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Around FCS: Big South looking for playoff respect
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Eight months might have passed when the Big South Conference gathered for its annual football media event on the final day of July, but the coaches of this fledgling Football Championship Subdivision league were still bristling about how its 2008 champion, Liberty had been left out of the playoffs.
“There is no way that Liberty should have been left out of the playoffs,” said Gardner-Webb’s Steve Patton, the dean of Big South coaches, who echoed the sentiment of almost. “Everyone said that Elon was in with a win and Liberty goes and dominates them and gets left out. How can you tell me that was fair?”
Liberty rolled to a 10-2 record and finished 14th in The Sports Network Top-25 poll, but the Flames were left out of the field, while Maine (8-4 in the regular season) became the fifth member of the Colonial Athletic Association to reach the playoffs.
“It was painful and still is very disappointing,” said Liberty coach Danny Rocco. “We had kids crying when we didn’t get in. That’s when we saw how much they really cared.”
The Big South, now in its eighth year of sponsoring football, will face an uphill battle again this season for an elusive at-large bid. The league has received an at-large berth just once, when Coastal Carolina was chosen in 2006.
But at least, the conference can look forward to an automatic slot in 2010, when the FCS playoffs expand to 20 schools.
“We have to go out and control the things we can control,” said Rocco, who team lost to only Lafayette and Presbyterian last season. “You can’t leave anything to chance.”
One of the difficulties that teams from the Big South will have in 2009 is the competitiveness of the opposition.
“The last four years, it’s been pretty clear who was going to win,” Patton said. “It would have been a real upset for the favorite not to have won. It’s more wide-open than it’s been in five years. There are six teams that could win it.”
Liberty, the winner the past two years, has plenty of talent, but much of it is untested. Gardner-Webb returns 18 starters, including perhaps the best group of linebackers in the country.
Stony Brook has probably the top one-two, running-back punch in FCS, while VMI returns 19 starters, including the league’s preseason offensive player of the year quarterback Tim Maypray.
Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern also have reason to be optimistic after retooling various aspects of their squads.
1. Gardner-Webb (5-6 overall, 3-3, fourth)
Only the most die-hard of Big South observers probably remember when the Bulldogs were the powerhouse of the league, winning back-to-back conference titles. But, GWU hopes to return to that level this season with nearly all of its starters returning.
There is also the return of big-play linebacker Mario Brown (220 career tackles, 9.7 average per start), a former Buck Buchanan Award nominee, who missed most of last season with injuries. Brown is back at full strength and will team with another Buchanan Award candidate Jeffery Williams (119 tackles, nine tackles for loss) and Marty Patterson (81 tackles, 12 tackles for loss) to give the Bulldogs an outstanding group at linebacker.
Jordan Woods (51 tackles, six sacks) made the All-BSC second team as a freshman defensive end to lead the line. The biggest losses on defense was the graduation of All-BSC free safety Daniel Cooke (51 tackles, eight pass breakups), but cornerback Cedric McGowan (46 tackles, eight pass breakups) is a player to build the secondary around.
This is a defense that held Paul Johnson’s option offense at Georgia Tech to 79 yards rushing last season in a 10-7 loss.
Receiver-return man Dobson Collins (76 catches, 1,110 all-purpose yards) has moved on to the NFL, but the Bulldogs bring back quarterback Stan Doolittle (1,153 yards of total offense), receiver James Perry (55 catches, 12.0 average), guard Corey McDaniel and their top four running backs, including Phillip Peoples (602 yards, six TDs).
“We have to turn a corner to where we are more confident,” said Patton. “If we can do that, I think we have a chance.”
2. Stony Brook (5-6, 3-2, third)
Senior Conte Cuttino (1,195 yards rushing, seven TDs) and sophomore Ed Gowins (1,310 yards, 11 TDs) were the only two running backs to both gain more than 1,000 yards last season in FCS and they will again combine to be the centerpiece of the Seawolves’ program.
As long as Stony Brook can continue to grind out yardage and the clock with those two and rely on a hard-nosed defense, it can compete for the BSC championship.
“We have a better idea of what the teams are like and we know more about the players,” said coach Chuck Priore. “The last half of the season, we turned the corner.”
Dayne Hoffman (1,636 yards passing, 11 TDs, nine interceptions) has to play more consistently at quarterback and the Seawolves need to develop some receivers.
Defensively, Stony Brook needs to cut down on big plays. Linebacker Tyler Santucci (79 tackles, seven tackles for loss) heads up a unit that returns eight starters.
3. Liberty (10-2, 5-1, first)
Players such as Walter Payton Award nominee Rashad Jennings, quarterback Brock Smith, receiver-return man Dominic Bolden, center Mike Godsil, cornerback Patrick Calvary and linebacker Nick Hursky helped the Flames go from 1-11 in 2005 to 10-2 last season. But, the best senior class in school history has graduated and Liberty must rebuild with a talented, but inexperienced group.
