SEC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#33 Mississippi State Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#33

SEC West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Dan Mullen , 36-28 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 33 Mississippi State.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Offense for 2014:

The high hopes for the Mississippi State offense are centered around the lofty expectations for quarterback Dak Prescott. The junior returns as the SEC’s active leader in rushing touchdowns (17) by a quarterback, three more than Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace  He’s also second in the conference in rushing yards by an active quarterback with 947. To take the next step, Prescott will need to improve his consistency throwing the ball down the field.

Brian Johnson, MSU’s new quarterbacks coach, likes what he sees from his star pupil. “When you see him, you can tell he’s a quarterback,” says Johnson, a former quarterback at Utah. “He carries himself with a certain demeanor that draws people to him. He has some special abilities and special tools.”

The expectations are just as high at running back, where LaDarius Perkins has passed the torch to Josh Robinson. Now a junior, Robinson arrived at spring camp 10 pounds lighter than he was in the fall. He said he lost weight in the offseason, but gained muscle. Physically he looks bigger.  Robinson will have help in the backfield from senior Nick Griffin, sophomore Ashton Shumpert and promising true freshman Aeris Williams.

Senior Jameon Lewis headlines a receiving corps with plenty of weapons. Lewis totaled 923 receiving yards last season — the second-most in school history — including a 220-yard performance in the Liberty Bowl. He hopes to build upon the momentum from last year by adding consistency. Despite his breakout season, Lewis still posted four games with three or fewer receptions.

The offensive line is one of the few areas Mississippi State has questions marks entering the 2014 season. The Bulldogs need to replace guard Gabe Jackson, who was MSU’s most talented player last season, and tackle Charles Siddoway. The Bulldogs went through the spring without finding definitive answers at either spot.  

Previewing Mississippi State’s Defense for 2014:
It all starts up front for Mississippi State’s defense. The Bulldogs return eight defensive linemen who played at least 10 games last season.  MSU excelled at stopping the run last year, but struggled getting to the quarterback. It only recorded 20 sacks — and four came against Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Improved depth along the line should help Mississippi State increase that number.

The coaching staff referred to the linebackers as the heart of the defense last year. It could be the same in 2014. The Bulldogs return two of their three starters, including leading tackler Benardrick McKinney. The junior looks to return to numbers he put up as a freshman when he recorded 102 tackles.

The Bulldogs are loaded at corner, where several young players were forced into action last fall. The staff has confidence in Taveze Calhoun, Jamerson Love and Will Redmond to contain some of the league’s top wideouts.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Specialties for 2014:
No unit struggled more for Mississippi State than special teams in 2013. MSU made 10-of-21 field goals, a 47.6 percent accuracy rate that ranked 120th in the country. The Bulldogs were one of four teams in the country that didn’t make at least 50 percent of their field goals. Last year’s kicker, Devon Bell, will now focusing on punting. Sophomore Evan Sobiesk, who made 3-of-6 last year, is the favorite to handle the field goals.
 
Final Analysis
Expectations are high in Starkville. Mississippi State enters the season with one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and a defense that has the potential to be among the best in the league. If suitable replacements are found on the offensive line and the special teams improves, the 2014 season could be the best in Dan Mullen’s six years at the school. 



COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#2 Alabama Crimson Tide

NATIONAL FORECAST

#2

SEC West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Nick Saban, 79-15 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lane Kiffin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kirby Smart

Alabama’s 2013 season ended on a down note, but as usual, the Crimson Tide is loaded for another run at the national championship. Coach Nick Saban continues to recruit at a high level, and the offense can lean on the one-two punch of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry until quarterback Jacob Coker settles into the starting role. The defense has a few holes to fill at cornerback, but Alabama will rank among the best in the nation once again. Also helping the Crimson Tide’s case to get back to the national championship is a favorable schedule, including a visit by defending SEC West champion Auburn in Tuscaloosa in late November. 

