Big South); Total Offense, 331.27 (91 in FCS, 5 in Big South); Scoring Offense, 19.91 (97 in FCS, 5 in Big South); Rushing Defense, 208.82 (105 in FCS, 6 in Big South); Passing Defense, 145.55 (3 in FCS, 1 in Big South); Total Defense, 354.36 (47 in FCS, 3 in Big South); Scoring Defense, 28.36 (70 in FCS, 3 in Big South)
OUTLOOK: Chadwell preceded Carroll McCray as North Greenville's coach, going 20-14 from 2009-11. Last year, he was 3-7 in his only season at Division II Delta State. He has brought a spread option to Charleston Southern and seems to have the right pieces with a veteran offensive line and the backfield of QB Malcolm Dixon and RB Allen, two key players who helped lift the Buccaneers to a .500 mark in the Big South last season. The defense is rebuilding up front and suffered a huge loss in CB James, but the Buccaneers still have eight returning starters. They hope to take advantage of home games against Coastal Carolina and Liberty.
Aug. 31 - at The Citadel
Sept. 7 - vs. Shorter
Sept. 14 - at Campbell
Sept. 21 - at Norfolk State
Sept. 28 - at Appalachian State
Oct. 5 - vs. North Greenville
Oct. 12 - at VMI
Oct. 26 - vs. Charlotte
Nov. 2 - at Presbyterian
Nov. 9 - vs. Coastal Carolina
Nov. 16 - at Gardner-Webb
Nov. 23 - vs. Liberty
5. PRESBYTERIAN BLUE HOSE
LOCATION: Clinton, S.C.
COACH: Harold Nichols (6-36 in four seasons at Presbyterian)
LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 0-6 Big South
STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Demarcus Rouse, Jr. (67 carries, 427 yards, 9 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Donelle Williams, Jr. (103 TT, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Kaleb Griffin, R-So. (117-of-200, 1,074 yards, 6 TD, 5 INT)
QB Tamyn Garrick, R-So. (70-of-138, 778 yards, 2 TD, 6 INT)
RB Seth Moreland, R-Sr.
WR Jeremiah McKie, Jr. (22 receptions, 241 yards, 1 TD)
WR Arthur Williams, Sr. (33 receptions, 359 yards, 2 TD)
OL James Barnes, Sr.
OL James Festa, R-Sr.
OL Tim Fowler, R-Sr.
OL Hunter Gray, Jr.
OL Sterling Jenkins, Sr.
DE Keyadd Miller, R-Sr.
DE Josh Polk, R-Jr.
DE Kamren Mack, Fr.
DT Parrish Walker, Sr.
LB L.J. Perry, Sr. (64 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
LB Isaiah Lynn, Jr. (52 TT, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT)
CB Cory White, Jr. (53 TT, 1 INT)
CB Ed Britt, So.
S/RS Cedric Byrd, Jr. (57 TT, 5 PBU, 1 FF)
S Nick Newton, R-So.
BIG LOSS: RB Lance Byrd (141 carries, 682 yards)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 118.64 (95 in FCS, 5 in Big South); Passing Offense, 171.73 (91 in FCS, 5 in Big South); Total Offense, 290.36 (110 in FCS, 6 in Big South); Scoring Offense, 15.55 (113 in FCS, 6 in Big South); Rushing Defense, 294.27 (119 in FCS, 7 in Big South); Passing Defense, 208.18 (50 in FCS, 5 in Big South); Total Defense, 502.45 (116 in FCS, 7 in Big South); Scoring Defense, 37.91 (109 in FCS, 7 in Big South)
OUTLOOK: Winless in the Big South last season, Presbyterian needs to get its offense going early this season. Neither Griffin nor Garrick settled the quarterback position a year ago, so there's plenty of room for improvement. Fortunately, the Blue Hose have veterans on the offensive line and Rouse brings 6-1, 225-pound size to the running back position. The defense was among the worst in the FCS last season, so Nicholls is hoping young talent pays off as it did with LB Donelle Williams, the team's leading tackler as a sophomore last year. He's part of a solid linebacker's unit that should lead the defense. The home schedule offers the chance for wins, but the road schedule is so tough that the Blue Hose will find it hard to pick up a victory there.
