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As Buddy Pough starts his 18th season as the head football coach at South Carolina State, his alma mater, so much looms large for the Bulldog leader.

The Orangeburg native and former SC State offensive lineman is closing in on Head Coach Emeritus Willie Jeffries’ all-time winning record for the program. Pough, with 125 wins, needs three to tie Jeffries and four for the record.

The Bulldogs are coming off consecutive losing seasons, including a 5-6 mark in 2018. A 5-6 record is nothing to brag about. But if one looks at how the 2018 campaign started and the way it ended for SC State, there is optimism as the start of the 2019 season nears.

SC State got off to a dismal start last season, falling to 0-4, with one game postponed, before rebounding to win five of its last seven contests, just missing out on a winning campaign when North Carolina Central defeated the Bulldogs 17-7 in Orangeburg during the Thanksgiving weekend in a contest that had been postponed earlier due to a hurricane that hit the area.

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A very youthful squad – with almost half of the players on the roster listed as freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores – matured. Most of the players on that squad have come of age and in many instances, gotten bigger, stronger and faster.

“Preseason camp is just a little over a week old, but we are a lot farther now than we were this time last year,” said Pough after a recent practice. "We are not where we were at the end of last season, but we have the talent to get there.

"We played a lot of young players in 2018 and the experience they gained should be big for this year’s team.”

Pough has made no predictions but the gleam in his eye when he talks about the prospects for his 2019 team is hard to miss.

“I’m anxious to get started,” Pough said. “And, it’s not because of chasing Coach Jeffries’ record, it’s because I think we have the potential to do well this season, to do something special. If I get the record – and I get asked that by the media all the time – so be it. But I can tell you, Coach Jeffries will always be number one in football here at South Carolina State. He coached me, has been a great mentor and friend, and I will always look up to him.”

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To do something special, Pough, his staff and players face an ambitious 2019 schedule that includes two preseason nationally-ranked STATS FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) teams in Wofford (Aug. 31) and North Carolina A&T (Nov. 2) and a solid FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) team in South Florida (Sept. 14).

Let’s take a look at the Bulldogs’ 2019 opponents:

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Pough’s team opens the campaign on Aug. 31 (6 p.m.) at home against Wofford, a perennial FCS playoff participant that made it to the second round of the FCS playoffs last season. That was the first season under head coach Josh Conklin, who succeeded legendary Mike Ayers. The Terriers, 9-4 overall last season and 6-2 in the Southern Conference, have been picked to win the SoCon title and are ranked ninth nationally in the Preseason STATS FCS poll. Conklin’s team returns 47 lettermen (25 offense, 20 defense, 2 special teams) and 16 starters. Wofford - one of six teams scheduled to visit Orangeburg - and SC State are meeting for the first time since 2006, when the Terriers won 28-21.

Lane University of the South Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) makes a visit to Orangeburg on Sept. 7 (4 p.m.). The Dragons were 3-6 overall and 2-4 in the SIAC last season, however, three of their six losses were by a touchdown or less and they won three of its last four games, so it’s not a team the Bulldogs can take for granted. Lane has been picked fourth in the West Division of the SIAC this year.

On Sept. 14 (6 p.m.) the Bulldogs travel to South Florida, the only FBS team Pough’s team will face in 2019 after taking on two such opponents last season. The Bulls are coached by Charlie Strong, who Pough coached with when both were assistants at the University of South Carolina. South Florida, a member of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), was 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the conference. They return a great nucleus, especially on offense, where eight starters are back.

