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Will the Tigers improve to 8-0?
In the preseason, Missouri-South Carolina appeared to be just a typical SEC contest. There was some upset talk surrounding this game, especially since this was slated to be the Gamecocks’ third consecutive road test. But fast forward to October, and the storylines have changed dramatically.
Missouri has quickly erased any bad feelings from last year’s 5-7 mark. The Tigers have a two-game lead on the rest of the division and with a matchup against 1-6 Kentucky still to come, Missouri can essentially clinch the SEC East with a win on Saturday.
Since the Tigers already have wins over Georgia and Florida, South Carolina might be the only team with a realistic shot at knocking Missouri from the top spot in the East. However, the Gamecocks’ division title hopes took a huge hit in last week’s loss to Tennessee. If South Carolina loses in Columbia on Saturday night, its hopes of winning the East Division are essentially finished.
These two teams have met only three times. Missouri owns a 2-1 series edge, but South Carolina has claimed the only victory as SEC opponents.
South Carolina at Missouri
Kickoff: 7 ET
TV Channel: ESPN 2
Spread: Missouri -2.5
Three Things to Watch
Injuries have wrecked havoc on quarterbacks in the SEC East. After Saturday, only one team (Georgia) will have started the same player under center all year. With James Franklin sidelined indefinitely, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk will make his second start for Missouri. Against Florida last week, Mauk completed 18 of 36 passes for 295 yards and one touchdown. Florida’s defense is slightly better than South Carolina in terms of allowed yardage per game, but the Gamecocks lead the SEC in pass defense (conference games only). With Connor Shaw nursing an injured knee, Dylan Thompson will make his third career start for South Carolina. Last season, Thompson threw for 1,027 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 appearances. Both quarterbacks will be under the microscope on Saturday night. With very little separating these two teams, any mistake will be magnified. Will it be Thompson or Mauk that delivers with a better performance?
South Carolina’s Offensive Line vs. Missouri’s Defensive Line
Missouri’s defensive line has been one of the biggest surprises in the SEC this year. After losing tackle Sheldon Richardson to the NFL, most preseason rankings had the Tigers’ line pegged for the bottom of the conference. However, behind the direction of line coach Craig Kuligowski, Missouri has been one of the SEC’s best in the trenches. The Tigers are allowing just 117.7 yards per game on the ground in SEC play, and opponents have scored just three rushing scores. Missouri also has 15 sacks against conference foes. End Michael Sam was a midseason All-American, and there’s plenty of depth and talent at the other three spots. Quality line play is always a priority in the SEC, but with both teams starting backup quarterbacks, it’s takes on even more importance this Saturday. South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson doesn’t have Connor Shaw’s mobility, and the Gamecocks need to give the junior time to throw and test a Missouri secondary that may not have standout cornerback E.J. Gaines. In addition to giving Thompson time to throw, South Carolina’s ground attack could be the difference in this game. Running back Mike Davis averages 119.4 yards per game in 2013, but the Tigers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher since the season opener. The Gamecocks’ front five averages 322.4 pounds a player, and the matchup against Missouri’s athletic, quick line will be the toughest test (so far) of 2013.
Clowney is arguably the most-talented player in college football. However, the junior got off to a slow start in 2013, as injuries sidetracked his season. But in last week’s game against Tennessee, Clowney looked like the player everyone expected to see in the preseason, as he recorded five tackles, with 2.5 going for a loss. Was last Saturday’s performance the start of a strong second half for Clowney? He dominated the Missouri line for two sacks and four tackles last season, and a similar game could be enough for the Gamecocks to win.
Key Player: Henry Josey, RB, Missouri
Anytime a team has to turn to a backup quarterback, the immediate focus shifts to the running backs and offensive line to pickup the slack. Missouri has three running backs over 350 yards this season, but Josey leads the team with 494 yards. The junior missed all of 2012 recovering from a serious knee injury, but Josey hasn’t missed a beat, averaging six yards a carry on 83 attempts. Even though Mauk impressed in his first start last week, the Tigers need to have balance against a solid South Carolina defense.
This matchup is a tossup. Missouri is one step away from essentially clinching the SEC East, while South Carolina desperately needs a win to keep its division title hopes alive. Mauk and Thompson are plenty capable, but turnovers and the supporting cast may have a bigger impact on the outcome. Running back Mike Davis should be the difference in this game for the Gamecocks, which finds a way to win a close matchup that should be decided in the final minutes.
Prediction: South Carolina 27, Missouri 24