FCS College Football Preview: Big South Conference
Behind Kennesaw State and Monmouth, maybe there’s been an excellent title race in the Big South after all.
Those two programs went a combined 47-5 in Big South games from 2017-21, losing only to each other, so their departure to other conferences this offseason should open up the standings. Five of the six programs – all but Robert Morris – received at least one first-place vote in the conference’s preseason poll.
Ah, yes, Big South parity?
Campbell and Bryant, the latter which is debuting in the Big South after leaving the Northeast Conference, have never qualified the FCS playoffs, but are considered the strongest competition for North Carolina A&T, which was installed as the preseason favorite.
Campbell and N.C. A&T will leave the Big South for the Colonial Athletic Association next year. That’s when the Big South and the Ohio Valley Conference will start a four-year partnership to aid in scheduling and the NCAA’s postseason qualification standard.
Here’s a quick look at the upcoming Big South season:
Predicted Order of Finish
*-FCS Playoff Qualifier
1. *Campbell (3-8, 2-5) – As coach Mike Minter enters his 10th season, his veteran squad seeks to be more like its 6-1 start in 2019 rather than the 3-16 record (five FBS losses) since then. Dual-threat quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams, who was limited by injury to four games last season, has accounted for 42 touchdowns in 19 career games, and the return of offensive tackles Tyler McLellan and Mike Edwards should help improve his protection. Defensive end Brevin Allen received the Big South’s 2021 defensive player of the year award, while linebacker Justice Galloway-Velazquez will suit up for the first time since setting Campbell’s single-season tackle record (111) in 2019.
2. North Carolina A&T (5-6, 3-4) – The Aggies expect to bounce back this season after suffering their first losing record since 2011. Their 12 touchdown passes were fewer than half of their average over the previous four seasons, so incumbent quarterback Jalen Fowler was part of a preseason competition. The defense has a standout at each level with end Jermaine McDaniel Jr. (15 sacks over 2019 and ’21 seasons), linebacker Jacob Roberts and cornerback Karon Prunty.
3. Bryant (7-4, 5-2 Northeast) – Bryant never won an NEC title, but its seven overall wins last season marked its highest total since 2014. Big South opponents will get to know the Bulldogs’ offensive firepower: There are super sophs in quarterback Levi Eckhaus (2,392 passing yards with 21 TD passes to just three interceptions) and running back Fabrice Mukendi (652 yards, nine TDs), and senior leadership in wide receivers David Zorrilla (47 receptions, 623 yards, two TDs) and Anthony Frederick (32-516-8). (2022 conference realignment in FCS)
4. Gardner-Webb (4-7, 2-5) – G-W, whose last winning season in conference was 2016, is a legitimate dark horse after tying with Campbell for the most selections (10) on the Big South preseason team. The group is led by Narii Gaither, who racked up a Big South-high 966 rushing yards plus 43 receptions and 12 touchdowns last season, and defensive end Ty French, who has 22.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and 24 QB pressures in just 14 career games. Bailey Fisher, who accounted for 24 TDs last season, will challenge be the All-Big South quarterback.
5. Charleston Southern (4-6, 3-4) – Chima Uzowihe’s Big South record of 25 sacks at Liberty from 2012-15 could be threatened by defensive lineman Anton Williams, who has 19 in his career. Among the other defensive returnees are two Big South preseason selections, linebacker Garrett Sayegh (9.6 tackles per game ranked second in the conference) and defensive back Hombre Kennedy (43 tackles, three interceptions, eight pass breakups). While it will be hard to replace quarterback Jack Chambers, the Bucs’ four returning offensive starters include wide receiver Cayden Jordan coming off a 53-catch season.
6. Robert Morris (4-6, 3-4) – With RMU replacing three-year starting quarterback George Martin, the offense will rely heavily on Alijah Jackson (530 carries for 2,369 yards and 12 TDs in career). Ricardo Watson (7.5 sacks) is part of the Big South’s deep group of pass rushers, and linebacker Jamar Shegog has 107 tackles in 14 career games. Improvement on the road is a must: The Colonials have dropped their last nine games away from Joe Walton Stadium.
How the Conference Predicted the Race
(A look back at Big South Football Media Day)
Five Players to Watch
Joe Andreessen, LB, Bryant – Andreessen earned All-NEC first-team honors in each of the last two seasons, and enters the Big South on the preseason team. He had 80 tackles (eight for loss) and three interceptions last season.
Hajj-Malik Williams, QB, Campbell – The Big South’s 2019 offensive freshman of the year is experienced against excellent competition. Last season, he threw for a career-high 268 yards against James Madison and a career-high three TDs against Elon.
Brevin Allen, DE, Campbell (Buck Buchanan Award preseason nominee) – As a junior, Allen set the Camels’ single-season record with 9.5 sacks and tied its standard with 17.5 tackles for loss.
Narii Gaither, RB, Gardner-Webb (Walter Payton Award preseason nominee) – The Big South’s preseason offensive player of the year, Gaither needs 37 receptions and 398 receiving yards to break the league records for career receptions (90) and receiving yards (819) by a running back.
Jacob Roberts, DE, North Carolina A&T – A runner-up for Big South preseason defensive player of the year, Roberts has 146 tackles (24 for loss), 9.5 sacks, three interceptions and four blocked kicks in his two seasons.
(Allen, French, Gaither named to Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team)
Three Must-See Matchups
Bryant at North Carolina A&T (Oct. 1) – Bryant’s first Big South game will help shape the title race. N.C. A&T had won 10 straight home games before dropping their final two at Truist Stadium a year ago.
Campbell at Jackson State (Oct. 22) – Consider this a measuring stick for both programs, who had two of the more highly rated recruiting classes in the FCS this past offseason. SWAC champion Jackson State set the Division I subdivision’s single-season record for attendance average in coach Deion Sanders’ first full season.
Campbell at North Carolina A&T (Oct. 29) – This is a first-ever meeting after these two programs did not meet in the conference schedule last season.
Out of the six Big South programs, only Gardner-Webb and N.C. A&T have posted FBS wins in their history. G-W is the only FCS program to be playing the upper tier three times this fall.
The nine games involving Big South teams:
Bryant: FIU (Sept. 1); Campbell: East Carolina (Sept. 17); Charleston Southern: North Carolina State (Sept. 10); Gardner-Webb: Coastal Carolina (Sept. 10), Marshall (Oct. 1) and Liberty (Oct. 15); North Carolina A&T: Duke (Sept. 17); Robert Morris: Miami-Ohio (Sept. 10) and Appalachian State (Oct. 29)
The only current members to win previous Big South titles are Gardner-Webb (an outright title in the inaugural 2002 season followed by another one in 2003) and Charleston Southern (shared titles in 2005 and 2016 with a vacated outright title in 2015).