SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (7-6, 3-5 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Defeated Miami (FL) in Duck Commander Independence Bowl
Final AP rank: NR
Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 40th
Spring game: April 11
• Will the experience gained in 2014 help the defense in 2015?
South Carolina started seven underclassmen on defense in 2014, and the Gamecocks had their worst season defensively in 10 years under coach Steve Spurrier.
The Gamecocks’ defense finished last in the conference in yards per play (6.2) and expected points added (-6.1 per game). Both marks were the worst by a South Carolina defense under Spurrier, and the defensive EPA figure was eight points worse than in any other season under Spurrier.
• What will Pharoh Cooper do for an encore?
First-team All-SEC wide receiver Pharoh Cooper returns for his junior season after turning in the third-best receiving season in South Carolina history. Cooper finished second in the conference with 1,136 receiving yards in 2014, more than twice that of the second-leading receiver on the team. Cooper caught 67 percent of the passes thrown his way, second-most in the conference for players targeted 75 times or more.
• How will they replace their offensive backfield?
South Carolina and Florida have the fewest offensive starters in the SEC East returning in 2015 (four). The Gamecocks took the biggest hit in the backfield, though, losing every starter on an offense that averaged 12.7 expected points added per game, which was sixth in the SEC and the second-most in a season under Spurrier.
The top candidates to replace quarterback Dylan Thompson are Connor Mitch, a redshirt freshman last season, and rising junior Perry Orth. Mike Davis was not only the team’s leading rusher, but he also finished third on the team in receiving yards. Rising senior Brandon Wilds (570 rush yards in 2014) is expected to take Davis’ spot.
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (10-3, 6-2 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Lost to Georgia Tech in Capital One Orange Bowl
Final AP rank: 11th
Returning starters: 5 offense, 4 defense, 2 specialists (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 22nd
Spring game: April 18
• What to expect from Dak Prescott?
Dak Prescott last season became the fourth SEC player since 2000 to pass for 25 touchdowns and rush for 10 touchdowns in one season. Should he reach those thresholds again, he will join Tim Tebow as the only SEC quarterbacks to do so twice.
Prescott ranked 16th in the FBS in Total QBR, sixth in the SEC. His QBR of 74.1 represented a more than 11-point drop from 2013. He took 21 sacks last season (compared with eight in 2013) and threw an interception on 2.8 percent of his passes (up from 2.6 percent the season before).
• What will the loss of Josh Robinson mean?
Josh Robinson finished third in the SEC in rushing last season, totaling 1,203 yards on the ground, and earned the nickname “The Human Bowling Ball.”
The Bulldogs rushed for 1,971 yards and averaged 5.9 yards on runs between the tackles, second-most in the conference. Robinson averaged 3.3 yards after contact between the tackles, third-most among SEC running backs (minimum 100 carries). Mississippi State will look to rising juniors Ashton Shumpert or Brandon Holloway to take over for Robinson this year.
• Can the defense be more than middle tier?
Mississippi State’s defense contributed 8.2 expected points added in the Bulldogs’ 10 wins, eighth in the SEC. The Bulldogs were seventh in the conference in defensive EPA in all games.
Mississippi State missed 105 tackles in 2014, most in the SEC, and is losing seven starters from last year, including second-team All-SEC selections Preston Smith and Bednarick McKinney.
Mississippi State finished second in the conference with 37 sacks a year ago, but all but two starters from last year’s front seven are gone. Defensive tackle Chris Jones is the most experienced player returning among the group. Leo Lewis, the No. 2 inside linebacker in the ESPN 300 recruiting rankings for 2015, could make an immediate impact.
Stats & Info SEC spring practice series: