If this is the final season for South Carolina State’s Oliver “Buddy” Pough on the Bulldogs sideline, the veteran football coach doesn’t seem to be too concerned about his future in the game.

Pough enters his 17th season as the Bulldogs' head coach, but in his the final year of his contract with the school. While his tenure at his alma mater might be coming to an end, Pough remains confident he will be on the sidelines somewhere next season.

“I don’t think about the end or that kind of stuff, I just think about today and what’s in front of us,” Pough said after practice last week. “It’s like the guy who jumped off the Empire State Building. When he got down to floor number two or three, he thought he still had a shot. I’m just going to keep coaching until I get to the end. You never know what might happen in this business.”

The Bulldogs are coming off a disappointing 3-7 season, but return a solid nucleus of players, especially on offense. In all the Bulldogs return 14 starters, including eight on offense and several key playmakers.

Quarterback Dewann Ford, a junior, had nearly 2,000 yards of total offense in 2017, throwing for 1,763 passing yards and eight touchdowns. Ford is being pushed during the preseason by sophomore Tyrece Nick, who played in four games last year.

"We've had our offensive woes of late, but we think we can turn things around," Pough said. "Having both Ford and Nick back should be a plus for us. Ford had a good offseason and I expect him to be improved this season. Nick played well in the spring and will have a chance to show what he can do. As the quarterback goes, so goes the offense.”

The Bulldogs' passing attack ranked eighth out of 11 teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference last year, but will have two of their top receivers back in Quan Caldwell and De’Mo Burroughs.

"I think our wide receivers group will be improved," Pough said. "We have some solid veterans and a bunch of young guys that should see a lot of action. I expect us to get more production out of this group. Next to our running backs, this is one of our deepest groups, depth-wise."

S.C. State will have to figure out a way to replace All-American linebacker and MEAC defensive player of the year Darius Leonard. Leonard, a second-round NFL draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts, is the program’s career tackles leader.

“That’s a big void to fill and I'm not sure one player can’t do it,” Pough said. “It will have to be a group effort.”

The Bulldogs' defensive line will have to become more of a factor for it to remain an elite defense. Defensive tackles Tyrell Goodwin (29 tackles, 5 tackles for loss) and Paul McKeiver (21 tackles, 7 tackles for loss) are among three starters back.

"Paul is our best lineman and we will be looking for him to set the tone," said Bulldog assistant head coach and defensive line coach David Blanchard. “He has good leverage and hands to shed blocks. Tyrell is powerful, with a low center of gravity and can move people around.”

The Bulldogs open the season against back-to-back FBS opponents in Georgia Southern and Central Florida. Pough is just nine victories away from becoming the school’s all-time winningest coach.

S.C. State Bulldogs

Head coach: Oliver “Buddy” Pough is 120-64 in 16 seasons at S.C. State.

Last year: 3-7

Returning starters: Offense 8, Defense 6

Impact players: OL Kendrick Hair, OL Robbie Stephenson, RB Lebron Morris, DB Alex Brown, DB/LB Kendric Gathers, DL/LB Damu Ford.

Notable: The Bulldogs' strength defensively will be along their front where they have three starters back led by DTs Tyrell Goodwin (29 tackles, 5 tackles for loss) and Paul McKeiver (21 tackles, 7 tackles for loss). … QB Dewann Ford returns for his junior year, after throwing for 1,763 yards and 8 TDs, while he rushed for 208 yards in 2017. His top two receivers, Quan Caldwell (41-398-3 TDs) and De’Mo Burroughs (30-427-2 TDs) are back for the Bulldogs. Former Fort Dorchester running back Datron James, a sophomore, is expected to have a bigger role in the offense.

S.C. State schedule

Date Opponent Time

Sept. 1 at Georgia Southern 6 p.m.

Sept. 8 at Central Florida 6 p.m.

Sept. 15 N.C. Central 6 p.m.

Sept. 22 Norfolk State 6 p.m.

Sept. 27 at N.C. A&T 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 6 at Morgan State 1 p.m.

Oct. 13 Bethune-Cookman 2 p.m.

Oct. 20 Delaware State 1:30 p.m.

Oct. 27 at Howard 1 p.m.

Nov. 10 at Florida A&M 4 p.m.

Nov. 17 Savannah State 1:30 p.m.

Reach Andrew Miller at 843-937-5599. Follow him on Twitter @APMILLER_PandC