The Missouri Tigers (3-1, 0-1 SEC) and South Carolina Gamecocks (2-2, 1-2 SEC) will meet Saturday inside Williams-Brice Stadium for a pivotal SEC East clash. The all-time series between the two schools is tied at four wins apiece. The Gamecocks have won each of the last two matchups, including a decisive 31-13 victory last season at Missouri.
Last season’s loss to the Gamecocks also set the stage for an epic slide that culminated in a five-game losing streak for the Tigers. Mizzou would ultimately bounce back in a big way, winning its final six games of 2017 and each of its first three games this season. But the Tigers’ regular-season win streak came to a halt with a 43-29 loss to Georgia at home in week 4. If not for three critical Missouri turnovers, the outcome may have been different. Regardless, Barry Odom’s Tigers now find themselves 0-1 in conference play. They will make their first SEC road trip of the season, fresh off a bye week, in search of redemption against the Gamecocks.
South Carolina will face its fourth SEC East opponent of the season when Missouri comes to town on Saturday. And so far, it’s proven to be tough sledding for Will Muschamp’s squad. The Gamecocks did manage to rebound against Vanderbilt on the road following the devastating 41-17 loss to Georgia at home. However, South Carolina fell victim to a division opponent once again last week in a mistake-filled 24-10 road loss to Kentucky. The setback marked the Gamecocks’ fifth consecutive loss to the Wildcats. They will now look to get back on track at home against the Tigers in a bid to salvage what’s left of their fading division title hopes.
Missouri at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: South Carolina -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Bounce-back Bentley?
This was supposed to be the year that Jake Bentley finally took a big leap forward in his progression. The junior quarterback appeared to be on track to do just that following a standout performance in the season opener against Coastal Carolina. But things have not exactly gone according to plan since that time. In the last three games, Bentley has thrown just three touchdown passes against six interceptions. His most recent matchup may even qualify as the worst of his career. He completed just 46 percent of his passes for 148 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in the loss to Kentucky. Bentley also exited the game with an apparent knee injury late in the fourth quarter.
Bentley’s poor play over the last few weeks has garnered serious criticism from fans and media alike. However, barring any setbacks with his knee, he should have a favorable opportunity to get back in the good graces of the Gamecock faithful against Missouri this week. The Tigers currently rank 117th in the nation against the pass, surrendering 293.8 yards per game. They have allowed three touchdowns through the air in each of their last two games. And a lackluster Missouri pass rush has produced just six sacks through four games. If Bentley is unable to bounce back against the generous Mizzou pass defense at home this week, it may be time to hit the panic button.
2. Lock looks for redemption
Jake Bentley isn’t the only quarterback in Saturday’s matchup looking to rebound. Heisman hopeful Drew Lock is coming off a bad performance of his own against Georgia. And the senior quarterback will certainly be in search of redemption for his poor showing against the Gamecocks last season. Lock completed just 43.8 percent of his passes for 245 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in the 2017 matchup.
On paper, this year’s matchup looks to be challenging as well. Contrary to popular belief, South Carolina has fared well against the pass so far this season, allowing just 159.5 passing yards per game (No. 11 in the FBS and No. 2 in the SEC). The Gamecocks have given up only three touchdowns through the air in four games as well.
That being said, the Missouri passing attack is among the best that South Carolina will face all season. And even though it’s not a given that Lock and company will make easy work of the Gamecock pass defense this time around. It’s hard not to like the Tigers’ chances with the healthy return of speedy playmaker Emanuel Hall against a South Carolina secondary that has injury concerns heading into Saturday.
3. Mistake-free football
Much of the Gamecocks’ success in 2017 was predicated on their ability to play clean, while forcing opponents into making costly mistakes. South Carolina was plus-11 in turnover margin last season, second best in the SEC behind only Alabama. Heading into their fifth game of the season on Saturday, the Gamecocks find themselves second-to-last in the SEC in turnover margin at minus-4.
South Carolina has been plagued by costly mistakes in general this season, and it was never more evident than last week against Kentucky. The Gamecocks had six dropped passes, they committed 11 penalties for 94 yards and more importantly, they turned the ball over four times in the loss to the Wildcats. That cannot happen this week against Missouri. Not only will the Gamecocks need to play mistake-free on Saturday, but they will also need their opportunistic defense to show up for the first time this season to help nullify a potent Mizzou offense.
Vegas seems to think that South Carolina will bounce back with some home-field magic against Missouri on Saturday. It will not come as a complete surprise if that happens. However, conventional wisdom seems to favor the well-rested Tigers here. Missouri is averaging 40 points per game. The Tigers also put up 29 points against Georgia despite three turnovers. Meanwhile, South Carolina only managed to put 17 points on the scoreboard at home against the Bulldogs. And after last week’s debacle at Kentucky, it’s proving very difficult to trust the South Carolina offense. It’s even more difficult with Jake Bentley (knee) and star wide receiver Bryan Edwards (ankle) coming off injuries last week. A generous Tigers pass defense should help the Gamecocks keep it interesting. But in the end, the high-powered Mizzou offense will likely prove to be too much.
Prediction: Missouri 31, South Carolina 28
-Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.