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Previewing Alabama’s Offense for 2014:

Alabama’s competition to replace AJ McCarron is expected to last all the way through fall camp and maybe a few games into the season. The highly anticipated arrival of Florida State transfer and former Jameis Winston backup, Jacob Coker, who will join the team over the summer and has two years of eligibility remaining, gives Alabama presumed frontrunner. His top competition will come from senior Blake Sims, an athletic, dual-threat quarterback who started his Alabama career as a running back and drew constant praise from Nick Saban throughout the spring.

Tailback T.J. Yeldon has been rock solid over the past two years, and he’ll be counted on again for another big season. His workload might not be as heavy, though, as the emergence of Derrick Henry makes an evenly split, two-man backfield seem realistic. Don’t forget about junior Kenyan Drake, either; he has game-breaking speed and is a bona fide weapon in space.

Junior wide receiver Amari Cooper is poised for big-time production. He’ll have a deep supporting cast around him, as DeAndrew White passed on the NFL Draft to return as the likely No. 2 option in Alabama’s passing game.

Senior Leon Brown looks to be the answer for the departed Anthony Steen at right guard, but the left tackle competition wasn’t resolved by A-Day. Promising true freshman Cam Robinson could follow in the footsteps of Andre Smith and start the season opener, but he’ll have to beat out third-year sophomore Brandon Greene. 


Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Alabama Crimson Tide for 2014:

 

Previewing Alabama’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
On the defensive line, it starts with sophomore end A’Shawn Robinson, who led the Crimson Tide with 5.5 sacks as a true freshman. There’s no shortage of options on the opposite side of the line, as junior college transfers Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway and sophomores Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson are poised for regular work. Senior Brandon Ivory returns for another season at nose guard, where he will be spelled by junior Darren Lake.

There’s no replacing Butkus Award winner C.J. Mosley, but senior Trey DePriest has embraced the unenviable task. The search for his running mate in the middle of Alabama’s defense could result in a three-man rotation at the two spots with junior Reggie Ragland and talented sophomore Reuben Foster. On the outside, junior Dillon Lee’s spring was marred by an arrest for driving under the influence, but he appears best positioned to replace Adrian Hubbard.

There’s one solid answer and many more questions in Alabama’s secondary, as junior safety Landon Collins, one of the best in the nation at his position, is the lone returning starter. The uncertain status of Eddie Jackson, who had emerged as the top corner in spring ball before he injured his knee, means juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones will need to step up. At free safety, junior Geno Smith and fifth-year senior Nick Perry are the likely answers. 


Previewing Alabama’s Specialists for 2014:

With Cade Foster gone, Adam Griffith is poised to make a whole new set of memories as Alabama’s top — and only — option at kicker. Replacing Cody Mandell, one of the nation’s best punters in 2013, will be an even tougher task for freshman JK Scott, who joins the team over the summer. While there’s uncertainty at the specialist positions, there’s nothing of the sort at returner, where Christion Jones will reside for one more year.

Final Analysis 

Alabama might not enter the season as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship, and that’s probably a good thing for a team that lost its identity and grew complacent when it had a shot to win three in a row. Though questions abound on both sides of the ball, the Crimson Tide certainly have the talent to contend for another set of championships.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Alabama No. 2:

1. Best schedule in the SEC?
With crossover games against Florida and Tennessee, along with a home date versus rival Auburn in late November, Alabama has a favorable path to an unbeaten record. Sure, road dates at LSU and Ole Miss will be tough, but one loss might be enough to win the West. In non-conference action, the Crimson Tide will have no trouble with West Virginia, FAU, Southern Miss or Western Carolina.

2. Best stable of running backs in college football
The SEC is loaded at running back this year, and the nation’s No. 1 backfield resides in Tuscaloosa. Georgia is also a strong candidate with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but an edge goes to Alabama. T.J. Yeldon is slated to hold the No. 1 spot on the depth chart after rushing for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Derrick Henry showcased his potential with a breakout performance against Oklahoma, and the sophomore is expected to see a bigger workload in 2014. Kenyan Drake rushed for 694 yards last season and returns as the No. 3 back. This unit also features Altee Tenpenny, Jalston Fowler and incoming freshman Bo Scarbrough.

