Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Big South will have only six teams for the second consecutive season, but the conference could be even stronger than last season's terrific campaign.
Coastal Carolina and Liberty shared the title, although only Coastal advanced to the FCS playoffs. The Chanticleers then did serious damage in upsetting national power Montana and advancing to the quarterfinals behind one of the nation's top-scoring offenses.
Hard-luck Liberty will make another bid for an elusive playoff berth this year, and Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern have reason to expect title contention as well.
Monmouth joins the conference as an associate member and is an upgrade to VMI, which departs for the Southern Conference. Presbyterian will have to make a big jump to keep up in the steadily improving conference.
The Big South will go back to being a seven-team conference in 2015 when Kennesaw State's developing program plays its first season.
A look across the conference with spring practices getting underway across the nation:
Coach Joe Moglia has done a terrific job since his controversial hiring two years ago. Despite key losses to graduation, his Chanticleers remain the team to beat this year. They should have the conference's preseason offensive (quarterback Alex Ross) and defensive (linebacker Quinn Backus) players of the year.
Liberty's offense will score in bunches behind the return of quarterback Josh Woodrum, running back Desmond Rice and wide receiver Darrin Peterson.
Gardner-Webb beat three Top 15 squads last season and appears primed to emerge on the national scene. The Runnin' Bulldogs return 18 starters, including six from last season's dominant defensive front seven, led by end Shaquille Riddick and tackle O.J. Le'iatua Mau.
Charleston Southern won't sneak up on opponents in coach Jamey Chadwell's second season. The Buccaneers, 10-3 overall last season, were the only Big South team to beat Coastal Carolina.
Monmouth will have another season out of 2012 All-Northeast Conference middle linebacker Dan Sullivan, who was ineligible while the Hawks finished 6-6 last year.
Liberty's defense lost seven starters, but it returns three players who earned All-Big South first-team honors: defensive end Chima Uzowihe, linebacker Nick Sigmon and free safety Jacob Hagen.
Taliaferro and Charleston Southern's Christian Reyes grabbed much of the spotlight, but Gardner-Webb's Juanne Blount also was a 1,000-yard running back last season.
Charleston Southern brought in nine linebackers with its signing class because it must replace starters Calvin Bryant, who made the All-Big South first team, and Adam Witzmann.
DeMarcus Rouse returns as Presbyterian's leading rusher, but coach Harold Nichols hasn't ruled out Darrell Bridges and Kendrick Salley forcing their way into the mix.
Liberty needs some of its young defensive players to step up their play after the Flames lost seven starters on that side of the ball. They could be vulnerable at cornerback after losing their two starters.
Along with Reyes' power and production, Charleston Southern boasts sophomore running back Mike Holloway, a speedy back who gained 420 yards over the Buccaneers' final seven games last season.
Gardner-Webb opponents will look to shut down wide receiver Kenny Cook, which will make it easier for emerging tight end Mike Estes and sophomore wideout Kalay Jones to increase their reception totals.
Coastal Carolina has some big holes to fill in running back Lorenzo Taliaferro and wide receiver Matt Hazel. The electric De'Angelo Henderson averaged seven yards a carry, while Bruce Mapp has Hazel-like qualities and John Israel is capable of big plays.
While Monmouth toiled as an FCS independent last season, defensive end Darnell Leslie collected 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman.
READY FOR IMPROVEMENT
In six starts, quarterback Heys McMath gave Presbyterian a much-needed passing threat, throwing for 10 touchdowns. He will get better as his offensive line continues its development.
While Coastal Carolina posted the best season in program history, the Chanticleers defense left room for improvement, especially on the back end. Up front, nose tackle Jeffrey Salley and defensive end Dominique Whiteside are key losses.
Despite its big wins, Gardner-Webb also had disappointing losses to Charlotte and VMI, mainly because of turnovers. The Runnin' Bulldogs have to improve their minus-11 turnover margin.
Liberty can't afford to lose fourth-quarter leads, as it did in three of its four losses last season, including against Kent State, Coastal Carolina (ahead by 19 points) and Old Dominion (up 10 points).
None of the starting punters across the Big South averaged over 40 yards. Enough said.
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
Charleston Southern: March 5-April 10
Coastal Carolina: March 17-April 12
Gardner-Webb: March 4-April 5
Liberty: March 18-April 12
Monmouth: March 25-April 26
Presbyterian: March 11-April 5