With the news that the Big South Conference football champion is eligible for the 2010 FCS national playoffs comes heightened excitement around the league.
After finishing a game out of first place last season, Charleston Southern certainly believes its chances are pretty good this fall. Winning the league title will not be easy, especially as long as Liberty is a member of the conference. But the race is more open than some might expect.
Here are five factors that will determine CSU's success this season:
Coach Jay Mills' offense leans more to the passing game, but the Buccaneers are most successful when they achieve balance. The Bucs averaged 163.5 yards rushing per game last season, throwing for 206 yards per game.
The running game took a major hit when leading rusher Antwan Ivey decided not to return to school. Ivey rushed for 490 yards in 2009. The next leading rusher is wide receiver Gerald Stevenson, with 364 yards last season. Stevenson is the focal point of the offense, rushing 52 times last season
and catching 55 passes, totaling more than 1,000 yards.
Senior Demarcus Moon and fullback B.J. Hackworth combined to average nearly five yards per carry last season, but each will be called upon for more carries this fall. Not to mention CSU lost three starting offensive linemen.
Senior John Paglia is one of the top placekickers in the FCS ranks, hitting a school record 16 field goals last season. Paglia made five kicks from beyond 40 yards, with a long of 51. Paglia has made 26 career field goals and will leave the school holding every placekicking record.
Stevenson has amassed a school record 1,836 return yards, but his role diminished last season as Mills chose to rest him on special teams. Deon Lee picked up the slack by averaging 28.4 yards per return, including an 81-yard return for a score.
Mills is a stickler for this statistic and for good reason. When CSU wins the turnover margin, they have a good season.
In the 2005 and 2006 seasons, when CSU won 16 games and a conference title, the Bucs were a combined plus-6 in turnover margin. In 2007, a five-win season, CSU was minus-13 in the margin. CSU won seven games in 2008 and finished plus-6 in turnover margin and was minus-3 during last year's 6-5 record.
Returning senior quarterback A.J. Toscano has to cut down on his 12 interceptions last season, and the Bucs cannot afford to lose nine fumbles again.
No question leadership was a huge factor during last year's four-game winning streak to close out the season. After an 0-3 start, CSU won six of its last eight games, finishing 4-2 in conference play with solid wins over Stony Brook and Coastal Carolina.
Mills' first few teams had few seniors, but the coach has 19 on this year's team, including many that are redshirt seniors. The Bucs have a senior quarterback (Toscano), a senior standout at receiver (Stevenson), a senior placekicker (Paglia), a senior leader along the defensive front (Joel Walton), two senior linebackers (Chris Patrick and Fred Godfrey) and a senior cornerback (Jacques Bazile). Will that make a difference?
CSU's program has clearly reached the level of the other top programs in the league. CSU is the winningest program in the Big South since 2005 and has played more FBS opponents than any team in the league.
The Bucs were picked to finish fourth this season. Last season, CSU beat two (Coastal Carolina and Stony Brook) of the three teams picked to finish ahead of them in this year's poll, and lost to Liberty by a touchdown in the final minutes.
The point is, the Buccaneers have no reason to fear any team in the league, which is a far cry from where the program was when Mills took over.