3. Is Jacob Coker the real deal?
Florida State is Athlon Sports’ pick to win the national title, but Alabama isn’t far behind at No. 2. The biggest concern for the Crimson Tide has to be at quarterback with the departure of AJ McCarron. None of the candidates appeared to claim the job in the spring, leaving Florida State transfer Jacob Coker as the starter in 2014. Coker is also working under new coordinator Lane Kiffin and has yet to make a start in his collegiate career. Despite the unknown factor surrounding Coker, there’s plenty of upside. The Alabama native has all of the measurables (6-foot-5, 230 pounds and a strong arm) and spent three years learning under quarterback guru Jimbo Fisher. With a punishing ground attack and a solid defense, Coker probably won’t have to win too many games on his own this year. With matchups against LSU and Auburn later in the year, that should allow Coker plenty of time to develop as Alabama’s No. 1 quarterback.

4. The front seven on defense
Stopping spread offenses has been an issue for Alabama, but the Crimson Tide’s elite recruiting up front could help with some of the concerns. Sophomore A’Shawn Robinson should be one of the top ends in the SEC this year, and junior college recruits Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway will be expected to contribute right away. Brandon Ivory is a prototypical 3-4 nose guard, and there’s other options at end in the form of Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and freshman Da’Shawn Hand. With more athleticism up front, Alabama should have flexibility and speed in the trenches, which should help against spread teams. And it doesn’t hurt the linebackers are loaded with talent for coordinator Kirby Smart. Trey DePriest replaces C.J. Mosley as the team’s top linebacker, while Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee are two names to watch in the fall. With the concerns at cornerback, it’s important for the front seven to set the tone on defense.

5. Why Alabama over Auburn?
Alabama versus Auburn for the top spot in the West was a huge debate in Athlon’s prediction meetings. The Tigers knocked off the Crimson Tide last year and have plenty of returning talent to win the West once again. Alabama’s defensive issues versus spread teams were a concern, as well as special teams with the departure of kicker Cade Foster and punter Cody Mandell. However, with this game in Tuscaloosa and a revenge factor for the Crimson Tide, that might be enough to swing the division back in the Crimson Tide’s favor.

The Debate

Alabama's Quarterback Play or Auburn's Defense: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 Auburn Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

SEC West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Gus Malzahn, 12-2 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rhett Lashlee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ellis Johnson, Charlie Harbison

Auburn hit rock bottom with a 3-9 record in 2012, but the arrival of coach Gus Malzahn and quarterback Nick Marshall helped to engineer a quick turnaround. The Tigers finished 12-2 and No. 2 nationally after a loss to Florida State in the national championship. Running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson are huge losses, but Auburn isn’t short on talent heading into the 2014 season. The Tigers own one of the top offenses in college football. However, the defense is a work in progress. With a tough schedule, can Auburn repeat as SEC champions?

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Previewing Auburn’s Offense for 2014: 

For the first time in nine seasons at the collegiate level, Gus Malzahn has a returning starter at quarterback. Not only that, but Nick Marshall seems poised to become the SEC’s top quarterback in 2014. Marshall was a dynamic threat in his first year on campus, completing 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, while also rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the Tigers want to throw more in his second season.

With the loss of Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and his 1,816 yards, all eyes are on the race to be his replacement in the nation’s best rushing attack, but the Tigers have two capable seniors returning in Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who each rushed for more than 600 yards. They will face competition from redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who’s the biggest of the group at 225 pounds, and true freshman Roc Thomas, a five-star recruit. There is no clear replacement for valuable H-back Jay Prosch.

