The Flames have been so close to making the FCS playoff field over the last decade that they are ready to rewrite the ending. They tied Coastal Carolina for the Big South championship last season, but lost the head-to-head meeting in overtime, and ultimately fell oh-so-short of the postseason.
This season, Liberty was selected second to Coastal in the conference's preseason head coaches and media poll. At least one of the two powers has won the conference title in nine of the past 10 seasons.
"I feel real good about where we're at in our program, I feel very good about where we're going," said Gill, who's in his third season since succeeding Danny Rocco, who was equally as snakebitten with the playoffs.
"I think the biggest thing for us is really to develop early in the season. We need to come out and play a little bit better with execution early in the year. We've been very strong late in the year in November, I think we're 7-0 in the month of the November in two years. So I think if we play better early, then I think things are going to go in a great way for us."
Added No. 1 quarterback Josh Woodrum, "I've never been around a team that's been so hungry - so energetic and so excited for this season just to get started really to show everybody what we've got."
Following is a team-by-team breakdown of the 2014 Big South Conference race.
The Sports Network's predicted order of finish:
1. Coastal Carolina
4. Charleston Southern
1. COASTAL CAROLINA CHANTICLEERS
LOCATION: Conway, South Carolina
STADIUM: Brooks Stadium
COACH: Joe Moglia (20-8 in two seasons at Coastal Carolina)
LAST SEASON: 12-3 overall, 4-1 Big South (Tie/1st); No. 7 TSN Final Ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (5 offense/7 defense)
BIG LOSSES: RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (276 carries, 1,729 yards, 27 TD; 23 receptions, 153 yards, 2 TD), WR Matt Hazel (70 receptions, 990 yards, 9 TD), WR DeMario Bennett (40 receptions, 668 yards, 5 TD); LG Jamey Cheatwood; RT Drew Herring; LB Mike McClure (109 TT, 9 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 4 QBH, 1 FR); NT Dominique Salley (41 TT, 2.5 TFL, 4 QBH); DE LaDarius Hawthorne (55 TT, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FR, 2 FF, 3 BLK); DE Dominique Whiteside (38 TT, 5.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 3 QBH); WR/PR Niccolo Mastromatteo (35 receptions, 386 yards, 4 TD)
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Alex Ross, Jr. (232-for-358, 3,093 yards, 26 TD, 9 INT; 119 carries, 540 yards, 6 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: LB Quinn Backus, Sr. (144 TT, 10.5 TFL, 4 INT, 6 PBU)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB De'Angelo Henderson, So. (82 carries, 599 yards, 6 TD)
WR Bruce Mapp, So.
WR/KR Tyrell Blanks, Jr. (23 receptions, 353 yards, 3 TD)
WR John Israel, Jr.
WR Devin Brown, So.
TE Thomas Pauciello, Jr.
LT Chad Hamilton, Sr.
C Kevin Hart, Sr.
LG Mo Ashley, Sr.
DE Calvin Hollenhorst, Jr. (42 TT, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 2 QBH)
DT Marcus Crowder, Jr.
LB Brett Johnson, Sr.
FS Richie Sampson, Jr. (84 TT, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 11 PBU, 3 FF)
SS Pernell Williams, Sr. (61 TT, 1 INT, 3 PBU)
CB Denzel Rice, Sr. (61 TT, 1 INT, 12 PBU)
CB Sampson Baldwin, So. (45 TT, 1 INT, 8 PBU)
PK Alex Catron, Sr. (10-of-13 FG, 90 points)
P Austin Cain, Sr.
LS Shane Ballard, Sr.
OUTLOOK: Last season (a school-record 12 wins and a trip to the national quarterfinals) has raised the expectations surrounding Coastal's program, but the Chanticleers have to replace a number of key players. It starts with record-breaking running back Taliaferro, and they will turn to Henderson, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry in a supporting role. Replacing WRs Hazel, Bennett and Niccolo Mastromatteo on the perimeter might be even harder, but Ross - the Big South's preseason offensive player of the year - is one of the more unheralded standout quarterbacks in the FCS. He leads an offense that ranked fifth nationally in points per game (41) and 11th in yards per game (477.5), and the Chants might have even more team speed this year. LB Backus already has won two Big South defensive player of the year awards and will fuel that side of the ball again. FS Sampson and CB Rice lead an experienced secondary. The big losses are on the defensive line and the Chanticleers need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks because teams too often converted third down attempts into first downs. Coastal will play five of its first seven games on the road, but the Chants are thrilled that they get both Charleston Southern (which beat them last season) and Liberty at home.
