FCS college football 2021: Big South Conference preview

National Sports

(Stats Perform) – The Big South Conference can pound its chest while heading into its 20th season of football this fall.

The membership is at a league-high nine football programs, and there are three ranked in the Stats Perform FCS Preseason Top 25 for the first time – No. 13 Monmouth, No. 19 Kennesaw State and No. 25 North Carolina A&T, the nation’s pre-eminent FCS program that joined the conference this summer.

Monmouth, the two-time defending champ, is riding a high after a spring season in which it pushed eventual FCS champion Sam Houston to the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs. But this fall could be difficult due to the conference favorite facing Kennesaw, N.C. A&T, fourth pick Charleston Southern and fifth pick Campbell on the road.

Here’s a preview of the upcoming Big South season:

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PREDICTED FINISH

(With Fall 2020/Spring 2021 Season Record Unless Noted)

1. Monmouth (3-1, 3-0 Big South) – On a 10-game Big South winning streak, the Hawks return 21 of 22 starters for coach Kevin Callahan’s 29th season, and 15 received preseason all-conference honors (tripling Kennesaw State’s second-best five picks). Quarterback Tony Muskett (1,039 passing yards, nine touchdowns against two interceptions) played with poise as a freshman.

2. Kennesaw State (4-1, 2-1 Big South) – The Owls played musical chairs at quarterback due to injuries in the spring season, but 2019 playoff star Jonathan Murphy is ready again to direct the triple option offense. Running back and returner Isaac Foster has averaged over 14 yards on 171 career touches.

3. North Carolina A&T (2019: 9-3, 6-2 MEAC) – Heading into a stronger conference, the Aggies show good timing with their strong nonconference schedule. While running back Jah-Maine Martin is the headliner, the Aggies have been top 10 in the FCS against the run in each of their last five seasons (they sat out the 2020 season due to the pandemic, as did Hampton).

4. Charleston Southern (2-2, 2-2 Big South) – The defensive line remains stacked with tackle Shaundre Mims and ends Nick Salley and Anton Williams, who in the Buccaneers’ last full season in 2019 had a combined 46.5 tackles for loss and 24 sacks. Third-year coach Autry Denson’s program seeks to end four-year losing streaks to both Monmouth and Kennesaw State.

5. Campbell (0-4, 0-0 Big South) – In the last two seasons, the Camels are 5-2 when Halik-Malik Williams passes for at least 200 yards and 1-7 when he’s below that level. Linebacker Justice Galloway-Velazquez, the 2019 tackle leader who’s back from injury, and sixth-year safety Darion Slade form a superb duo.

6. Gardner-Webb (2-2, 0-2 Big South) – The offseason transfers of wide receivers Izaiah Gathings and Devron Harper were devastating, but the offense returns speedy running back Narii Gaither and added quarterback Bailey Fisher (Tennessee Tech) and wideout T.J. Luther (Wofford) among its transfers. The Runnin’ Bulldogs and coach Tre Lamb have a building block in sophomore defensive end Ty French.

7. Robert Morris (0-3, 0-2 Big South) – As the Colonials head toward their first full Big South season, all-conference linebacker Aniello Buzzacco has six straight games with 10 or more tackles (and 10 out of 12 games). Offensively, Alijah Jackson (1,713 rushing yards) is the go-to player.

8. Hampton (2019: 5-7, 1-5 Big South) – Wide receiver Jadakis Bonds tied for second in the FCS in TD receptions (15) during his breakout 2019 season. The Pirates’ only conference win in their first Big South season was against the since-departed Presbyterian, although they also defeated North Alabama when the game did not count in the standings.

North Alabama (0-4, 0-0 Big South) – The Lions’ games will count in the Big South standings, but they remain ineligible for the conference title as they finish their Division I transition. Redshirt junior wide receivers Dexter Boykin (86), Cortez Hall (79) and Andre Little (73) are primed to surpass 100 career receptions.

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PRESEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR

Monmouth running back Juwon Farri – Talk about unfair, Monmouth claimed five of the six offensive line and tight end spots on the Big South preseason team, and they’ll reunite with a running back who averaged 130 yards (second-best in the FCS) and scored 10 touchdowns in four spring games.

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PRESEASON DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF YEAR

Monmouth safety Anthony Budd – The first defensive back to be the Big South’s preseason choice since 2012 has seven interceptions in the last two seasons and is second on the team in that time with 92 tackles. A veteran of 37 career games, he helped key the defense that limited Sam Houston to a season-low 133 passing yards in a 21-15 loss.

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2022 NFL PROSPECT

North Carolina A&T running back Jah-Maine Martin – With good vision for finding open space, Martin (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) has averaged 32.3 yards on his 32 career rushing touchdowns (yes, averaged). In four non-MEAC games in 2019, he rushed for 545 yards and six TDs on nearly 7.6 yards per carry.

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FAST FACT

Since Kennesaw State’s start-up season in 2015, the Owls are averaging 324.7 rushing yards per game – 25 more than any other FCS program.

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X-FACTOR

Holding serve at home and breaking through on the road are pivotal factors. In the last two seasons, Big South teams went a combined 40-19 (.678) in home games. Using only the nine current members – adding in the 2019 seasons of North Carolina A&T (then MEAC) and Robert Morris (then Northeast Conference) and removing Presbyterian – and the teams are 48-16 (.750) in home games since 2019.

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3 MUST-SEE GAMES

North Carolina A&T at Kennesaw State (Oct. 16) – After home games against Robert Morris and North Alabama, this is N.C. A&T’s first road assignment in its new conference.

Monmouth at Campbell (Oct. 16) – Playing four FBS opponents last fall was a good way for Campbell to prepare for the two-time defending champ.

Monmouth at Kennesaw State (Nov. 20) – The recent Big South powers are a combined 34-4 in conference games since the start of the 2017 season, with each loss against each other.

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