At wide receiver, Sammie Coates emerged as a go-to target and one of the nation’s best deep threats, but the addition of junior college transfer D’haquille Williams could make Coates even more dangerous as the two lead a deep group of young receivers that includes Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis, as well as tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Four starters — Reese Dismukes at center, Freshman All-SEC pick Alex Kozan at left guard, Chad Slade at right guard and Avery Young at right tackle — return to one of the nation’s top offensive lines. The real question is who will replace Greg Robinson at left tackle. Patrick Miller will get his chance, but keep an eye on leukemia survivor Shon Coleman, a former five-star prospect in the class of 2010 before his cancer diagnosis.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Auburn Tigers for 2014:

 

Previewing Auburn’s Defense for 2014: 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Auburn’s defense finished 86th in the country last season, giving up 420.7 yards per game, but the Tigers have a chance to be much better in Ellis Johnson’s second year at the helm, even with the key losses of defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis.

Ford’s 10.5 sacks will be hard to replace, but Carl Lawson is a natural fit to fill his shoes after coming up with four sacks as a true freshman in the SEC last season, and either Josh Holsey or Jonathon Mincy will be able to move into Davis’ spot on the boundary and play the physical brand of man-to-man coverage Auburn likes. Montravius Adams is expected to be a monster in the middle of the line, teaming with senior Gabe Wright inside.

But more important than anything, this will be the first time in three years that Auburn’s defense won’t have to learn a new scheme under a new coordinator, and the second season in a coordinator’s system is usually the year when a unit makes a significant jump.

Previewing Auburn’s Specialists for 2014: 

After years of stability on special teams, Auburn has to replace every key specialist, and only Grant at kickoff return brings experience to the role. Redshirt freshmen Daniel Carlson (kicker) and Jimmy Hutchinson (punter) will be thrown into the fire in place of Cody Parkey and Steven Clark, and the Tigers will hold an open competition to replace Davis, who finished third in the nation in punt return average.

Final Analysis

Auburn’s magical turnaround captivated the country last year, sparked by the Prayer in Jordan-Hare, Davis’ Kick Six in the Iron Bowl and an improbable run to the BCS National Championship Game that tied for the biggest turnaround in college football history. Malzahn’s Tigers won’t sneak up on anybody this season, but Auburn is well-placed to make a run at a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Auburn No. 5:

1. Will the bounces go Auburn’s way in 2014?
There’s no doubt Auburn caught a few fortunate breaks to reach the national championship last year. How often are plays like the one against Georgia or Alabama going to happen? Luck is a tricky part of any preseason prediction. You have to have good fortune to play for a national championship, and even if the bounces don’t go the Tigers way like they did in 2013, this might be a better overall team in 2014. So while luck might shift, Auburn is still poised to be a contender for a spot in college football’s playoff.

2. Nick Marshall’s development at quarterback
In his first season as a FBS quarterback, Marshall threw for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 scores. With an ability to make plays with his legs and execute Gus Malzahn’s spread attack, Marshall should show improvement with another offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback. The Tigers could have one of the SEC’s top receiving corps and feature an offensive line with four returning starters. If Marshall continues to develop as a passer, Auburn’s offense could be even more dangerous in 2014.

3. Improvement needed on defense
Timely. That’s the best word to sum up Auburn’s defense last year. The Tigers allowed 6.5 yards per play in nine SEC games but ranked first in the conference in third-down defense and second in red zone defense. Although timely stops are crucial, Auburn has to get better on this side of the ball. Six starters are back, so improvement is expected. However, how much can this defense improve in Ellis Johnson’s second year? End Dee Ford is a big loss, but there’s capable depth at end with Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson. Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy should be solid at linebacker, with the secondary the biggest concern going into fall practice. There’s enough talent in place to make gains on the stat sheet, but it seems unlikely this defense will take a major step forward to one of the best in the SEC.

4. The schedule
In addition to playing in college football’s toughest division, Auburn has crossover games against the top teams from the East – South Carolina and Georgia. The Tigers host the Gamecocks but play in Athens against the Bulldogs. Also, there’s a trip to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama on Nov. 29. But that’s not all when it comes to difficulty on the 2014 schedule. Auburn has a non-conference road trip to Kansas State and away games versus Ole Miss and Mississippi State.  

5. Losses on special teams
The departures of kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark are underrated losses that Auburn has to replace in 2014. Parkey hit on 15 of 21 field goals last season, while Clark averaged 42.6 yards per punt. Both players were key cogs in the run to the national championship, and as everyone witnessed in last year’s Iron Bowl, special teams could play a major role in deciding the SEC West title.

