With each passing season, the Big South Conference has steadily increased the respect level among the more prestigious FCS conferences.
The respect level takes a major jump forward this fall as the league has finally earned an automatic bid into the FCS national playoffs.
The next step is to post a victory in the playoffs. Coastal Carolina made the playoffs as an at-large team in 2006 and lost to eventual national champion Appalachian State. The league has posted victories against more prominent FCS opponents over the years but winning a playoff game would put the league in another category.
Every coach in the conference has dangled the carrot of the automatic berth to his respective team during the offseason and preseason camps. Every team has an equal chance and all but two, VMI and Presbyterian, should be considered a legitimate contender.
The clear favorite this fall is Liberty, the program that has become the benchmark for the other teams in the league. Liberty won the Big South title outright in 2007 and 2008 before tying with Stony Brook last fall. Stony Brook beat Liberty in the final week of the season to secure the split championship.
Head coach Danny Rocco has the Liberty program hitting on all cylinders. The coach has recruited talent and has made them champions. Eight members of this year's team were selected to the Preseason All-Conference team.
Liberty was the runaway pick of the league's head coaches, sports information directors and media voters to win the conference, garnering 13 of 15 first-place votes.
Rocco says the goal of his team every season is to win the conference title, but now there is a bigger reason to win it.
"Our focus since the day I took this job has been on winning the conference championship," Rocco said. "I don't care what level you're talking about, the first goal is to win your conference. Now the added prize for the teams in our league is the opportunity to be a part of the FCS playoffs. For us, we've got to continue to do what we've been doing and try to prepare to win every game we play in this conference."
Liberty has the league's best offensive player returning in quarterback Mike Brown. The junior will be a quarterback exclusively this fall after being a jack-of-all trades last season.
Wide receiver Chris Summers also returns offensively and will be one of the league's best pass catchers. Offensive lineman Alex Stadler was a preseason all-conference choice as well.
Stony Brook has some early questions in regards to quarterback depth and the offensive line, but the Seawolves have the league's best running back in junior Edwin Gowins. Gowins has rushed for more than 2,200 yards in his first two seasons and will be the featured back this fall.
QB Michael Coulter is a solid player but will not be the type of player that can control a game on his own. His backups have little or no experience, so staying healthy will be important.
Coastal Carolina was the dominant team in the league the first four years but has slipped a bit over the last three. The Chants are only 16-18 overall and 7-8 in Big South play since 2007.
Head coach David Bennett has most of his starters back from a year ago but says they must play smarter and play better if they are to have a chance.
Senior Zack MacDowall must play better than he did a year ago when he threw 11 interceptions to only nine touchdown passes. USC transfer Aramis Hilary is the projected backup, while last year's backup, former Wando star Jamie Childers, is moving to tight end this fall.
Charleston Southern was picked to finish fourth in the preseason but did receive a first-place vote. The Buccaneers have finished 4-2 in the conference in each of the last two seasons.
Gardner-Webb, 3-3 in the league last season, returns a great deal of experience on both sides of the ball but will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. Last year's backup, John Rock, attempted 12 passes last season. Fortunately, the Bulldogs have a quality back in Patrick Hall returning, not to mention a pair of quality receivers in Tyson Petty and James Perry.
VMI coach Sparky Woods has to replace virtually of his offense from a year ago. The top two rushers are gone, as are the top two quarterbacks. The Keydets have some experience returning elsewhere but this could be a long year offensively.
Presbyterian was 0-11 last season but will be improved as a host of quality players return. Running back Lance Byrd gained more than 700 yards in his freshman season and quarterback Brandon Miley will benefit from a year of experience under center. Most of the offensive line and a host of quality players on defense are back.