Aug. 30 - at The Citadel
Sept. 6 - at North Carolina A&T
Sept. 13 - South Carolina State
Sept. 20 - at Florida A&M
Sept. 27 - Elon
Oct. 4 - at Furman
Oct. 11 - at Presbyterian
Oct. 25 - Charleston Southern
Nov. 1 - at Gardner-Webb
Nov. 8 - at Charlotte
Nov. 15 - Monmouth
Nov. 22 - Liberty
2. LIBERTY FLAMES
LOCATION: Lynchburg, Virginia
STADIUM: Williams Stadium
COACH: Turner Gill (14-9 in two seasons at Liberty; 39-58 overall)
LAST SEASON: 8-4 overall, 4-1 Big South (Tie/1st)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (8 offense/4 defense)
BIG LOSSES: RB Desmond Rice (186 carries, 967 yards, 16 TD); TE Brandon Apon; OL Hunter Steward; DL Cory Freeman; CB Walt Aikens (62 TT, 3.5 TFL, 3 INT, 6 PBU); CB/RS Kevin Fogg (44 TT, 2.5 TFL, 4 INT, 7 PBU); LS Richard Wright
OFFENSIVE STAR: QB Josh Woodrum, Jr. (198-for-308, 2,581 yards, 19 TD, 7 INT; 48 carries, 154 yards, 5 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: FS Jacob Hagen, Sr. (61 TT, 2.5 TFL, 6 INT, 7 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RB D.J. Abnar, Jr. (72 carries, 411 yards, 6 TD)
WR Darrin Peterson, Jr. (58 receptions, 825 yards, 7 TD)
WR Gabe Henderson, Sr. (47 carries, 641 yards, 3 TD)
WR Dante Shells, So.
TE Dexter Herman, Sr.
OL Jonathan Burgess, Jr.
OL Mitch Hanson, Sr.
OL Greg Ray, Sr.
OL Aharown Campbell, So.
DT Chima Uzowihe, Jr. (43 TT, 9 TFL, 7 sacks, 4 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 BLK);
DL JaRon Greene, So.
DL Dylan Bowman, Sr.
DL Dominique Davis, Sr.
LB Nick Sigmon, Sr. (62, 10.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF)
SS Gary Sampson, So.
CB Kenny Scott, Sr.
CB Wesley Scott, So.
PK John Lunsford, Jr. (8-of-19 FG, 77 points)
OUTLOOK: The inability to snare an FCS playoff bid for the first time has frustrated the Flames, but they're going to break through at some point considering the way they keep putting themselves in position for one. They still earned a share of the Big South title and won their final five games last season to finish with a winning record for the eighth straight year. QB Woodrum keeps getting better and has plenty of wide receivers and a strong offensive line, but the Flames won't have RB Desmond Rice, who nearly reached 1,000 rushing yards last season but then suffered an ACL tear in spring practice. The defense could take a step back after losing three starters on the line and in the secondary (including NFL selection Aikens). But there are two overwhelming standouts to curtail the losses in DT Uzowihe and FS Hagen. At linebacker, Sigmon is an All-American candidate. The Flames will challenge themselves out of conference, but their entire season hinges on their final game at Coastal Carolina and getting into the playoffs.
Aug. 30 - at North Carolina
Sept. 6 - at Norfolk State
Sept. 13 - Brevard
Sept. 20 - Bryant
Sept. 27 - at Indiana State
Oct. 4 - Richmond
Oct. 11 - at Appalachian State
Oct. 25 - Gardner-Webb
Nov. 1 - at Presbyterian
Nov. 8 - Monmouth
Nov. 15 - Charleston Southern
Nov. 22 - at Coastal Carolina
3. GARDNER-WEBB BULLDOGS
LOCATION: Boiling Springs, North Carolina
STADIUM: Spangler Stadium
COACH: Carroll McCray (7-5 in one season at Gardner-Webb; 23-44 overall)
LAST SEASON: 7-5 overall, 2-3 Big South (4th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 17 (10 offense/7 defense)
BIG LOSSES: WR Richard Jules (36 receptions, 351 yards); DE Shaquille Riddick (67 TT, 19 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 17 QBH, 1 FF); DE Preston Pemasa (49 TT, 11.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 5 PBU, 6 QBH); S Lonnie Johnson (56 TT, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FR); CB Keon Williams (36 TT, 4 INT, 9 PBU,1 FR, 1 FF); PK/P Jordan Day; LS Hudson Smith
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR Kenny Cook, Sr. (76 receptions, 1,008 yards, 9 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: NG O.J. Mau, Jr. (54 TT, 9 TFL, 4 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 FR)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Lucas Beatty, Sr. (229-for-377, 2,497 yards, 12 TD, 13 INT)
RB Juanne Blount, Sr. (257 carries, 1,040 yards, 9 TD)
RB/RS J.J. Hubbard, Sr. (63 carries, 269 yards, 2 TD; 24.1-yard KO return average, 1 TD)
RB Khalil Lewis, Fr.
