(STATS) - South Carolina State has never had a losing MEAC record under coach Buddy Pough. Many teams would embrace last year's 5-3 mark.
But, oh, do the Bulldogs seek a sweeter ending this year to Pough's 16th season in Orangeburg.
"We have a tradition of winning championships," he said, "and when we finish second or third, that's not good enough for our program."
South Carolina State is expected to contend for the MEAC title this season, but even Friday's third-place prediction in the conference's preseason poll likely serves as additional motivation for the Bulldogs, who have won six championships under Pough.
Defending champion North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T, last year's runner-up and the 2015 conference champ, were picked first and second, respectively, in the preseason poll, which was voted on by the head coach and the sports information director at each of the 11 schools.
Those two powers boasted the most selections on the preseason all-conference teams with seven each. South Carolina State had the third-most with five.
Appropriately, the Bulldogs have a spotlight game to open what they hope will be a huge season - a Sept. 3 visit to Southern in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. Without any FBS opponents on the schedule - last year, they lost to three in a row to start the disappointing campaign, including eventual national champion Clemson - Pough is hoping for a smoother ride. Their 5-6 record was just the second below .500 in his 117-57 tenure, and that 2012 team came back the next year to tie for the MEAC title and advance to the FCS playoffs.
If there a rise this season, the defense should lead the way while the offense matures after the loss of six starters. With eight starters back, the defense features All-American Darius Leonard and fellow All-MEAC talent Dayshawn Taylor as fifth-year senior linebackers and fellow All-MEAC preseason first-teamer Jason Baxter anchoring the secondary. Leonard was the 2016 MEAC defensive player of the year and he earned the preseason honor Friday.
"This defense has a chance of being really good," Pough said, "but when you start comparing to others in the past, many factors come into play. We had some good offensive teams that challenged our defense and made them great. This year, we have some youth in the secondary and some issues they need to play out before we know what kind of team we have."
The offense was hurt by the graduation of Adrian Kollock Jr. and the offseason transfer of quarterback Caleb York, who had showed great promise in 2015. Mykal Moody, a converted wide receiver, excelled in his season-ending start against Bethune-Cookman, and the Bulldogs also return Dewann Ford in the competition for the starting job. The new starter will be helped by offensive linemen Justin Evans and Robbie Stevenson, who made the MEAC preseason first team.
"Both quarterbacks are similar and unique in their own way," Pough said. "When you look at their athletic ability, both can run and throw the football pretty good, but what it really comes down is who can make big plays. We are looking for a leader, a guy that can take charge and has the desire to run the offense. That may be the biggest factor between these two guys, with who is going to step up and be a leader. That will determine how our offense goes this season."
Howard running back Anthony Philyaw was named the MEAC's preseason offseason player of the year. His Bison squad will play for the only new head coach in the conference, Mike London, who previously guided the Richmond and Virginia programs.
KEY MEAC GAMES=
North Carolina Central at North Carolina A&T (Nov. 18) - With a win, A&T could have claimed an outright MEAC title in each of the last three regular-season finales against Central, but lost each time.
Five More: South Carolina State at North Carolina Central (Sept. 23); North Carolina A&T at South Carolina State (Sept. 30); South Carolina State at Bethune-Cookman (Oct. 14); Florida A&M at Hampton (Oct. 21); Bethune-Cookman at North Carolina A&T (Oct. 21)
MEAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLL=
Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors Poll
1. North Carolina Central
2. North Carolina A&T
3. South Carolina State
6. Florida A&M
7. Norfolk State
8. Morgan State
10. Savannah State
11. Delaware State
MEAC FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=
Offensive Player of the Year - Anthony Philyaw, RB, Howard
Defensive Player of the Year - Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
QB - Lamar Raynard, North Carolina A&T, Jr.
RB - Anthony Philyaw, Howard, Sr.
RB - Yahkee Johnson, Hampton, Sr.
