Big South Rising

Charleston Southern Buccaneers head coach Jamey Chadwell reacts after receiving a gatorade bath after defeating the Citadel Bulldogs during the first game of the season Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 at Johnson Hagood Stadium. (Shane Roper/Special to The Post and Courier)

When Charleston Southern knocked off The Citadel, 32-29, on Aug. 31 at Johnson Hagood Stadium, Buccaneer fans could have sent up a cheer of “Big South! Big South! Big South!”

Had they known how the first weeks of the college football season would unfold, they might have.

The Big South Conference, which since it began playing football in 2002 has been widely seen as little brother to the superior Southern Conference, is off to the best start in league history.

Charleston Southern’s win over The Citadel was just the first volley in the Big South’s assault on the SoCon, which has been playing football since 1933.

The same weekend, the Big South’s Gardner-Webb scored its first victory over former SoCon power Furman, 28-21. The Paladins lost the next week at Coastal Carolina, 35-28. And only a blocked field goal in the final seconds kept Furman from going 0-3 against the Big South in last week’s 21-20 win over Presbyterian.

Last weekend, Big South teams knocked off two ranked FCS opponents in the same week of the regular season for the first time. Coastal Carolina hammered No. 25 Eastern Kentucky, 51-32, and Gardner-Webb topped No. 11 Richmond, 12-10.

All in all, Big South squads are 9-2 against fellow FCS programs, the best start in league history. That includes a 3-1 mark against the SoCon and 1-1 against the Colonial Athletic Association.

“I’m impressed, but I’m not surprised,” said first-year Charleston Southern coach Jamey Chadwell, whose 3-0 Bucs are at Norfolk State on Saturday with a chance to beef up the league’s non-conference record. “I know the commitment the schools in our league have made, and what we’ve been trying to do.

“Recognition for our conference is long overdue,” said Chadwell, who spent six previous seasons in the Big South as an assistant to former CSU coach Jay Mills. “It’s continuing what we started last year, and I think you’ll continue to see the rise of our conference.”

The Big South surge comes at an uncertain time for the SoCon. Indeed, the two leagues might be on their way to swapping places in the FCS hierarchy.

Both leagues suffered losses in the latest round of conference realignment: The SoCon is losing FCS powerhouses Georgia Southern and Appalachian State to FBS and the Sun Belt, while four-time league champ Stony Brook left the Big South for the Colonial this year.

The SoCon is adding Big South member VMI and start-up football programs Mercer and East Tennessee State, while the Big South will add Monmouth next year and start-up program Kennesaw State in 2015.

But losing struggling VMI to the SoCon might be a net-plus for the Big South; the Keydets have not posted a winning season since 1981 and are 1-2 this season after a 37-24 loss to Division II North Greenville.

Perception matters, Chadwell knows, when it comes time to dole out at-large bids to the 24-team FCS playoffs. That’s why wins over SoCon squads are valuable; Gardner-Webb could get a big one at No. 8 Wofford on Saturday.

The Big South has received only two at-large bids in its history — Coastal Carolina in 2006 and Stony Brook last season. The SoCon has received at least one at-large bid in 13 of the last 14 seasons.

“Most of our teams are in the SoCon footprint, so anytime we can play those guys and win a couple of games, it gives us some recognition,” he said. “The SoCon traditionally is one of the top two or three FCS leagues in the country. Those wins speak volumes and show people on the playoff committee that our conference is a tough league to win.

“Those wins help justify us as a two-bid league, with the type of schedule we play and the teams we are beating.”

Chadwell’s coaching colleagues in the Big South include ex-Nebraska QB Turner Gill at Liberty, which is favored to win the league this year; and Joe Moglia of Coastal Carolina, the business executive turned coach whose team is ranked No. 15 in FCS

“It’s been great to see,” Moglia said of the Big South’s fast start. “Individual teams in the league are beating teams from the SoCon and the Colonial, and FCS teams are doing a good job against FBS teams.

“I think the FCS looks really good this year, and the Big South does, too.”