WR Kalay Jones, So.
WR Willie Jackson IV, Fr.
WR Calvin Smith, Fr.
TE Seth Cranfill, Sr.
TE Mike Estes, So. (18 receptions, 278 yards, 1 TD)
DE Tyler Hough-Jenkins, Sr.
DE Jebrai Regan, Jr.
LB Tanner Burch, Sr. (107 TT, 7 TFL, 2 QBH)
LB Chad Geter, Jr. (82 TT, 9 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT, 6 PBU, 3 QBH, 1 FR, 2 FF)
LB Bradley Taylor, Sr. (42 TT, 1 PBU, 1 FF)
LB Quinton Patterson, R-Fr. (North Carolina State transfer)
LB Aaron Cook, So.
CB Ivan Toomer, Jr. (40 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 8 PBU, 1 QBH, 2 FF)
CB Johnathan Sherill, Jr.
CB Brandaun Addison, So.
FS Corey Santiago, Jr. (Dean's College transfer)
S Spencer Havird, R-Fr.
PK/P Paul Schumacher, Fr.
OUTLOOK: The Runnin' Bulldogs are so ready for a breakthrough season that All- American DE Riddick might wind up regretting his transfer to West Virginia. McCray returns 30 players who have started at least one game during their careers, although the team's consistency needs improvement. Offensively, they have their most experienced group in a while and QB Beatty has been sharp during the preseason after he played hurt toward the end of last season. He can get the ball in the hands of either a 1,000-yard rusher (Blount) or a 1,000- yard receiver (Cook). On defense, NG Mau is a beast up front and LB Burch is a tackle machine, but the loss of Riddick is significant. The Runnin' Bulldogs have to protect the ball better because turnovers led to some poor losses (Charlotte and VMI) in a season in which they had some big victories (Furman, Richmond, Wofford and Charleston Southern). Overall, they were minus-11 on turnovers.
Aug. 30 - at Furman
Sept. 6 - at Wake Forest
Sept. 13 - Virginia-Lynchburg
Sept. 20 - Wofford
Sept. 27 - at The Citadel
Oct. 4 - Charlotte
Oct. 18 - at VMI
Oct. 25 - at Liberty
Nov. 1 - Coastal Carolina
Nov. 8 - at Charleston Southern
Nov. 15 - vs. Presbyterian
Nov. 22 - at Monmouth
4. CHARLESTON SOUTHERN BUCCANEERS
LOCATION: Charleston, South Carolina
STADIUM: Buccaneer Field
COACH: Jamey Chadwell (10-3 in one season at Charleston Southern; 35-24 overall)
LAST SEASON: 10-3 overall, 3-2 Big South (3rd); No. 24 TSN Final Ranking
STARTERS RETURNING: 16 (11 offense/5 defense)
BIG LOSSES: DE Will Hunt (34 TT, 8 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 BLK), MLB Adam Witzmann (56 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 FF), WLB Calvin Bryant (72 TT, 8.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 FF, 1 PBU), SPUR Matt Hardy (42 TT, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FR), CB Elijah Lee (54 TT, 3.5 TFL, 2 INT, 7 PBU), CB Damian Dixon (35 TT, 4 PBU, 1 FR, 1 BLK)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB Christian Reyes, Sr. (245 carries, 1,254 yards, 9 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Dylan Black, Sr. (35 TT, 10 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 BLK)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Danny Croghan III, So. (85-for-140, 1,014 yards, 7 TD, 4 INT)
QB Kyle Copeland, So. (13-for-35, 150 yards, 3 TD, 4 INT)
QB Austin Brown, Jr. (UAB transfer)
RB Ben Robinson, So. (60 carries, 320 yards, 1 TD)
RB Mike Holloway, So. (40 carries, 421 yards, 1 TD)
WR Kevin Glears, Sr. (31 receptions, 456 yards, 6 TD)
WR Larry Jones III, Jr. (25 receptions, 380 yards, 2 TD)
WR Donte Sumpter, Jr.