RB - Ramone Simpson, North Carolina Central, Jr.
WR - Elijah Bell, North Carolina A&T, So.
WR - Brandon Norwood, Florida A&M, Sr.
WR - Frank Brown, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
TE - Leroy Hill, North Carolina A&T, Jr.
C - Darriel Mack, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
OL - Brandon Parker, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
OL - Nick Leverett, North Carolina Central, So.
OL - Robbie Stephenson, South Carolina State, Sr.
OL - Justin Evans, South Carolina State, Sr.
PK - Uriel Hernandez, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
DL - Kevin Thompson, Bethune-Cookman, R-Sr.
DL - Chris Lee, Norfolk State, Sr.
DL - Ja'Quan Smith, North Carolina Central, Gr.
DL - Antonio Brown, North Carolina Central, Sr.
LB - Darius Leonard, South Carolina State, R-Sr.
LB - Dayshawn Taylor, South Carolina State, R-Sr.
LB - Reggie Hunter, North Carolina Central, Sr.
DB - Alden McClellon, North Carolina Central, Jr.
DB - Jason Baxter, South Carolina State, Gr.
DB - Diquan Richardson, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
DB - Zerius Lockhart, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
P - Nathaniel Tilque, North Carolina Central, Sr.
RS - Khris Gardin, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
QB - Larry Brihm Jr., Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
RB - Herb Walker Jr., Morgan State, Sr.
RB - Mike Waters, Delaware State, So.
WR - Kyle Anthony, Howard, So.
WR - Mason Rutherford, Delaware State, Sr.
TE - Demetrius Ferebee, Norfolk State, Sr.
C - Victor Ishmael Jr., South Carolina State, Sr.
OL - Osman Aguilera, Florida A&M, Sr.
OL - Loubens Polinice, Florida A&M, So.
OL - Joshua Fala, Delaware State, So.
OL - Cade Pedro, Delaware State, So.
PK - Tyler Scandrett, South Carolina State, Sr.
DL - Steven Smith, Hampton, Sr.
DL - Jai Franklin, Morgan State, Sr.
DL - Greg Newell, South Carolina State, Sr.
DL - Julian McKnight, North Carolina A&T, Jr.
LB - Trenton Bridges, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
LB - Malik Harris, Delaware State, Sr.
LB - Marcus Albert, North Carolina A&T, Jr.
DB - Brendan Cole, Hampton, Sr.
DB - Orlando McKinley, Florida A&M, Jr.
DB - Terry Jefferson, Florida A&M, So.
DB - Devondre Powell, South Carolina State, Sr.
P - Uriel Hernandez, Bethune-Cookman, Jr.
RS - Frank Brown, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
QB - Ryan Stanley, Florida A&M, So.
RB - Dorrel McClain, North Carolina Central, Jr.
RB - Brycen Alleyne, Delaware State, Jr.
WR - Jalen Wilkes, North Carolina Central, Jr.
WR - Jawill Davis, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
TE - Desmond Noird, Florida A&M, Sr.
C - Phillip Norman, Bethune-Cookman, Sr.
OL - Obinna Nwanko, Florida A&M, So.
PK - Wizdom Nzidee, Delaware State, Sr.
DL - Stefen Banks, Savannah State, Jr.
DL - Elijah Price, Florida A&M, Sr.
DL - Kenneth Melton, North Carolina A&T, Sr.
DL - Tyberius Cravens, South Carolina State, Sr.
LB - Kyle Archie, Norfolk State, Sr.
LB - Mulik Simmons, Savannah State, Sr.
LB - Brian Cavicante, Delaware State, So.
DB - Carl Garnes, Morgan State, Jr.
DB - Keyjuan Selby, Delaware State, Jr.
DB - Darius Johnson, Morgan State, Jr.
DB - Davanta Reynolds, North Carolina Central, Jr.
P - Fidel Romo-Martinez, Delaware State, So.
RS - William King, Morgan State, Jr.