Then something unusual happens, the Bulldogs will have consecutive open dates (Sept. 21 and Sept. 28) before returning to action Oct. 5 when Pough’s team travels to Delaware State, which has become a tough place to play for Bulldog teams of late. The Hornets, 3-8 overall and 2-5 in the league last season, finished the 2018 season with wins in three of their last four contests. One of their losses was a 30-19 setback to the Bulldogs on Homecoming in Dover. The Hornets have been picked to finish eighth in the MEAC this season, however their outstanding defensive lineman Brian Cavicante has been selected as the Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

Up next for SC State will be heated rival Florida A&M (Oct. 12, 2 p.m.), one of the longtime Bulldog opponents. The Rattlers finished 6-5 overall last season and were 5-2 in the MEAC. In fact, Coach Willie Simmons’ team was in the running for the league title before finishing the season with a three-game slide, including a 44-21 home loss to Pough and the Bulldogs. The Rattlers could have grabbed a share of the league title with a win over archrival Bethune-Cookman in the last game of the season but lost 33-19 instead. One of the Rattler wins was a 22-21 last-second triumph over MEAC and HBCU champion North Carolina A&T. The Rattlers have been picked third in the MEAC preseason poll. SC State will be conducting Youth/ROTC/Military Appreciation/Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

The Bulldog Homecoming opponent is Morgan State (Oct. 19, 1:30 p.m.). In last year’s meeting at Baltimore, SC State defeated the Bears 21-18 on Homecoming in Baltimore. Morgan State would like nothing better than to return the favor. The Bears were 4-7, 3-4 in the MEAC last year and have been picked to finish eighth in the MEAC preseason poll. Morgan will be one of three league teams with a new head coach at the helm, joining Howard and NC Central with first-year coaches at the helm.

Following the Homecoming contest, SC State meets Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach (Oct. 26, 4 p.m.), one of the toughest places to play in the league. Last season, the Wildcats came to Orangeburg and escaped with a 28-26 win behind a blocked two-point conversion return and a pick 6. The Bulldogs had a chance to force overtime but were unable to convert a two-point conversion try in the closing seconds. Bethune, 7-5 overall and 5-2 in the league last season, has been picked to finish second behind two-time MEAC champion North Carolina A&T in this year’s MEAC preseason poll.

One of the sternest tests for SC State follows when the Aggies of North Carolina A&T (Nov. 2, 1:30 p.m.) visit Orangeburg. The Aggies, by far, have been the class of the league the last two years, however, SC State has been a worthy opponent but was unable to earn a win after being in a position both outings.

The Aggies were 10-2 overall last season, 6-1 in the MEAC to capture their second straight league crown and Celebration Bowl win. The Bulldogs, on the road, took a 16-3 lead late in the half against NC A&T, but gave up 28 unanswered points to lost 31-16. The Aggies are ranked 20th in the STATS FCS Preseason Poll and were chosen number one in the Preseason MEAC poll.

Next up for the Bulldogs will be Howard (Nov. 9, 1:30 p.m.) another team picked ahead of SC State in the MEAC Preseason poll and whose quarterback, Caylin Newton, the brother of Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, has been named the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. The Bison were picked fourth, however, they are still smarting from a 27-21 home loss to SC State last season. The Bulldog win threw an obstacle in Howard’s bid to win the MEAC title, a point that will not be lost on the Bison when they come to O.C. Dawson Stadium this year. Howard finished the 2018 campaign 4-6, 4-3 MEAC).

Coach Pough’s team closes out the campaign with two straight road games at NC Central (Nov. 16, 2:00 p.m.) and Norfolk State (Nov. 23, 1:00 p.m.). The Eagles spoiled the Bulldogs’ bid for a winning campaign when they won 17-7 on Thanksgiving weekend in a game that had been postponed earlier due to a Hurricane. NCCU was 5-6, 3-4 in the MEAC last season and has been picked 5th in this year’s MEAC Preseason poll.

Norfolk State, meanwhile, has been picked seventh in this year’s MEAC Preseason poll, one place below the Bulldogs. The Spartans came to Orangeburg last year and left with their first-ever triumph over SC State in the Garden City, winning 17-7 in a game marred by several Bulldog miscues. The Spartans, after the early season win over the Bulldogs, went on to lose six of their last eight contests.

There you have a look at SC State’s 2019 opponents. One thing is for sure, the Bulldogs cannot afford another 0-4 start if they want “something special” to happen. Fans now patiently await kickoff.

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Bill Hamilton retired as sports information director at S.C. State after nearly four decades in the post. He is a member of the MEAC Hall of Fame and the recipient of numerous other honors for his service to the university and journalism. He reports on S.C. State as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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