TE Nathan Prater, Jr.
C Jackson Williamson, So.
RG Blake Stone, Jr.
RT Benny Timmons, Jr.
LT Erik Austell, So.
LG Clayton Truitt, Sr.
NG James Smith, Sr. (33 TT, 6 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 6 PBU, 1 PBU)
DE Tre Deloach, Jr.
DT Isaac Lowrance, Sr.
LB Gabe Middlebrook, Sr. (37 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FF)
SS Corbin Jackson, Jr.
FS Demaris Freeman, Sr. (90 TT, 3 TFL, 1 FF, 5 PBU)
DB Malcolm Jackson, Jr. (47 TT, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FR)
PK Mark Deboy, Jr. (9-for-12, 29 points)
OUTLOOK: After being one of the biggest surprises in the FCS last season, the Buccaneers won't sneak up on anybody anymore, but they also have plenty of returning talent. While leading the FCS in time of possession last season, the offense averaged 232.9 rushing yards per game, It returns 1,000-yard power back Reyes as well as Holloway, who finished his freshman season well and averaged 10.5 yards on 40 carries. At quarterback, the incumbent Croghan was the Big South offensive freshman of the year, but it's a deep position. The Bucs suffered some big losses on defense, especially LBs Bryant and Witzmann. But the defensive line is strong behind NG Smith and DE Black, a pair of seniors. There are two FBS opponents (Vanderbilt and Georgia), but the rest of the non- conference schedule is manageable and the Bucs play their first four games at home. They will have to win at either Coastal Carolina or Liberty to have a shot at the conference title.
Aug. 28 - Point
Sept. 6 - Newberry
Sept. 13 - Campbell
Sept. 20 - The Citadel
Sept. 27 - at Charlotte
Oct. 11 - at Vanderbilt
Oct. 18 - Presbyterian
Oct. 25 - at Coastal Carolina
Nov. 1 - at Monmouth
Nov. 8 - Gardner-Webb
Nov. 15 - at Liberty
Nov. 22 - at Georgia
5. MONMOUTH HAWKS
LOCATION: West Long Branch, New Jersey
STADIUM: Kessler Field
COACH: Kevin Callahan (120-97 in 21 seasons at Monmouth)
LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall as an independent
STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)
BIG LOSSES: RB Julian Hayes (243 carries, 1,111 yards, 7 TD); WR Mike McLafferty (24 receptions, 501 yards, 4 TD)l OLB Dave Damirgian (81 TT, 13.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 5 PBU, 2 QBH, 2 FR); MLB Gary Onuekwusi (66 TT, 1.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF); SS Clark Coe (57 TT, 1 sacks, 2 INT, 9 PBU, 1 FR, 2 FF); CB/RS Tevrin Brandon (51 TT, 3 INT, 12 PBU, 1 FR, 1 FF, 2 BLK); PK Eric Spillane (10- of-15 FG, 63 points)
OFFENSIVE STAR: RB K.B. Asante, Sr. (180 carries, 1,080 yards, 8 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: DE Darnell Leslie, Jr. (35 TT, 13 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 1 INT, 5 QBH, 2 FR, 1 FF, 1 BLK)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Brandon Hill, Sr. (181-for-323, 2,356 yards, 19 TD, 11 INT)
WR Neal Sterling, Sr. (57 receptions, 647 yards, 6 TD)
WR Lamar Davenport, Sr. (25 receptions, 348 yards, 3 TD)
WR Eric Sumlin, Sr.
WR Thaddeus Richards, Sr.
OL Reece Johnston, Sr.
RG Peter Ireland, Sr.
DE Pat O'Hara, Sr. (35 TT, 7 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 PBU, 8 QBH, 2 FR, 3 FF, 1 BLK)
DL Dimitrius Smith, Sr.
DT Eric Macik, Sr.
DT Andrew Jurczynski, Sr. (31 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 PBU)
LB Dan Sullivan, Sr. (ineligible last season)
LB John Sieczkowski, Jr. (46 TT, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 2 QBH)
CB Joe Johnson, Jr. (49 TT, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 2 FR, 2 FF)
SS Pat Gray, Sr.