Only seven starters return overall, led by safety Chris Rocco (78 tackles, seven pass breakups), the nephew of coach Danny Rocco. But, Liberty will hope to fortify those players with some talented transfers, including two ex-South Carolina products, quarterback Tommy Beecher and receiver Freddie Brown.
Athletic Mike Brown (19 catches, 17.4 average as a redshirt freshman) will battle Beecher for the starting quarterback job, but his speed and running ability will put him in the lineup somewhere. Danny Broggin is the likely replacement for the rushing duo of Jennings (1,500 yards last season) and Zach Terrell.
“I am as excited about this season as any I’ve ever been through,” said Danny Rocco. “The reason I’m so excited is to see what kind of program we’ve built.”
4. VMI (4-7, 2-4, tied for fifth)
Sparky Woods built Appalachian State into an FCS powerhouse in the late 1980s and now he is making strides with VMI, leading the Keydets to four wins in his first year as coach.
Woods had never been an option coach, but he installed a wishbone/spread attack last fall that led the nation in rushing (357 yards-per-game). With Maypray (1,266 yards, 12 TDs rushing) behind center and Howard Abegesah (775 yards in nine games) also in the backfield, the Keydets should again be near the top.
Kyle Hughes (588 yards of total offense in seven games), the 2007 starter at quarterback, toggled between signal-caller and receiver to confuse defenses and the entire offensive line returns.
The biggest key will be improving a defense that made the major switch from a 4-3 to 3-4 formation last season. The Keydets ranked 110th nationally, allowing 438 yards per game. But the top five tacklers and 11 of the top 12 return, including inside linebacker A.J. Gross (67 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss).
“We feel like we are making progress,” said Woods. “We’ve got to find one or two guys who can take us to seven or nine wins,”
If the Keydets can fill those important voids, they could make a surprising run at a Big South title.
5. Charleston Southern (7-5, 4-2, second)
Coach Jay Mills has done a remarkable job in building one of the worst programs in FCS into a winner. He has also taken the Buccaneers to the share of one Big South title and two runner-up finishes over the past four years.
But this year’s squad will have to plug some holes defensively with junior college transfers. Linebacker Andrew McKain (74 tackles, eight tackles for loss) is one of four returning starters on this side of the ball.
Surprisingly, the CSU offense was a lackluster 103rd nationally in 2008 and it loses South Carolina transfer quarterback Tribble Reese to graduation. But, the Bucs should have more balance than ever with Antwan Ivey and DeMarcus Moon returning at running back, while either A.J. Toscano or JC transfer Andrew Trudnowski should combine with Gerald Stevenson (45 catches, 1,780 all-purpose yards) for a great pass-catch combination. The biggest key may be the offensive line, which returns its top six performers.
“We believe we have a chance, if we are healthy up front, to be the best we’ve ever been,” said Mills, who must overcome a schedule that begins with Florida, Wofford and South Florida. “Last year (after winning four straight games to end the season) seems similar to what happened before our 2005 championship season.”
6. Coastal Carolina (6-6, 2-4, tied for fifth)
The Chanticleers were among the darlings of FCS when they reached the playoffs in just their fourth year of football (2006) and won three consecutive Big South titles (2004-06). But CCU has only gone 12-12 in the past two seasons to lose much of that momentum.
“We’ve got to improve on both sides of the ball,” said coach David Bennett. “We’ve been mediocre for two years.”
Zach McDowell (2,302 yards of total offense) worked hard in the off-season and could develop into the league’s top quarterback as a senior. He has a couple of good receivers to throw to in Marquel Willis (27 catches, 14.3 average, six TDs) and Brandon Whitley (32 catches, 11.9 average), but CCU needs a running back to emerge.
The offensive line returns six of its top seven performers, but lost tackle Britt Leggett.
There is talent on defense, with defensive end Phillip Obah (52 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) heading things up, but the Chanticleers must replace linebacker D.J. Rice and cornerback Marrio Norman. Ben Erdman (38.0 average, 31.2 net) is the league’s top punter.
7. Presbyterian (4-8, 1-4, n/a)
The Blue Hose are looking for stability as they head into their third year of transition from Division II to FCS. Previous coach Bobby Bentley unexpectedly returned to the high school ranks after last season and former Presbyterian player and assistant Harold Nichols was brought in to reassure those in this fledgling program.
“My heart is in this place,” said Nichols, who has coached at Georgia Southern, Rhode Island and Bucknell, in addition to Presbyterian. “I feel a huge sense of accountability. I’m really a caretaker of the program, not the head coach.”
Presbyterian lost some significant performers on offense in receivers Terrence Butler (114 catches in the past two years) and Brandon Clark (team-high 62 catches, 11.8 average) and running back S.J. Worrell (742 all-purpose yards). But the Blue Hose have two solid quarterbacks in Brandon Miley (1,865 yards of total offense) and Tim Webb (1,428 yards passing before suffering a season- ending knee injury) and Mario Carter (5.1 rushing average).
The losses were big to a defense that allowed 480 yards per game - second-worst to only Idaho State in all of FCS. Linebacker Chris Bowman (90 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss) is the top returning performer.