South Carolina has been virtually unbeatable in Columbia for the last several years. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, when they take on the No. 5 Missouri Tigers (7-0) at 7 P.M. on ESPN2 in Columbia, they will be playing in Memorial Stadium, not Williams-Brice. A win for the Tigers would all but lock up the East, while a win for South Carolina would send the division back into chaos and frenzy.
Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina each have two conference losses, with Georgia beating South Carolina and neither team having yet played Florida. If the Gamecocks hand Missouri their first loss, they have to win at home against Mississippi State and Florida and have Missouri lose to Tennessee, Ole Miss, or Texas A&M to win the East. Insane? Yes. Impossible. Not remotely. This descent into madness in the East recalls a similar fiasco in the Big-12 South from several years back but with one more team muddying things up.
After two losses that each by individually would have generally derailed an entire season, somehow the Gamecocks still have a glimmer of hope of making it back to Atlanta. Before the South Carolina faithful get too excited about that, the Gamecocks have to take their longest road trip of the year to Columbia, Missouri a steal a win from the surprising Tigers.
Missouri has an offense that has been exceptional all year, averaging 513 yards and 44 points per game—their lowest season total was 36 points last week against Florida. Even without starting quarterback James Franklin, who went down with a shoulder injury two weeks ago against Georgia, this offense has not missed a beat, as they racked up 500 yards against a highly touted Florida defense.
The key to their success offensively has been its depth and play-making ability at receiver. The Tigers’ top five pass catchers are 6-foot-1 or taller, making them arguably the hardest matchup for any secondary in the SEC. Leading the way are L’Damian Washington (32 catches, 539 yards, 7 TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (30 catches, 451 yards, 4 TDs).
The Gamecocks have been solid against the pass this year, only giving up more than 200 yards passing in two games—though they have given up a good deal of untimely yards—and the return of safety Chaz Elder, who was injured for the Tennessee game after earning his first start the week prior, should bolster this secondary. This should prove to be the toughest test for the South Carolina secondary thus far.
Before he went down, Franklin was completing 67.7% of his passes and had 290 yards on the ground. In his absence, freshman Maty Mauk completed 50% of his passes for 295 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the win over Florida. Mauk will be playing at home again, but if the Gamecock pass rush can get pressure on him, this freshman can be forced into mistakes, and the South Carolina secondary will need all the help that they can get against this big, talented group of receivers.
Even with an explosive passing game, the Tigers maintain balance on offense and average 234 rushing yards per game, ten more than the Gamecocks. The rushing attack is led by junior Henry Josey (83 carries, 494 yards, 8 TDs) and sophomore Russell Hansbrough (64 carries, 438 yards, 3 TDs). At 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-9, the backs are not the biggest that the Gamecocks have faced this season, and if the improving linebackers for South Carolina can shut down the running game, putting the pressure on Maty Mauk to win the game for the Tigers, the Gamecocks could find themselves walking out of Faurot Field with an upset.
Earlier this week, Coach Steve Spurrier gave Dylan Thompson the nod at quarterback as Connor Shaw is continuing to nurse a knee sprain, though on Wednesday, the coaching staff announced that Connor could be healthy enough to play if necessary (per Gamecockcentral). Even with Shaw’s absence, this offense should be looking at a big day. Thompson has proven his ability to direct this offense, and after a humiliating performance last week at Tennessee, this offense should be ready to go. Thompson this year is 29-51 (56.9%) for 421 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Though these numbers hardly impress, it is has been in limited duty, and he has shown the coaching staff what he is capable of given the opportunity.
Mike Davis is slowly continuing to turn heads in the SEC, as he consistently racks up yards and touchdowns. He is still the SEC’s leading rusher, has been for several weeks now, and shows no signs of slowing down. Senior guard Ronald Patrick will be returning from a high ankle sprain to sure up the offensive line. Backup Will Sport did not play badly against Tennessee; however, Patrick’s experience in this unit will be invaluable to creating holes for Davis and blocking for Dylan Thompson.
At 23 sacks this year, the Missouri pass rush, led by Michael Sam, is tops in the Southeastern Conference. Sam already has nine through just seven games but may have his toughest challenge yet in a big and thus far overachieving South Carolina offensive line. If the guys up front can give Thompson enough time to make a few throws and give Davis even a sliver of space, this potent offense should return to form and should easily surpass the 22 points, which Missouri is allowing on average.
Having scored no less than 36 points this year, it is safe to say that Missouri will get theirs. For the Gamecocks to leave Columbia, and head back to Columbia with a win, it will come down to offensive production. This game should be a shootout and could be decided be an untimely turnover or special teams gaffe. After the embarrassment last week, the Gamecocks should have a huge rebound and want this one more.