OUTLOOK: Welcome to the Big South, Monmouth. Now don't expect any accommodating opponents while the level of competition rises from the Northeast Conference (with the Hawks spending last season as an FCS independent). Callahan, the only head coach in program history, returns a solid squad, especially on offense, with veteran receivers to pair with QB Hill and a 1,000-yard back in Asante. Among the four returning starters on the defensive line is DE Leslie, who is coming off a breakout season. Plus, Sullivan (the team's tackle leader in 2012) will patrol again at linebacker after missing last season. The Hawks have raised their scholarship level to make the move to the Big South, where they joined as an associate member for football for four seasons. They have an excellent chance to do well out of conference, which will set themselves up for their final five games - all in the Big South.
Aug. 30 - Delaware State
Sept. 13 - Wagner
Sept. 20 - at Duquesne
Sept. 27 - at Lehigh
Oct. 4 - at Robert Morris
Oct. 11 - Columbia
Oct. 25 - at Presbyterian
Nov. 1 - Charleston Southern
Nov. 8 - at Liberty
Nov. 15 - at Coastal Carolina
Nov. 22 - Gardner-Webb
6. PRESBYTERIAN BLUE HOSE
LOCATION: Clinton, South Carolina
STADIUM: Bailey Memorial Stadium
COACH: Harold Nichols (9-44 in five seasons at Presbyterian)
LAST SEASON: 3-8 overall, 1-4 Big South (Tie/5th)
STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)
BIG LOSSES: WR Arthur Williams (25 receptions, 233 yards, 1 TD); OL Tim Fowler; S Fred Marshall (55 TT, 1.5 TFL, 3 PBU); S Nick Newton (39 TT, 1.5 TFL, 1 PBU); DE Keyadd Miller (33 TT, 4.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 QBH, 1 FR); DE Joshua Polk (27 TT, 4 TFL, 1 PBU, 4 QBH, 1 FF)
OFFENSIVE STAR: WR/RS Jeremiah McKie, Sr. (38 receptions, 487 yards, 2 TD; 24.5-yard KO return average; 12.5-yard punt return average, 1 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: CB Ed Britt, Jr. (69 TT, 6 TFL, 6 PBU, 1 FR, 1 BLK)
OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Heys McMath, So. (85-for-149, 1,142 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT)
QB Kaleb Griffin, Jr. (71-for-100, 635 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT)
RB Demarcus Rouse, Sr. (103 carries, 514 yards, 7 TD)
RB Blake Roberts, So. (52 carries, 322 yards, 1 TD)
RB/KR LaQua Mayes, Sr. (71 carries, 320 yards, 3 TD)
RB Darrell Bridges, R-Fr.
WR Tobi Antigha, Sr. (54 receptions, 764 yards, 6 TD)
OL Hunter Gray, Sr.
OL Devinn Ritter, Sr.
DE Mitchell Anderson, Jr. (38 TT, 2 PBU)
LB Ugonna Akoh, So. (39 TT, 14 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 FR, 1 FF)
LB Justin Antolik, Jr.
LB Breyon Williams, Jr. (70 TT, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FR)
LB Donelle Williams, Jr. (injured last season)
CB Kevin Crawford, Jr.
CB Cory White, Sr. (66 TT, 1.5 TFL, 2 QBH)
DB DaRon Dickey, Jr. (54 TT, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR)
P Stephen Doar, Jr.
LS Cannon Jordan, Jr.
OUTLOOK: The loss of VMI to the Southern Conference hurts the Blue Hose in a strong Big South. They have at least shared last place in four of their first five seasons in the conference. But Nichols has some key returnees and some players back from injury, so the Blue Hose should be improved. QB McMath came on strong as a freshman and gets back his favorite pass catchers in Antigha and McKie, and a versatile running game, led by Rouse. The offensive line must improve, however, and the Blue Hose must overturn a minus-eight turnover margin. The defense needs to stop the run more, but the return of LB Donelle Williams is a big boost. The other Williams at linebacker returns to give the Blue Hose four of last year's top five tacklers. Some of the special teams play is strong, but the Blue Hose, incredibly, kicked only one field goal last season.
Aug. 28 - at Northern Illinois
Sept. 6 - Bluefield
Sept. 13 - Furman
Sept. 20 - at North Carolina State
Oct. 4 - Western Carolina
Oct. 11 - Coastal Carolina
Oct. 18 - at Charleston Southern
Oct. 25 - Monmouth
Nov. 1 - Liberty
Nov. 8 - at Ole Miss
Nov. 15 - at Gardner-Webb