Charleston Southern has three Big South Conference football championship trophies, two coming back-to-back in 2015 and '16. Those seasons included trips to the FCS national playoffs for the first time in school history.

With coaching changes and key player losses, the Bucs slipped to 6-5 a year ago, their first under head coach Mark Tucker. Tucker, who was on the staff as quarterback coach during those title runs, feels the program needed a year of transition and says things are better in year two.

“The biggest difference is we’ve had this coaching staff together for a full year and the relationships with the players are so much stronger,” Tucker said. “For me, it’s all about relationships, about knowing your players and your players having faith and trust in your coaches. We’re just farther along in that area now. This team is in a good place. I’ve been very proud of them.”

Can CSU be better than last year’s 6-5 record and rise to Big South contender again? Here's what could make the difference:

What must go right

• Effective quarterback play will be critical. CSU redshirt junior London Johnson has waited for his turn, playing in a backup role for most of his career. He completed 52 percent of his passes for 581 yards last season. CSU has good receivers, including preseason first-team all-conference pick Kam Brown. Brown must get more than 25 receptions this fall. Johnson, who throws a nice ball and is exceptionally quick as a runner, has to perform at a high level if CSU is going to challenge for the Big South title. “I am seeing this preseason what I saw when I recruited him out of Marlboro County High School,” Tucker says. “It’s his show. It’s his job to lose.”

• Production from the running backs. If Johnson is the team’s most explosive runner, CSU may be in trouble. Backs Terrence Wilson, Ronnie Harris and Chanin Hamilton combined for just over 800 yards rushing and five touchdowns. The offensive line has solid experience and the return of Joe Gold from injury should help.

• Defensive line must maintain dominance. Gone is two-time Big South defensive player of the year Anthony Ellis, one of the more dominant defensive linemen in league history. The program also lost several other key linemen who chose not to return. End Solomon Brown and tackle Johnny Robinson are proven performers and both will need big seasons. They are the only two linemen with college starts so the pressure will be on a host of newcomers to be good.

• Kicking game must continue to produce. Senior Tyler Tekac is among the league’s top placekickers, hitting 7 of 10 field goal tries last season, including two game-winning kicks. Punter Kyle Reighard averaged 41.4 yards per punt last season, with 11 punts covering more than 50 yards. If the offense can move the chains, CSU has a chance to get points or pin the opposition deep often.

What can’t go wrong

• Back to the quarterback position. London Johnson has to remain upright and healthy, which at CSU is rare. Going back the last five years, CSU has been forced to use backup quarterbacks in every season, sometimes three in a season. Johnson’s backups have zero experience. Redshirt freshman Jack Chambers has shown flashes during the preseason but isn’t ready to run the offense for an extended time against first-team defenses. One could argue that sitting Johnson in the opener against Florida, or limiting his playing time, would not be a bad thing.

• Too many punts. While Reighard is one of the league’s top punters, he is forced into action way too often. Reighard punted 64 times last season, an average of nearly six times per game.

• CSU opens the season with games against Florida, The Citadel, Elon and Hampton. A 1-3 or 0-4 start could be disastrous moving forward. Counting Florida as a loss, the Bucs could conceivably be 3-1 after September. They have beaten The Citadel four straight times, lost to Elon at the buzzer last year, and should be capable of beating Hampton, though that game is on the road. Anything worse than 2-2 is not a good sign.

Charleston Southern Buccaneers

Head coach: Mark Tucker, 6-5 in one season at CSU

Last year: 6-5 overall (3-2 Big South)

Returning starters: Offense 8, Defense 6

Impact players: LB J.D. Sosebee, DE Solomon Brown, WR Kam Brown, QB London Johnson

Notable: Bucs have little depth on the defensive line, a unit that has been dominant in recent years … CSU secondary could be one of the school’s best ever … Special teams is a strength with placekicker Tyler Tekac and punter Kyle Reighard.

CSU Schedule

Sept.1 at Florida 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 15 at The Citadel 6 p.m.

Sept. 22 Elon 6 p.m.

Sept. 29 at Hampton 2 p.m.

Oct. 6 at Savannah State 6 p.m.

Oct. 13 UVA-Lynchburg 6 p.m.

Oct. 20 Presbyterian 6 p.m.

Oct. 27 Kennesaw State 6 p.m.

Nov. 3 at Monmouth 1 p.m.

Nov. 10 Gardner-Webb 3 p.m.

Nov. 17 at Campbell 2 p.m.

David Shelton's Big South predictions

1. Kennesaw State

2. Monmouth

3. Charleston Southern

4. Gardner-Webb

5. Campbell

6. Presbyterian