The Debate

Auburn's Defense or Alabama's Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#8 Georgia Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#8

SEC East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Richt, 126-45 (13 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bobo | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeremy Pruitt

After a season filled with injuries and bad luck, Georgia is poised to challenge for the SEC title in 2014. New quarterback Hutson Mason gained valuable experience late in the year, and the offense should benefit from a healthy Todd Gurley at running back and Malcolm Mitchell at receiver. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made an instant impact at Florida State last season, and the Bulldogs hope for a similar development in 2014.

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Previewing Georgia’s Offense for 2014:

The Hutson Mason era got off to an early start last year, and that may prove invaluable to Georgia. Instead of Mason’s first real game action coming this year against Clemson and South Carolina, the senior enters the season with two-and-a-half games under his belt.

Mason doesn’t have as strong an arm as Aaron Murray, who re-wrote most of Georgia’s passing records. But Mason knows the offense, and gained the confidence of coaches and teammates during the four years he served as Murray’s top backup. More important, Mason has most of Murray’s supporting cast.

Tailback Todd Gurley is a Heisman candidate if healthy, which he wasn’t last year. Even at less than 100 percent, Gurley gives the Bulldogs a different dimension on offense: It’s no coincidence that Georgia went 1–2 in the three full games he missed.  The Bulldogs are very deep at tailback, especially if Keith Marshall returns after tearing his ACL last year. But Gurley is on another level.

Receiver is also a deep position, bolstered by the expected return of Malcolm Mitchell, who also tore his ACL last year. Seniors Chris Conley (the team’s leading returning receiver) and Michael Bennett are as solid as they come. Justin Scott-Wesley and Reggie Davis are downfield threats. And at tight end, Jay Rome is ready to move into a bigger role after serving as a backup the past two years.

The offensive line, meanwhile, lost three starters, but experienced players will step into their spots. Junior tackle John Theus seems poised to live up to his hype, and senior center David Andrews is an underrated anchor. Still, in the long run the line is the biggest question mark on this offense.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Georgia Bulldogs for 2014:

 

Previewing Georgia’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Georgia gave up a program record for points last year, and the most yards per game (375.5) of the Mark Richt era, and a few days after the season ended defensive coordinator Todd Grantham bolted for the same job at Louisville. Richt needed just two days to hire Jeremy Pruitt away from Florida State, in a move that could help Georgia twice over.

Not only is it a fresh start for the entire defense, but Pruitt also coaches the secondary, which was the weak point of Georgia’s defense in 2013. The run defense was actually solid (sixth in the SEC), and the 33 sacks were the second-most in the conference. The front seven essentially returns intact. Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson emerged as a first-team All-SEC pick, and outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are poised for bigger things.

So the defense’s prospects all come down to the secondary, which wasn’t helped by the offseason dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and the transfer of cornerback Shaq Wiggins and safety Tray Matthews. But there is plenty of highly recruited talent back there. Pruitt just needs to find the right parts and figure out what Grantham and his staff couldn’t.

Previewing Georgia’s Specialists for 2014:

Junior Marshall Morgan is coming off an all-SEC year in which he hit 22-of-24 field goals. Punter is a bigger concern, after junior Collin Barber was inconsistent last year. One of the more intriguing new players to watch is Isaiah McKenzie, a speedy recruit who the Bulldogs hope can serve as their return specialist. “He’s a very dynamic return man,” Richt says.

Final Analysis

Barring the unforeseen, Georgia’s prospects come down to Mason and the defense. Mason’s spring performance provided some encouragement; then again, it was only spring practice. The defense, based simply on personnel, should be improved, and if Pruitt can push the right buttons, it could one of the best in the SEC. If Mason is good, the defense is better and Gurley is healthy, Georgia can be a national title contender. But none of that is assured.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Georgia No. 8:

1. Why Georgia over South Carolina?
The Georgia vs. South Carolina prediction was one of the toughest decisions in Athlon’s preseason picks. The Gamecocks host the Bulldogs, but after a year of bad luck and key injuries, the guess here is Georgia rebounds in 2014. Something to keep in mind: The Bulldogs lost four games by five points or less and had a negative turnover margin (-7). Both of those numbers could easily reverse with a healthier group of skill players.

