CHARLOTTE – Gardner-Webb football was picked fifth Tuesday in the Big South Conference preseason poll announced by the league office as part of its annual Football Media Day at the Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites.
The Runnin' Bulldogs, who return 21 starters from 2015, received 40 points in the tabulation – just seven behind fourth-place Monmouth and nine in front of Presbyterian. Gardner-Webb was picked third on three ballots, fourth on three more and fifth on seven ballots. Five voters predicted a sixth-place finish for the 'Dogs.
Defending champion Charleston Southern was picked to comfortably win the league, as expected, receiving 106 points and 16 of a possible 18 first-place votes. Liberty was a distant 20 points behind in second place and Kennesaw State was picked third with 68 points. Both the Flames and Owls received one first-place vote.
Gardner-Webb also projected to finish fifth in last year's preseason poll.
The Runnin' Bulldogs play three of their five Big South Conference games in Ernest W. Spangler Stadium this season, beginning with Presbyterian on October 8 (6:00 pm / ESPN3). GWU also has home league dates with Kennesaw State (October 22, Noon, ASN) and Monmouth (November 19, 1:30 pm). The 'Dogs must face the Big South's two favorites on the road.
Gardner-Webb returns a large chunk of its talent – particularly on the offensive side – for 2016. With a year of experience running a new system under their belts, that offensive core will once again be led by dynamic quarterback Tyrell Maxwell (6-2, 220, Jr.) and an offensive line that returns four of its five starters. All-America candidate Mike Estes (6-4, 240, Gr.) returns at tight end as well as All-Conference center Caleb Smith (6-3, 328, Gr.).
Defensively, All-Big South Conference outside linebackers Aaron Cook (6-1, 235, Sr.) and Chad Geter (6-2, 253, R-Sr.) anchor a group that ranked No. 13 nationally in total defense last season. All-America nose guard OJ Mau must be replaced, along with All-Big South end Jebrai Regan and starting inside linebackers Tanner Burch and Azizz Higgins.
In addition to Cook and Geter, Gardner-Webb welcomes back its most experienced secondary in several seasons – with three of four starters back and several more seasoned veterans in the rotation. Corner Angel Guzman (5-10, 192, R-Jr.), free safety Spencer Havird (6-2, 202, R-Jr.) and strong safety Trey Lucas (5-11, 204, R-Jr.) all started for the 'Dogs last season.
A tough non-conference slate awaits Gardner-Webb in 2016, beginning with a road trip to in-state foe Elon on Saturday, September 3 (3:30 pm).