SEC: Gerald Dixon

After finishing in the top 20 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense each of the last three seasons, South Carolina saw it all come crumbling down defensively in 2014. The Gamecocks gave up 10.1 more points per game and 82.7 more yards per game than they did the year before. In seven of their 13 games, they allowed 34 or more points.

It was very much a train wreck defensively for the Gamecocks, who were young and inexperienced up front, and without Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, unable to get any pressure on the quarterback.

Position to improve: Defensive end

Why it was a problem: The Gamecocks had very few true defensive ends ready to play and had to play several guys out of position to try and generate some semblance of a pass rush. The combination of inexperience and a lack of pure pass-rushers doomed the Gamecocks, and they also didn’t help themselves with their spotty tackling. They finished last in the SEC with just 14 sacks in 13 games, and that was reflected in their inability to hold leads. They couldn’t get off the field when they had to defensively, didn’t finish enough plays in the backfield and hung their defensive backs out to dry too many times. In eight SEC games, South Carolina forced a league-low six turnovers, including just two interceptions. Of course, when you don’t get after the quarterback, you’re not going to force many turnovers.

How it can be fixed: The Gamecocks already have two new faces on campus they think will make them much more formidable in the defensive line next season. Marquavius Lewis was the top junior college defensive end in the country, and at 6-3 and 266 pounds, has the size and athleticism to be the kind of finisher off the edge South Carolina lacked this past season. Also enrolled and ready to go through spring practice is former four-star recruit Dexter Wideman, who spent this past season at Camden Military Academy after signing with South Carolina last year and failing to qualify academically. The 6-4, 275-pound Wideman should be able to help at both end and tackle. A third heralded defensive end prospect is set to arrive this summer. Dante Sawyer spent this past season at East Mississippi Community College. Like Wideman, Sawyer signed with South Carolina last year, but needed to go the junior college route to get his grades in order. All three players have shown a penchant for getting to the quarterback. Now, they have to prove they can do it at the SEC level.

Early 2015 outlook: It’s not a stretch to think that the Gamecocks’ top three pass-rushers next season could be Lewis, Wideman and Sawyer. Lewis, in fact, could end up being one of the top impact newcomers in the SEC. Lewis and Sawyer are both ends. Wideman may grow into a tackle, and if he does, could provide some much-needed inside pass rush. Gerald Dixon will be a junior after starting at end this past season. He’s got a chance to make a big jump, and Darius English also returns for his junior season after starting for part of this past season. The Gamecocks return just about everybody at tackle, which should help, and they’re also bringing in two other end prospects as part of the 2015 signing class -- Devante Covington of Georgia Military College and ESPN 300 recruit Shameik Blackshear, who missed most of his senior season of high school in Bluffton, South Carolina, after suffering a torn ACL. It goes without saying that the Gamecocks need these reinforcements to be as advertised next season and for their returning players up front to grow from what was a humbling 2014 season.

Most important game: South Carolina

June, 26, 2014
We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. We take a look at South Carolina on Thursday.

Most important game: Nov. 15 at Florida

Key players: Now that titanium-constructed Connor Shaw is gone, Dylan Thompson takes over as the Gamecocks' signal-caller. Thompson has the chops and has been through this before, thanks to Shaw's past injuries. Thompson will have to deal with the SEC's best corner in Vernon Hargreaves III and one of the league's best pass rushers in Dante Fowler Jr. Florida's defense has some new working parts, but people in Gainesville are very excited about the talent that will be flying around out there. The good news for Thompson is that he has receivers in Damiere Byrd, Nick Jones and Shaq Roland who combined to catch 85 passes for 1,311 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago. Byrd is one of the SEC's fastest receivers, while Roland has a chance to be a breakout player this fall. They'll all have to step up against Florida's athletic secondary. One guy who could take a lot of pressure off Thompson is running back Mike Davis, who rushed for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. He's the ultimate bruiser through the middle of the field, but once he gets open on the edge, he's gone. Florida contained him last year, but expect the Gamecocks to go to him more this fall. One way to keep Fowler under wraps will be for left tackle Corey Robinson to play lights out. He's already projected as a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft, and the battle between those two should be excellent. The defense could have its hands full if quarterback Jeff Driskel can get the Gators' offense moving this fall, so play up front from defensive linemen J.T. Surratt, Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. will be important. Getting to the edge to counter the zone read that has made Driskel successful in the past will be key. Spur Sharrod Golightly and linebacker Skai Moore will be key to containing the run and spying on Driskel.