2. Hutson Mason’s late-season experience
Even though Aaron Murray’s late-season ACL tear was a huge loss for Georgia’s offense, Hutson Mason was able to gain valuable experience as the No. 1 quarterback. Mason threw for 299 yards and two scores in a win over rival Georgia Tech and completed 21 of 39 throws against Nebraska in awful weather conditions against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. With games against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season, Mason’s experience should pay off for Georgia’s offense.

3. The addition of Jeremy Pruitt
Pruitt inherited a veteran Florida State unit last season and helped guide the Seminoles to a No. 1 finish in scoring defense. The Bulldogs allowed 5.7 yards per play last season (conference-only games) and finished 11th in SEC action by giving up 31.8 points per game. Those two numbers should easily improve under Pruitt, especially with one of the top linebacking corps in the nation. The secondary is a concern, but the Bulldogs’ front seven will help alleviate concerns against the pass.

4. Todd Gurley…the best RB in college football?
When healthy, Gurley is arguably the No. 1 running back in the nation. He played in 10 games last season and finished with 989 yards and 10 scores and caught 37 passes for 441 yards and six touchdowns. Gurley was limited for most of the year due to an ankle injury, but he will return at full strength this fall. Keeping Gurley is a priority, especially if backup Keith Marshall is limited due to a torn ACL early in 2014. With a new starter under center, expect Gurley to see a heavy workload in 2014.

5. Good schedule
Sure, a road trip to South Carolina in Week 2 is a challenge, but if there’s a time to play the Gamecocks, early in the season against a rebuilt defense is the best moment. Georgia also hosts a key non-conference game against Clemson and has a bye week before playing Florida. The crossover matchup against Auburn is in Athens, while fellow East title contender South Carolina has to go to Auburn in late October.

The Debate

South Carolina or Georgia: Who Wins the SEC East in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#9 South Carolina Gamecocks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#9

SEC East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Steve Spurrier, 77-39 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Spurrier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lorenzo Ward

South Carolina is coming off the best three-year stretch in school history, winning 33 games and recording three top-10 finishes in the final Associated Press poll. With the Gamecocks recruiting at a high level, combined with Spurrier’s coaching, this team will remain a factor in the SEC East title picture. Quarterback Connor Shaw is a big loss, but Dylan Thompson is a capable replacement, and the offense can lean on running back Mike Davis. The defense has a few significant holes to fill on the defensive line and in the secondary. Despite the question marks, South Carolina is a top-10 team for 2014.

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Previewing South Carolina’s Offense for 2014: 

The offense will rise or fall based on the performance of quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis.

Thompson, a senior and former two-star recruit, has been a regular fill-in for starter Connor Shaw the last two years, and he will take the reins himself for the first time this season. He must improve on a career 55 percent completion percentage and prove ready to handle the role of full-time starter if the offense is going to work the way Steve Spurrier expects.

Davis is a more known commodity. The 5'9", 216-pounder rushed for 1,183 yards in 2013, the fourth-best single-season total in school history. He had seven 100-yard games, but only one after Oct. 19 because of shoulder, knee and ankle injuries in the second half of the year. He was held out of most of the contact work this spring.

Sophomore wide receiver Pharoh Cooper may be the surprise name in the SEC this fall. He caught only three passes for 54 yards last season, but Spurrier has loved the North Carolina native since he set foot on campus. Cooper came to South Carolina planning to be a cornerback, but Spurrier quickly moved him to offense, where he had a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown once he got settled in. He’ll start in the slot this year and be a regular in the Wildcat quarterback position. Junior Shaq Roland, one of the most talented pass-catchers in the SEC, will be the top target on the outside.

