Clemson vs The Citadel (copy) (copy)

Citadel head coach Brent Thompson's Bulldogs are picked to finish seventh in the SoCon in his third season. Gwinn Davis / Special to The Post and Courier

In his first season as The Citadel's football coach, Brent Thompson went 10-2 and led the 2016 Bulldogs to a second straight Southern Conference championship.

Last year, Thompson's team slipped to 5-6 and tied for sixth in the league.

That's why it's tempting to view Thompson's third season as pivotal: Does he coach a championship contender or an also-ran?

"Everybody is looking at that right now," Thompson said Wednesday after the Bulldogs were picked to finish seventh in the SoCon this season. "Are we a continuation of Mike Houston and the success we had in 2015 and 2016, or does it go the other way? So it's a big year as far as that's concerned.

"But we're not thinking of it that way. We're concentrating on fixing what we did wrong last year."

Polls of the league's coaches and media, released Wednesday, both had the Bulldogs ahead of only East Tennessee State and VMI in the nine-team SoCon. Samford was the consensus pick to win the league title.

The Citadel claimed a share of the SoCon title in 2015 with a record of 9-4 (6-1 in the SoCon) under former coach Mike Houston, and followed up with another championship and an 8-0 league record in Thompson's first season.

Citadel football adds three graduate-student transfers to boost 2018 roster

Thompson, now 15-8 in two seasons at The Citadel, said he learned a lot during last year's struggles.

"You go 10-2 in your first season, and maybe you coast a little going into your second year," he said. "But last year we learned a lot, and we know you can't get too complacent around here or you will end up going 5-6.

"We realized we had to figure out recruiting around here and find the right players who will be able to stay and be the players like we had in 2015 and 2016."

"Red zone" has been a key phrase for the Bulldogs during the offseason. In 2017, The Citadel was the worst in SoCon play in producing points inside the opponents' 20-yard line, converting points on only 15 of 30 possessions. On defense, the Bulldogs were the worst in preventing opponents from scoring, allowing points on 20 of 22 possessions.

"That's where we've spent the majority of our spring practice and offseason workouts, mental toughness in the red zone," Thompson said. "We went from top 10 in the country to the bottom 10 in 2017. We're not going to be an efficient team if we can't convert the red zone into points, and keep people off the board in the red zone."

• The Bulldogs landed five players on the coaches' preseason all-SoCon squad, with offensive lineman Tyler Davis and defensive back Aron Spann III on the first team.

Offensive lineman Drew McEntyre, defensive lineman Ja'Lon Williams and linebacker Noah Dawkins were named second team.

• Thompson said grad-student transfer defensive backs Ronald Peterkin of Georgia State and Cliff Barrett of Lenoir-Rhyne and defensive lineman Shawn McCord of St. Francis University all are still with the program.

• Walk-on defensive linemen Noah Mills of Hanahan and Jay Smith of West Ashley have been added to the roster.

The Citadel delves deeper into grad-student transfer market; past results have been mixed

SoCon preseason polls

Media

Team (1st place votes)   Points

1. Samford (20)                204

2. Furman (2)                   174

3. Wofford (1)                   163

4. Mercer                          133

5. W. Carolina                   114

6. Chattanooga                   88

7. The Citadel                     83

8. ETSU                             53

9. VMI                               23

Coaches

Team (1st place votes)       Points

1. Samford (7)                        63

2. Wofford (1)                         53

3. Furman (1)                         52

4. Western Carolina                 39

5. Chattanooga                       34

6. Mercer                                32

7. The Citadel                          28

8. ETSU                                  15

9. VMI                                     8

2018 Preseason All-Southern Conference Football Teams

Offensive Player of the Year: Devlin Hodges, R-Sr., QB, Samford

Defensive Player of the Year: Ahmad Gooden, R-Sr., DL, Samford

First team offense

QB Devlin Hodges, R-Sr., Samford

RB Kealand Dirks, R-Sr., Furman

RB Andre Stoddard, Sr., Wofford

OL Tyler Davis, Sr., The Citadel

OL Austin Sanders, R-Jr., Mercer

OL Nick Nixon, Jr., Samford

OL Zach Weeks, R-Sr., Western Carolina

OL Michael Ralph, Jr., Wofford

TE Sam Walker, R-Sr., Mercer

WR Marquise Irvin, Sr., Mercer

WR Kelvin McKnight, Sr., Samford

First team defense

DL Nasir Player, R-Jr., ETSU

DL Ahmad Gooden, R-Sr., Samford

DL Isaiah Mack, R-Sr., Chattanooga

DL Miles Brown, Sr., Wofford

LB Elijah McKoy, So., Furman

LB LeMarkus Bailey, R-Sr., Mercer

LB Datavious Wilson, Jr., Wofford

DB Aron Spann III, Sr., The Citadel

DB Aaquil Annoor, Sr., Furman

DB Marvin Tillman, Sr., Western Carolina

DB Devin Watson, Sr., Wofford

First team specialists

PK Luke Carter, Jr., Wofford

P Ian Berryman, R-Sr., Western Carolina

RS Brandon Dowdell, So., Chattanooga

Second team offense

QB Tyrie Adams, R-Jr., Western Carolina

RB Tee Mitchell, Sr., Mercer

RB Tyrell Price, Jr., Chattanooga

OL Drew McEntyre, Jr., The Citadel

OL Matt Pyke, R-Sr., ETSU

OL Reed Kroeber, R-So., Furman

OL Malcolm White, R-Jr., Chattanooga

OL Brad Davis, So., VMI

OL Nathan Dalton, R-Sr., Western Carolina

OL Andrew Miles, R-Sr., Western Carolina

OL Justus Basinger, Jr., Wofford

TE Jake Walker, So., Furman

WR Thomas Gordon, Jr., Furman

WR Chris Shelling, Jr., Samford

WR Bingo Morton, R-Sr., Chattanooga

Second team defense

DL Ja’Lon Williams, Jr., The Citadel

DL Jaylan Reid, R-Sr., Furman

DL Isaiah Buehler, R-Sr., Mercer

DL Mikel Horton, Jr., Wofford

LB Noah Dawkins, Sr., The Citadel

LB Dylan Weigel, R-Sr., ETSU

LB Christian Stark, Sr., Samford

DB Eric Jackson, R-Jr., Mercer

DB Darius Harvey, R-Sr., Samford

DB Kareem Orr, Sr., Chattanooga

DB Mason Alstatt, Jr., Wofford

Second team specialists

PK JJ Jerman, Sr., ETSU

P Matt Shiel, Gr., Mercer

P Luke Carter, Jr., Wofford

RS Quan Harrison R-Jr., ETSU

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC