CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When the Big South conference played its first season of Division I college football in 2002, it did so with just four members: Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, Elon and Liberty.
One of those teams is now an FBS Independent. Another jumped to a different conference on the FCS level, the CAA. Only Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb remain. They’re like Paulie Walnuts in the Sopranos, in that they’ve been around since the debut and survived through the finale.
But the Big South is far from finished. The league isn’t abruptly cutting to black anytime soon.
Now celebrating its 20th season of playing college football, the Big South has more than doubled in size since its founding. With the 2021 additions of Robert Morris and North Carolina A&T, the league has an all-time high nine football playing members this season.
“It’s great to have two quality programs join the Big South,” said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan, who is entering his 29th season on the job. “This will be the most competitive Big South that we’ve been a part of.”
Monmouth used to be in the NEC, the same league that Robert Morris jumped ship from. The Hawks came to the Big South in 2014 as its northernmost member, a title that RMU now owns. Callahan has guided the Hawks to four consecutive top-two finishes in the conference and three FCS playoff appearances.
Entering this season, Monmouth was tabbed to win the league again by the Big South’s head coaches and media members. The Hawks will meet the RMU Colonials on Nov. 13 in West Long Branch, New Jersey on Nov. 13. The all-time series between the two sides is tied 10-10.
“I think the conference as a whole is exactly what I thought it would be; a lot of strength and a lot of speed,” said RMU head coach Bernard Clark Jr. “We kind of have a feeling of what’s going on. But the preparation really starts with us, as a team, with what our guys have done in the summer. We’ve had about 60 or 70 guys at any given time busting their behinds, and that’s a great thing.”
It’s unclear exactly how long the Big South will be playing with nine members though. This marks the final season of Big South football for associate members Kennesaw State and North Alabama – the league’s two southernmost members. Both schools play nearly every other varsity sport in the ASUN and will be playing football in that conference in 2022 also.
But a massive realignment could be coming soon to college athletics, potentially sparked by Oklahoma and Texas making plans to bolt from the Big 12 for the greener pastures (read: money) of the SEC. That seismic shift could spark a domino that could trickle down to the Big South.
“We grow in a in a very deliberate and smart way,” Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said. “We want to bring in institutions that make sense for us, to make us better… that really opens up not only exposure opportunities, media wise, but also great fertile recruiting grounds for our schools.”
TV exposure this season
Aside from North Carolina A&T’s game on Sept. 10 at Duke and Kennesaw State’s Sept. 11 game at Georgia Tech – both of which will air on the ACC Network – nearly every other game involving a Big South team can be seen on ESPN+, the worldwide leader’s subscription streaming service.
The Big South also has a number of games that will appear on Nexstar Media Group stations this season, and a few that will air on ESPN3 – ESPN’s free streaming service. Robert Morris’ contest at North Carolina A&T will be on ESPN3.
- Of the Big South’s nine football teams, five are coached by Black men. In addition to RMU’s Clark, the group includes Hampton’s Robert Prunty, N.C. A&T’s Sam Washington, Charleston Southern’s Autry Denson and Campbell’s Mike Minter. This is noteworthy because there are only 13 Black head coaches in all of FBS football, and no Power 5 team hired a Black head coach this past offseason.
- Big South teams have six victories over FBS squads.
- Teams from the Big South are 113-82 against non-conference FCS opponents since 2013.
- Since 2002, 88 former Big South players have gotten NFL opportunities.
State of RMU vs. Duquesne?
Robert Morris and Duquesne are separated by about 17 miles, or less than a 30-minute drive. Since 2006, the Dukes and Colonials have played each other 14 times in football, an event that has turned into a great local rivalry.
But this year, the game isn’t happening. Robert Morris will play Dayton, Central Michigan and Howard for its three-game non-conference slate. With the two schools in different conferences now, its unclear when the series might resume.
“They won’t play us this year,” Clark said. “We’re still trying to get them back on the schedule. I think it’s a huge rivalry.”
Duquesne is 10-4 in the series, but Robert Morris won the last meeting 41-21 in 2019.
Aggies’ prep for Colonials
The two newcomers to the Big South this season will open conference play against each other on Oct. 2 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“I have met Coach Clark, but I have not seen them on tape,” North Carolina A&T head coach Sam Washington said of RMU.
Washington knows Pittsburgh well having played more than three seasons for the Steelers in the 1980s. In 1984, he started 14 games at corner and intercepted six passes, returning two of them for touchdowns.
Because the Aggies didn’t play in the spring but RMU did, the two sides have not exchanged game film yet, Washington said.
“That won’t happen until it’s supposed to,” Washington said. “Fortunately, we both play three ball games before. So, we’ll build from there.”
It’ll be the first-ever meeting in football between RMU and N.C. A&T.