(Sports Network) - Falling from the top perch of Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference football hasn't lessened the pressure on South Carolina State.
"I think it might be more," says head coach Buddy Pough, who wants nothing to do with the middle of the standings, where the Bulldogs found themselves at season's end last year.
"It gives you a little different sense of urgency. I think you go through years where you've been successful for so long, you just kind of think that's something that's given. You don't necessarily think there's a possibility that you could have a year like we had last year. And now that we've had, I think it's created a little sense of urgency, where we know we've got to do something special or that can happen to us again."
The Bulldogs believe last year's 5-6 record was a one-year blip on Pough's otherwise sterling record in Orangeburg. It was his first losing mark in 11 seasons guiding the program and the Bulldogs' first since 2001, the year before he became head coach. They finished with a 4-4 conference mark after going a combined 55-9 in their previous nine seasons, including a 21-game MEAC winning streak.
South Carolina State floundered because it had an inconsistent offense, an inexperienced defense and a subpar kicking game, all of which drained on the team's confidence. Plus, some of the other MEAC schools continued to raise their programs, with Bethune-Cookman earning the conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
The Bulldogs are replacing 17 seniors, including 10 starters (five on defense, four on offense and one specialist), and senior center Tristan Bellamy is their only returning player coming off All-MEAC honors (second team). They have worked toward improvement during spring practices, which wrap up Saturday with their annual intrasquad game.
"I'm kind of a routine guy, said Pough, who is 88-39 at South Carolina State. "I like our guys knowing exactly what to do next, how to do stuff, what our routine is. I don't necessarily try to trick guys into not knowing exactly what's expected. I'm just kind of a no-nonsense guy who believes in doing things in specific ways.
"We've been trying to figure out again how to run the football. We went for years here where we had 1,000-yard rushers. We haven't had anything close to that the last couple years. We're hoping we can make that happen again because that seems to be where we have the best success."
The Bulldogs ranked seventh in rushing in the 11-team MEAC last season and likely won't have leading rusher Jalen Simmons back from shoulder injuries, which puts additional pressure on juniors Charles Brown and Julius Pendergrass and sophomore Dondre Lewis-Freeman, who combined for only 403 yards a season ago.
Some of that pressure could be alleviated by a more effective Richard Cue (11 touchdowns versus 14 interceptions) at quarterback. The senior will get help, too, as the Bulldogs' spread attack features a strong set of wide receivers in seniors Caleb Davis and Tyler McDonald. But the offense has to improve on the team's 18.5-point average, second-worst in the MEAC last season.
Defensively, the 4-2-5 unit should be much improved with a more veteran presence. The strength is the active linebackers, leading tackler Justin Hughes and senior run stopper Joe Thomas. The defensive line also is coming along nicely behind tackles Curtis Hill and Javon Hargraves as well as end Andrew Carter, but the secondary is without playmaker Kimari McFadden this spring because of injury.
Place-kicker/punter Nick Belcher figures to be improved after he made only 8-of-15 field goal attempts, including just 1-of-6 from beyond 40 yards.
"You want to be a hard-nosed, tough football team that can do some things in a pretty systematic-style kind of way. Our guys want to be rapid-fire, multiple and hard-nosed," Pough said.
"Anytime you place the pressure on a program where you've had the kind of success that we've had, most of it comes from within. I think we probably pressurize our own selves. I think the sense of urgency that we've created from within is probably the strongest of all. We don't necessarily concern ourselves over time with external pressure, it's the desire from within to be great that really pushes us more than anything else."
South Carolina State will play 12 games during the regular season, opening at home against Coastal Carolina on Aug. 31. A week later, the Bulldogs will play their only FBS opponent, at Clemson on Sept. 7. They played a pair last season in their 2-5 start to the season.
Within its eight-game MEAC schedule, South Carolina State won't play Delaware State and Howard, which both finished above the Bulldogs in the 11-team standings last season.