By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Stony Brook first joined forces with the Big South Conference for football, it seemed like a strange marriage. And many wondered just how long this relationship would last.
But unlike the acrimony you see when other schools leave leagues, there seemed to be little other than mutual respect from all parties when the Seawolves announced they were accepting an invitation earlier this month to join the Colonial Athletic Association.
Stony Brook will begin football play in the CAA in 2013, joining Albany of the Northeast Conference as new members in the revitalized conference.
“When the Big South brought in Stony Brook as an associate member in football, it was understood that it was not a permanent relationship," Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said. "It makes sense that they are interested in a better geographic conference fit."
In the CAA, all-sport moves by Georgia State and Old Dominion to the Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA to pursue Football Bowl Subdivision dreams were met with the decision to bar those schools from all league championship pursuits in their final season.
"Stony Brook has been a terrific football member and we valued their competitive contributions and the friendships that have developed," Kallander added. "We also believe the Big South has been very good for Stony Brook."
The symbiotic relationship between the Big South and Stony Brook resulted in different outcome — the Seawolves are free to compete for another conference title at a time when they are fielding more talent than they have ever had before.
Following a Big South title in 2011, a playoff win over Albany — and coach Chuck Priore's mentor, Bob Ford — the Seawolves find themselves ranked 11th in the preseason College Sports Journal Football Championship Subdivision Top-25 poll.
Liberty, regrouping under new coach Turner Gill, the former Nebraska star quarterback, should also challenge for the title after coming in 26th in the CSJ preseason poll.
Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian and Virginia Military Institute will try to separate themselves into that group of contenders.
And there is still a positive attitude among conference schools about a league that has shown steady growth over a decade of action on the gridiron.
“The Big South is confident about its football future and will continue to actively work to enhance our current programs and expand our membership,” Kallander said.
With six teams remaining after Stony Brook's departure, Kallander will continue to look for one, two, or even three new football members to stabilize the Big South's ranks down the road.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Stony Brook
4. Coastal Carolina
7. Charleston Southern
Stony Brook (9-4, 6-0) has every reason to think it can build on the success of last season's Big South title and playoff win over Albany.
The Chuck Priore-coached Seawolves started the season by coming within a play of beating FBS UTEP before losing 31-24 in overtime and finished the year in eerie fashion with a heartbreaking 34-27 loss to top-seeded and then-unbeaten Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
Things start with the running game at Stony Brook and the rich got richer in the off-season. The Seawolves countered the loss of All-American all-purpose runner Brock Jackolski by adding Iowa transfer Marcus Coker to go with All-American Miguel Maysonet (1,633 yards rushing, 15 TDs).
With the success of the rushing attack, quarterback Kyle Essington (1,919 passing yards, 20 TDs, four interceptions) is somewhat overlooked. But the senior is a strong game manager and finished second national in passing efficiency as he led an offense that was the best scoring team in FCS (38 points per game).
Chris Fenelon is a solid blocker at fullback, while the offensive line will rely on center Mike Lisi and tackle Mike Bamiro.
Linebacker Jawara Dudley is the leader in the middle of the defense that was 11th against the run, seventh in turnover margin and 29th overall. Dominick Reyes heads up a secondary that has the chance to be much improved.
The biggest thing the secondary needs is better work from the pass rush, which was 90th in the subdivision last fall.
Strong-legged Wesley Skiffington is the top kicker in the league.
Liberty (7-4, 5-1) had come about as close as any team to making the playoffs, but coming up short under the regime of coach Danny Rocco. Now the Flames will try to take it to the next level under Gill, who built the moribund Buffalo program into a winner.
The Flames, who came within a 41-31 loss at Stony Brook to winning the Big South title and making their first playoff berth last season, lost such standouts as quarterback Mike Brown and receivers Chris Summers and B.J. Hayes from a power-packed offense that averaged 36 points per game. Pat Kelly will be the go-to guy among the receiving corps this year.
With the Flames breaking in a new quarterback, junior Aldreakis Allen will get plenty of opportunity to improve on his 612 rushing yards and eight TDs. Peter Gagliardi at fullback and Malcolm Boyd at guard will open plenty of holes.
Senior Tyler Brennan and junior Brian Hudson had little chance to play at quarterback, playing behind the multi-talented Brown.
Liberty's defense should be the strength of this year's squad. Francis Bah, Corey Freeman and Greg Schuster are leaders on the line, while Nick Sigmon and Scott Hyland are standouts at linebacker.
