When the college football season kicked off a year ago, it did so gradually, with conferences joining the fray at varying speeds because of uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic. Two major conferences kicked off during the second weekend of September, but the Sun Belt instead emerged as the headliner when three teams from the lower-tier league toppled opponents from the Big 12. For Coastal Carolina, a program that only jumped to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2017 and hadn’t produced a winning season at this level, a magical run began.

With games sparse during those early weeks of 2020, prominent television slots were easier to find, giving teams such as Coastal Carolina a boost into the national conversation. The Chanticleers of Conway, S.C., beat Kansas on the road to open the season, and they just kept winning. Fans of this sport, which often centers on the same teams hovering near the top, noticed that unexpected success — along with the teal turf field, players who grew mullets, wild locker room celebrations and a rooster mascot with a hard-to-pronounce name (SHON-ti-cleer). With all those forces working together, Coastal Carolina became “America’s team,” said Coach Jamey Chadwell, who now sports a mullet, too.

It’s not that they tried to be the fun program, said linebacker Silas Kelly, who has been with the program since its pre-FBS days and was one of three players who launched the mullet movement. It happened naturally. So these Chanticleers embraced the identifier, reeling in new fans while becoming a refreshing story during a dreary year.

“For that moment in time, we were somebody that had the world’s attention,” Chadwell said. “Fifteen minutes of fame? We got four months of it.”

Coastal Carolina finished the regular season 11-0, highlighted by a defining win over BYU in a game scheduled with a few days’ notice. The Chanticleers lost in overtime to Liberty in their first bowl game, ending the historic campaign. The coaches and their wives gathered later that winter at a house in nearby Myrtle Beach, appreciating the season with shrimp and grits, steak tenderloin and stuffed chicken.

The players still hear criticism that maybe they won all those games because it was an odd season that catered to unusual results. But the long-term goal for this program is to be consistently great — competing for championships and playing in bowls. There’s an obvious next step in that mission: Do it all again.

That doesn’t mean this year’s team must go undefeated, Chadwell said, but that’s where his group is now. Coastal Carolina has won its first six games, and the No. 14 Chanticleers are the only ranked team from their state, ahead of Power Five neighbors Clemson and South Carolina. Wednesday’s matchup with Appalachian State is the Chanticleers’ toughest task left in the regular season. Then the team hopes it’ll play for the Sun Belt title and in a bowl.

“I think we’ve got to have another good year,” Chadwell said, because then outsiders can’t say, “Oh, they’re a fluke.” Those comments would be overtaken by another idea: “Hey, that program’s legit.”

The Chanticleers entered this season with new expectations. In 2020, they were picked last in their division in a conference they ended up winning. (The title game against Louisiana Lafayette, another team that beat a Big 12 opponent in its opener, was canceled because of a coronavirus case in the Coastal Carolina program, and the teams are considered co-champions.) That season had a “happy-go-lucky” vibe with the team essentially “playing with house money,” Chadwell said.

This year, the team started hearing about how it wasn’t winning by enough. For a group that hasn’t navigated those expectations before — from 2017 to 2019, the Chanticleers never finished better than 5-7 — that can turn into a burden. The team recalibrated its mind-set, leaning back toward what led to the joy of last season.

“I don’t think anybody has a better time than Coastal football, to be honest with you, on game days,” said Trey Carter, an offensive lineman in his sixth year with the program.

The plight of a Group of Five program is that one loss can send a team flying out of the rankings and the national conversation. These teams must have perfect seasons to have a chance — similar to how No. 2 Cincinnati of the American Athletic Conference is thriving and could land in the College Football Playoff. Chadwell sees how his team hovers around the same ranking; when teams ahead lose, new programs leapfrog the Chanticleers. Chadwell doesn’t let that bother him. He knows if his team wins enough, the season can still end with a spot in an upper-tier bowl.

Just four years ago, Coastal Carolina struggled through its first season at the FBS level. Chadwell, the newly hired offensive coordinator, became the interim head coach when Joe Moglia went on medical leave. Chadwell felt like a substitute teacher as his team was tasked with learning new opponents and facing much stiffer competition. During that 3-9 season, Chadwell thought: “There’s the bottom floor, the foundation. You’ve got to start building it from there.”

Moglia returned for 2018, then handed the reins to Chadwell permanently before the 2019 season. That year, the Chanticleers finished 5-7 for the second straight season, but five of those losses were by a combined 24 points.

Then it all came together in 2020. Carter said he would talk with his teammates about how the opponents they worried about facing in previous years no longer seemed so challenging. Wearing Coastal Carolina football gear around campus suddenly prompted excited conversations. That BYU game, when the Chanticleers stopped the Cougars at the 1-yard line to seal the win as time expired, “cemented everything,” Chadwell said. The remarkably fast turnaround had reached its peak.

“We knew we were going to turn a lot of heads,” Kelly said. “And I think we turned a little bit more heads than we thought we were going to.”

The roster that elevated the program is filled with players who came out of high school without much fanfare. Carter attracted about five scholarship offers, all from Football Championship Subdivision teams. He committed to the Chanticleers before finding out they would soon make the jump to the FBS. Kelly, who played at ​​South Carroll High in Sykesville, Md., committed to Maryland until, he said, a new coaching staff pulled his scholarship just before Christmas in 2015. He scrambled for another option and landed on Coastal Carolina, where he has excelled.

Quarterback Grayson McCall was considered the country’s 2,889th-best player in his class and a two-star recruit. At Porter Ridge High near Charlotte, he ran a triple-option offense, so his coach, Michael Hertz, thinks McCall might have been viewed as a “system guy.” Hertz said his former quarterback was “lightly recruited” and only by smaller Division I schools. Hertz stressed to McCall what mattered was the right fit, and he found that in Chadwell’s offense. McCall, a redshirt sophomore, has thrown for 1,478 yards this season while completing an FBS-best 79.8 percent of his passes.

Sometimes the players talk about this — the way major-conference schools didn’t want them — but it doesn’t bother them. They know “the whole recruiting process is flawed a little bit,” Carter said. And they’re happy at Coastal Carolina, where they’re playing for a top 25 team anyway.

The 2021 group features 27 players who are at least seniors, including 13 “super seniors” benefiting from the extra year of eligibility granted in the pandemic. Those veterans fill the depth chart. The few sixth-year members of the program, such as Carter and Kelly, watched the team rise from the FCS, through the growing pains of the early FBS years and finally to the thrill of 2020. Then they decided to return for one more season.

“They knew what the struggle was to get to that point,” Chadwell said. “And if you’ve got a chance to come back and maybe do it again with the joy of it, instead of the struggle, you ride that wave.”

So with those players leading this team again, the Chanticleers keep on rolling through the Sun Belt. And each win gradually turns that one special season into something more.