The offensive line, led by guard A.J. Cann and tackles Brandon Shell and Corey Robinson, has a chance to be the best of the Spurrier era.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the South Carolina Gamecocks for 2014:

Previewing South Carolina’s Defense for 2014: 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
A defense that was second in the SEC in points allowed last year (20.3 ppg) will have to shore up its front and back ends quickly to be that good again.

The Gamecocks lost two first-team All-Americans on the defensive line. Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles led the team with 9.5 sacks and then decided to give up his senior year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. Jadeveon Clowney, meanwhile, drew more attention from opposing offenses than any defender in college football last year, and the Gamecocks must make up for that drawing power with a team effort this year.

Linebacker, last year’s weak point, will be a strong suit this year, and sophomore Skai Moore is leading the way. He led the team in tackles with 56 last year as a true freshman.

The secondary is set at safety, and there may be enough depth there to move veteran Brison Williams to cornerback, which is a good thing because there is zero depth at cornerback. If defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward decides not to move Williams to corner in the fall, and maybe even if he does, a true freshman will be starting on the edge for South Carolina.

Previewing South Carolina’s Specialists for 2014: 

Sophomore Elliott Fry hit 15-of-18 attempts last year and has the look of a four-year starter. Punter Tyler Hull averaged an SEC-worst 37.8 yards last year. Cooper is expected to man both of the return spots and is hoping to give that area a punch it hasn’t seen since Ace Sanders left.

Final Analysis 

The Gamecocks have won 11 games in each of the last three seasons, making it easily the best three-year run in school history. Replacing Arkansas and Mississippi State on the schedule with Texas A&M and Auburn will make matching that number a tougher task this year.

However, if Thompson proves to be a worthy successor to Shaw and solid reinforcements on the defensive line and in the secondary can be identified, a second-ever trip to the SEC Championship Game is a realistic goal.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking South Carolina No. 9:

1. South Carolina has staying power in the East
With Florida struggling, along with Georgia and Missouri replacing key players, South Carolina will be a popular pick to win the East Division in 2014. The Gamecocks have also recruited four top-20 classes, which has bolstered the overall talent and depth in the program. Make no mistake: South Carolina’s 33 wins over the last three years are no fluke. This team is here to stay as a SEC title contender.

2. The schedule
The Gamecocks have a favorable slate to an East Division title. Georgia, Texas A&M and Missouri all visit Williams-Brice Stadium. The Bulldogs and Tigers are picked by most to be among the top teams in the East and getting both games at home is a huge plus for South Carolina.

3. Cornerback concerns
Although the schedule works in South Carolina’s favor, the turnover at cornerback is a concern early in the year. The Gamecocks play Texas A&M’s high-powered offense in Week 1, followed by solid offenses at East Carolina and Georgia. Brison Williams moving from safety to cornerback should help concerns at corner, but true freshmen could be counted on to play major roles in 2014. Without defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, will South Carolina have a pass rush to protect an inexperienced secondary?

4. Dylan Thompson a capable replacement for Connor Shaw
Thompson is 3-0 as a starter at South Carolina, but 2014 is the biggest test of his career. Last season, Thompson threw for 783 yards and four touchdowns but also tossed three picks. Those numbers represented a regression from his relief effort in 2012, as he tossed 10 touchdowns to only three interceptions. Although Thompson didn’t post overpowering totals in 2013, he has a chance to be an All-SEC quarterback in 2014. Shaq Roland, Pharoh Cooper and Damiere Byrd is a solid trio at receiver, and running back Mike Davis is a 1,000-yard rusher. Needless to say, Thompson has plenty of help and should ensure the Gamecocks’ offense continues to thrive.

5. One of the best offensive lines in the nation
Four starters return from an offensive line that allowed only 17 sacks in eight SEC games in 2013. The tackle positions are anchored by All-SEC candidates in Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell, while guard A.J. Cann is expected to challenge for All-America honors. Cody Waldrop is slotted in at center, with junior Mike Matulis is penciled in at right guard after missing 2013 due to injury.

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South Carolina or Georgia: Who Wins the SEC East in 2014?

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