SDS kicks off a series looking in-depth at teams and their biggest subplots heading into 2014. Next up: South Carolina Gamecocks.

SEC Subplots 2014:

1. Avoiding the letdown
What does South Carolina have to do to get back to Atlanta under Steve Spurrier? On the heels of three straight 11-win seasons, the Gamecocks didn’t return to Atlanta in any of the three, despite beating the SEC East division champ all three seasons. In fact, USC beat the winners of the Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl last season. That’s incredible. The only reason they haven’t gotten to Atlanta the last three years is losing to a letdown team. Last year it was Tennessee 23-21. The year before it was Florida 44-11 (certainly the least of the letdowns), and the year before that it was Auburn 16-13. If the Gamecocks can get by the unranked teams on their schedule, they could be packing their bags to Atlanta come December.

2. Third and Connor
One of the biggest losses from last year’s team was obviously Connor Shaw. Maybe he wasn’t an elite quarterback, but he played at an elite level and was a complete gamer. Most noticeably, Third and Connor won many football games, and third and mediums were no problem, because Shaw had the wheels to pick them up. Now, Dylan Thompson takes the full reins of the offense, and knowing he’s a pocket passer with limited mobility, where will the third and mediums come from this season? Thompson has proven he’s more than capable of making big throws and being a leader, but can he lead them to the promise land? We’ll find out week one.

3. A new No. 1
With the loss of wide receiver Bruce Ellington, the Gamecocks absolutely have to have Shaq Roland develop into the player he was recruited to be. The former Mr. Football for the state of South Carolina has caught just 30 passes for 535 yards and six touchdowns. We’ve seen the flashes, and we all know the potential. Now, with Damiere Byrd alongside Roland, it’s time the two become a feared duo in the SEC. Roland could be the biggest catalyst and make the most headway under new quarterback Dylan Thompson.

4. Tinkering with the scheme
South Carolina tinkered with a 3-4 scheme through spring practice and will tinker with it in some situations this fall. The reason the scheme perks Lorenzo Ward’s attention is because of the linebacker depth and talent; however, it’s interesting, because usually when coaches move to a 3-4 it’s because of the defensive tackle depth, not linebacker depth. Although there’s no Jadeveon Clowney or Kelcy Quarles, there’s certainly enough talent and emerging players to help make the defense ‘good enough’ to win the East. Ward knows what he’s doing, and the Gamecocks have been consistently very good during his tenure.

SDS Takeaway: South Carolina is my favorite to win the Eastern division in 2014, because they have the least amount of questions. Thompson’s proven he can make plays (he did it in 2012), and I would be incredibly remiss should I not mention Mike Davis’ name in this entire article; he’s a beast. Despite coming so close the last few years, this should be Steve Spurrier’s best chance at winning an SEC Championship.