Adversity is the theme heading into Saturday's Mayor's Cup matchup between the Missouri Tigers and the home team South Carolina Gamecocks. Turbulent might be an understatement in describing the last few weeks for these SEC East foes. And there is no shortage of turmoil for both teams to overcome on Saturday.
COVID-19, contact tracing, injuries, suspensions, and player opt-outs have all taken a serious toll on Missouri over the last few weeks. The short-handed Tigers were forced to postpone their second game of the season last week against Georgia and have yet to play a game in November. The last time Mizzou took the field was Halloween night, resulting in a 41-17 loss to Florida, dropping the Tigers to 2-3 on the season. Unfortunately, they will be short-handed once again on Saturday, with a reported 54 scholarship players available, just one above the SEC's minimum threshold to play. The Tigers will now make their way to South Carolina to face a team with multiple concerns of its own.
The last few weeks have been monumentally bad for South Carolina, which fired head coach Will Muschamp on Sunday following a three-game losing skid during which the Gamecocks gave up an average of 53 points and almost 600 yards per game. South Carolina fell to 2-5 on the season following last Saturday's 59-42 loss at Ole Miss, which proved to be the final straw for Muschamp. Offensive Coordinator and former Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo was named interim head coach shortly thereafter.
But more bad news would follow in the form of four South Carolina players opting out for the remainder of the season, including defensive backs Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn, arguably the Gamecocks' top two players on defense. Starting safety R.J. Roderick also opted out, and with season-ending injuries to defensive end Aaron Sterling and linebacker Brad Johnson, the South Carolina defense is down five starters from a unit that was already struggling mightily. Can Bobo right the ship in short order or will it be more of the same from a team that has been trending in the wrong direction over the last few weeks?
Saturday's game will mark the eleventh meeting all-time between the two schools. Missouri and South Carolina are deadlocked in the series with five wins apiece. The Tigers won last year's matchup 34-14 to snap a three-game losing streak to the Gamecocks.
Missouri at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network Alternate
Spread: Missouri -6.5
When Missouri Has the Ball
The passing game will be critical to Mizzou's success on offense this Saturday. Redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak will lead that effort. In five games, Bazelak has completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 1,101 yards with four touchdowns and just one interception. Jalen Knox (22 receptions, 236 yards) and Virginia Tech transfer Damon Hazelton (17 receptions, 175 yards) have been Bazelak's favorite targets to date. However, neither player has caught a touchdown pass this season, and Hazelton has struggled with drops.
Regardless, an extremely favorable matchup awaits Bazelak and Co., and the Mizzou passing attack should be able to have its way against a depleted Gamecocks' secondary that will be without its top three defensive backs on Saturday. It's a South Carolina pass defense that has already allowed an SEC-high 18 touchdown passes and 288.3 passing yards per game (111th in the FBS). Pass protection may be the only concern for the Tigers with an offensive line that has been hit hard by injuries and suspensions. That doesn't exactly bode well with SEC sack-leader Kingsley Enagbare (five sacks) roaming the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Missouri's revamped offensive line could negatively impact the run game as well. However, South Carolina's defense is clearly a little worse for the wear itself. And with a pair of capable running backs in Larry Rountree III (101 carries, 432 yards, four touchdowns) and Tyler Badie (30 carries, 119 yards, one touchdown) in the backfield, the Tigers might have a chance to overcome any potential issues with the O-line. South Carolina also has been fairly generous to opposing run games. The Gamecocks rank 11th in the SEC and 72nd nationally, giving up 176.1 rushing yards per game.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
If the Gamecocks are going to be successful in this matchup, they are going to have to be able to run the football. Fortunately, they have just the guy for the job in running back Kevin Harris, who leads the SEC in rushing yards (817) and ranks second in the conference in rushing touchdowns (13). While Missouri has been solid against the run so far this season, surrendering 131.2 rushing yards per game (5th in the SEC and 33rd in the FBS), the Tigers might have a difficult time keeping Harris in check with a front seven that will be short-handed on Saturday. That being said, All-SEC linebacker and leading tackler Nick Bolton should be available. And the Tigers will likely stack the box in a bid to slow Harris down. It should make for an interesting matchup in the trenches as well.
The best way to open up the run game is with a successful passing attack. That responsibility will fall mostly on the arm of South Carolina quarterback Collin Hill, who has had his fair share of struggles in his first season with the Gamecocks. