By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - Almost everywhere you look, Liberty is considered the prohibitive favorite to win the Big South football title this fall.
The rest of the conference, however, has motivation that goes way beyond feeling overlooked by the voters.
The chance to go to the FCS playoffs is all the buzz among Big South teams. The conference champion will gain an automatic bid for the first time when the playoffs expand from 16 to 20 teams in late November.
The Northeast Conference champion will also advance to the playoffs with a new automatic bid, and two more at-large selections will fill the other two spots.
Big South head coaches and selected media installed Liberty as their preseason favorite for the fourth straight year in a poll released at their kickoff luncheon in Charlotte, N.C. Liberty gained 11 of 13 first-place votes. Stony Brook, which beat Liberty and tied the Flames for the title last season - though both teams stayed home during the playoffs - was selected second, followed by Coastal Carolina, Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, VMI and Presbyterian.
"First, (the playoffs are) good for recruiting cause schools could use that against us," Coastal Carolina coach David Bennett said. "Second, it makes every conference game important, especially if we have ties like we've had in the past. Third, it is good knowing we don't have to go 11-0, 10-1 or 9-2 and pray you make the playoffs. Along those lines, it allows you to play a tough non-conference schedule in preparation for postseason and, if you win, get into position to host a playoff game.
"In terms of guaranteeing a spot, it is nice, but you have to know your vision. Do you just want to make the playoffs or do you want to win?"
"The automatic bid puts our program and our conference on the same playing field as the rest of the Top 25 FCS programs in the country," Liberty coach Danny Rocco said. "We've strived each year to be Big South Conference champions, but we also want to be a program of national prominence and in order to do that you have to play at the national level. We've just missed out during the last few years, but this year we know our goal is attainable if we just take care of business in our own league."
There's good reason for the Flames to believe they will win the Big South's first automatic bid to the playoffs. The Flames have gone 26-8 overall and 14-1 in the conference over the last three seasons, though they haven't received an at-large bid.
They were 8-3 overall and 5-1 in the conference last season, and return 14 starters and 43 lettermen from a squad that led the FCS in scoring offense (36.4 ppg) a year ago.
Mike Brown is the Big South's preseason offensive player of the year, ready to take over the quarterback duties full-time after starring as a wide receiver and part-time signal-caller last season. Brown and Sir Chauncey Holloway rushed for a combined 16 touchdowns, and the Flames add Massachusetts running back Korrey Davis to the backfield. Brown also has a go-to target in Chris Summers, who caught 46 passes and is part of a dynamite group of wide receivers across the conference.
"The key to winning the Big South title, as in most leagues, is depth at key positions and experience," Rocco said. "We had a younger team last year that was able to carry on a now growing tradition here at Liberty and I'm excited to see what they can do this year. Most of our skill-position players are back this year and we are coming off the best spring workouts I've experienced since I've been at Liberty."
Liberty and Gardner-Webb tied for the conference high with eight selections on the preseason squad. Gardner-Webb will be a physical team with the likes of offensive guard Corey O'Daniel and linebackers Marty Patterson and Jeffery Williams, who is coming off an injury-plagued season.
The biggest title challengers to Liberty figure to be Stony Brook, which returns junior quarterback Michael Coulter and junior running back Edwin Gowins, and adds a bunch of influential transfers; Coastal Carolina, which has an key transfer as well in quarterback Aramis Hillary, formerly of the University of South Carolina; and Charleston Southern, which has a superb wide receiver and return specialist in Gerald Stevenson, but also has to improve defensively.
BIG SOUTH PRESEASON POLL (Head Coaches and Selected Media)
1. Liberty (11 first-place votes), 103 points;
2. Stony Brook (1), 81;
3. Coastal Carolina, 68;
4. Charleston Southern (1), 65;
5. Gardner-Webb, 54;
6. VMI, 31;
7. Presbyterian, 18
PRESEASON BIG SOUTH ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
Offensive Player of the Year - Mike Brown, QB, Liberty
Defensive Player of the Year - Marty Patterson, LB, Gardner-Webb
QB- Mike Brown, Liberty. RB- Edwin Gowins, Stony Brook; Patrick Hall, Gardner- Webb. WR- Gerald Stevenson, Charleston Southern; James Perry III, Gardner- Webb; Chris Summers, Liberty. TE- David Duran, Coastal Carolina. OL- Corey O'Daniel, Gardner-Webb; Paul Fenaroli, Stony Brook; Alex Stadler, Liberty; Jordan Lancaster, Charleston Southern; Jamie Dunaway, Gardner-Webb.
DL- Joel Walton, Charleston Southern; Asa Chapman, Liberty; Josh Wine, VMI; Quinton Davis, Coastal Carolina. LB- Marty Patterson, Gardner-Webb; Jeffery Williams, Gardner-Webb; Doncel Bolt, Liberty; Emilio Calvin, VMI. DB- Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina; Cedric McGowan, Gardner-Webb; Brent Vinson, Liberty; KaJuan Lee (tie), Liberty; Chris Kuzdale (tie), Charleston Southern.
PK- Matt Bevins, Liberty. P- Marc Ray, VMI. LS- Daniel Bonifas, Coastal Carolina. KR- Tyson Petty, Gardner-Webb. PR- Gerald Stevenson, Charleston Southern.