The secondary will be even better this season with Walt Aikens, Kevin Fogg and Chris Mayon returning. Fogg is also an All-American as a kick returner.
Presbyterian (4-7, 3-3) should receive a boost of confidence from the fact it is eligible for a conference championship and the FCS playoffs for the first time. The Blue Hose have been making steady progress under coach Harold Nichols and have the experience to go with burgeoning talent for the first time.
Lance Byrd could have a breakout season as a senior after rushing for 910 yards and eight TDs, while junior quarterback Ryan Singer (1,832 yards of total offense, responsible for 13 TDs) should be fortified as the clear No. 1 quarterback with the graduation of former starter Brandon Miley.
Tim Fowler heads up the offensive line and Michael Ruff is the top returning receiver.
On defense, the Blue Hose must replace safety Justin Bethel, who has moved on to the NFL. Donelle Williams and LJ Perry give Presbyterian strength at linebacker.
Patrick Morgano is a weapon in the punting game.
Coastal Carolina (7-4, 3-3) made the shocking move of firing the successful and humorous David Bennett, the only head coach the program had known, just one year after the Chanticleers had reached the playoffs for the second time in six years.
But it will be difficult for new coach Joe Moglia to attain the success that the personable Bennett created. Expect the Chanticleers to struggle to adjust to a new voice and system.
There is talent around, particularly on offense with quarterback Aramis Hillary, the one-time South Carolina transfer, All-American tight end David Duran, receiver Matt Hazel and offensive linemen James Cheatwood and Pat Williams.
The defense must replace cornerback Josh Norman, who helped the Chanticleers develop a top-flight pass defense last season before heading to the NFL. Andrae Jacobs is a force at linebacker, while Chris Thomas is a stalwart on the defensive line.
Austin Cain is a top-flight punter, while kick returner Niccolo Mastromatteo is a talented kick returner.
VMI (2-9, 2-4) faces a turning-point season under veteran coach Sparky Woods. Woods, who helped build the Appalachian State program into a playoff contender back in the 1980s, has faced the same obstacles as many other coaches for a team that hasn't had a winning season since 1981, but he has reason for some optimism this year with a more experienced squad.
Lineman Rob Bailey is the top offensive player on the offense, while Michael Johnson is a leader in the secondary. But the Keydets must improve an attack that finished 110th in FCS and a defense wasn't much better at 95th overall.
Eric Kordenbrock is now an upperclassmen at quarterback after passing for 1,792 yards and 10 TDs last season, while Jabari Turner will be counted on as a sophomore running back. Mario Thompson is a promising tight end.
Gardner-Webb (4-7, 2-4) had a huge upset over Coastal Carolina, but not much else success to hang its hat on in the first season of coach Ron Dickenson Jr. The Bulldogs always have talent around, but must improve an offense that took a nose diveand ranked 107th nationally in passing and scoring.
GWU can build around offensive linemen Jamie Dunaway, Steve Demilio and Harrison Martin, who will be opening holes for dynamic running back Kenny Little (1,042 yards rushing, seven TDs).
Luke Beatty is back at quarterback after suffering through the normal growing pains as a freshman starter. Ricky Rhodes should help the Bulldogs capture good field position with his punt returning and Trever Austin will provide a boost in the kicking game.
The defense is strong up front with Preston Pemasa, Matt Goods and Maurice Dickson back and Ivan Toomer manning the secondary. But for the first time in many years, there isn't an All-American-type linebacker around now that Marty Patterson has graduated.
Charleston Southern (0-11, 0-6) suffered through growing pains as coach Jay Mills fielded a young team in 2011. The Buccaneers should be vastly improved, but still might not see that big of an improvement on the ledger.
Other than close losses against VMI, Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina, Charleston Southern was pretty much shell-shocked, placing 111th in offense and 112th on defense in the national rankings.
But the last time CSU was picked to finish last in the Big South (2005), it earned a share of the conference title.
At least the Buccaneers can rely on the best defensive player in the league, All-American cornerback Charles James. Linebacker Mike Chocholousek and lineman Will Hunt are other building blocks on defense.
But other than Nathan Perera at receiver, there isn't much production back on the offensive side of the ball. Teddy Allen and Malcolm Dixon have shown promise at running back, but the Bucs need improvement from quarterback Richard Mounce.