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.
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.
SoCon preseason polls
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
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