Why it matters: South Carolina has made tremendous strides under Steve Spurrier, but the Gamecocks have yet to win an SEC title under the Head Ball Coach. Last year's team was tremendously talented and had everything it needed (well, except the necessary amount of wins) to play in Atlanta. Does this team? Not sure. Time will tell, but if the Gamecocks are going to have any shot of getting back to Atlanta, they have to win at Florida. The SEC Eastern Division is so wide open, with every team having a laundry list of questions. Chances are the winner from the East won't have less than two losses heading into the last couple of weeks of the season. There are just too many issues and too much competition. The Gamecocks can take an early blow, but you never want to get to the end and have to worry about winning a tiebreaker (hello, U.S. soccer team!). If the Gamecocks can get to Gainesville with just one SEC loss, a win should send them to Atlanta. Two losses coming in, and beating Florida is a must.
You can tell spring practice is about to get underway at Mississippi State because the Bulldogs' coveted pre-spring depth chart is out.

Mississippi State kicks things off Thursday and there aren't any surprises on offense, but there's no question that the offensive line will get a ton of attention this spring. The Bulldogs are without tackles James Carmon and Addison Lawrence, so sophomores Blaine Clausell (left tackle) and Damien Robinson (right tackle) will begin the spring in their spots.

With safety Charles Mitchell gone and fellow safety Nickoe Whitley limited with a ruptured Achilles, senior Louis Watson and sophomore Jay Hughes are listed at the starting safety spots to open the spring.

You'll also notice that early enrollee defensive linemen Denico Autry (JUCO defensive end) and Quay Evans (defensive tackle) aren't both listed on Mississippi State's two-deep. Not to fret Bulldogs fans. They aren't in coach Dan Mullen's doghouse. Autry is behind Shane McCardell, but man think he could exit the spring as a starter. They just have to earn their way. Both are highly touted new arrivals and both will have plenty of opportunities to earn spots this spring.

South Carolina practice update

The Gamecocks went through their fourth spring practice Tuesday, but did so without a few players who were dealing with injuries.

Starting center T.J. Johnson sat out Tuesday's practice after suffering a sprained foot last week. Other players out were tight end Rory Anderson (sprained ankle), cornerback Ahmad Christian (concussion), cornerback Cadarious Sanders (hamstring) and linebacker Quin Smith (back).

With South Carolina set to conduct its first scrimmage of the spring Saturday, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward talked about how some players on defense have looked heading into the weekend.

He complimented the play of the line up front, singling out end Gerald Dixon and tackles Gerald Dixon Jr. and J.T. Surratt. Ward said sophomore safety Kadetrix Marcus is doing well on the perimeter, while fellow safety Brison Williams has shown signs of "being a starter for us at the boundary safety spot."

Ward also said that while cornerback Victor Hampton is doing well at times, he has a tendency to take too many chances at times.

This defense is expected to yet again be one of the top ones in the SEC this fall, but Ward said the unit still has a ways to go and still has a lot to clean up in the coming weeks.

“We still have a long way to go,” Ward said. “We’ve seen some slight improvement by some young guys but not enough improvement to where we can feel good about them helping us win a lot of ball games next season. We’ve still got a ways to go, but still have quite a few practices to get it done.

"I feel good about some of the young guys but we’ve got to get a lot more out of a couple of them.”

South Carolina returns to practice Friday at 4:15 p.m. ET and it's open to the public.

SEC lunch links

January, 18, 2011
A few links to munch on now that the reality is setting in that there won't be any more college football for a while:

Lunchtime links: Aggressive spring for LSU

February, 22, 2010
Making the rounds on a Monday in the SEC: