Most college coaches would consider this a rebuilding year.
South Carolina State starts this season minus its all-time leading rusher and four other star players who have moved on to professional football.
But head coach Buddy Pough isn't most coaches, and South Carolina State isn't most college football programs.
While there are still plenty of questions left to be answered by the two-time defending Mid-Eastern American Conference champions, Pough thinks like this might be the most talented bunch he's had since returning to his alma mater eight years ago.
Gone from last year's 10-2 team is running back Will Ford, who finished his career as the leading rusher at S.C. State and in the MEAC.
In all, the Bulldogs lost 20 seniors, including 12 starters who won back-to-back MEAC titles for the first time in almost three decades. Phillip Adams (San Francisco), Oliver Young (Carolina), Rafael Bush (Atlanta), Razzie Smith (Montreal, CFL) and Markee Hamlin (Montreal, CFL) all have moved on to the professional ranks.
"I think what it shows you is that we've got a program put together here," Pough said. "I think its a testament to what we've been trying to build for the last eight years. To lose some of the marquee players that we've lost from last year and to still be considered one of the elite teams in the conference shows you that all the hard work is paying off.
"Despite everyone we've lost, I think we're as deep and as talented as we've been since I've been here. Now, that doesn't mean we're going to win another conference championship. It takes more than talent."
Of course, having quarterback Malcolm Long back for his senior season would make any coach a little bullish about his team. Long threw for 2,502 yards and 20 touchdowns a year ago and is on course to finish his career with more than a dozen school passing marks.
"It's always good to have an established quarterback returning when you've got some question marks at some of the other skill positions," Pough said. "Having Malcolm back certainly gives the entire coaching staff some confidence that we'll be able to move the football. He's a year older and a year better, and he was pretty darn good last year. He's seen just about everything a quarterback can see over the last three years."
The void left by Ford, who finished his career with 4,660 career rushing yards and three straight 1,000-yard seasons, won't be as glaring as some would think, Pough said. Chris Massey (5-11, 220 pounds) and Citadel transfer Asheton Jordan (6-0, 205) should combine to be more than an adequate replacement for Ford.
"Chris and Asheton are a little bit bigger than Will was and a little more versatile," Pough said. "They're both very talented. They're both pretty skilled and they can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, so we can get them the ball in different ways. They're also going to be better on the goal line because of their size."
A strength for the Bulldogs should be their offensive line, which returns all five starters, including All-American tackle Johnny Culbreath.
"We've got all those guys back and we've got some depth to boot," Pough said. "We've got eight or nine guys that have some pretty significant playing time under their belts."
Two areas of concern for Pough are at wide receiver and the secondary, where the Bulldogs were hit the hardest by graduation. The Bulldogs lost their top three wide receivers and three starters in the secondary.
"We've got some talent at both positions, but it's unproven talent," Pough said. "We feel good about the guys we've got, but until they do it under game conditions, you just never know what's going to happen."
Defensively, the Bulldogs might have the top linebacking trio in the FCS with the return of David Erby, Julius Wilkerson and Donovan Richard. Throw in former All-MEAC linebacker Marshall McFadden, who missed all of 2009 with an injury, and the Bulldogs are loaded at linebacker.
"There's a certain comfort level with guys we've got at linebacker," Pough said. "I don't know if there's a better group anywhere in the country."