Aug. 29 - at Wake Forest
Sept. 7 - vs. Brevard
Sept. 14 - at Furman
Sept. 28 - vs. Charlotte
Oct. 5 - at Wofford
Oct. 19 - vs. VMI
Oct. 26 - vs. Point
Nov. 2 - vs. Charleston Southern
Nov. 9 - at Liberty
Nov. 16 - at Coastal Carolina
Nov. 23 - vs. Gardner-Webb
6. VMI KEYDETS
LOCATION: Lexington, Va.
COACH: Sparky Woods (13-42 in five seasons at VMI; 76-88-5 overall)
LAST SEASON: 2-9 overall, 1-5 Big South
STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
OFFENSIVE STAR: C Will Lucas, Sr.
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Justin Smith, R-Sr. (61 TT, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 QBH, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Eric Kordenbrock, Sr. (193-of-344, 2,008 yards, 8 TD, 9 INT)
RB Jabari Turner, Jr. (110 carries, 375 yards, 4 TD; 25 receptions, 301 yards, 2 TD)
RB Derrick Ziglar, R-So. (68 carries, 239 yards)
WR James Rogers, R-Jr. (32 receptions, 320 yards, 1 TD)
WR Sam Patterson, So.
TE Mario Thompson, R-Sr. (19 receptions, 166 yards, 2 TD)
RT Andy Marcotte, R-Jr.
RG Nate Murray, R-So.
LT Emmanuel Cooper, Jr.
DE John Washington, R-Jr. (26 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FR, 2 FF)
NT Denton Ensminger, Jr.
OLB Chris Harper, R-Sr. (59 TT, 2.5 TFL, 2 FR)
OLB Logan Staib, R-Jr. (73 TT, 7.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FR, 1 FF)
ILB Weston Reber, R-Sr. (87 TT, 1 FR)
ILB Ty Garvin, R-Jr. (66 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU)
CB/PR James Fruehan, Jr.
SS Calen Furlow, Jr.
PK Dillon Christopher, Fr.
P David Eberhardt, R-Sr.
BIG LOSS: DL Charlie Jones (50 TT, 11 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 BLK)
2012 TEAM RANKINGS: Rushing Offense, 71.73 (118 in FCS, 7 in Big South); Passing Offense, 196.82 (71 in FCS, 4 in Big South); Total Offense, 268.55 (117 in FCS, 7 in Big South); Scoring Offense, 12.09 (119 in FCS, 7 in Big South); Rushing Defense, 207.09 (104 in FCS, 5 in Big South); Passing Defense, 186.73 (30 in FCS, 3 in Big South); Total Defense, 393.82 (78 in FCS, 4 in Big South); Scoring Defense, 30.73 (90 in FCS, 5 in Big South)
OUTLOOK: The Keydets always face the difficulty of winning as a service academy, but the home schedule sets up nicely for them this season. Kordenbrock is in his third season as the starting quarterback, but needs consistency. He leads an offense that scored only 133 points, or 12.1 per game, which ranked 119th in the FCS. Skill position players Turner, Ziglar and Rogers as well as TE Thompson will take pressure off Kordenbrock. The defense made strides last season. Smith led Big South defensive linemen with 61 tackles, while the linebackers are a veteran group. The secondary must settle quickly behind its lone returning starter, Fruehan. There is reason for optimism this season.
Aug. 31 - at Richmond
Sept. 7 - vs. Glenville State
Sept. 14 - vs. North Greenville
Sept. 21 - at Virginia
Sept. 28 - vs. Robert Morris
Oct. 12 - vs. Charleston Southern
Oct. 19 - at Presbyterian
Oct. 26 - at Coastal Carolina
Nov. 2 - at Liberty
Nov. 9 - vs. Gardner-Webb
Nov. 16 - at The Citadel
Nov. 23 - vs. Bucknell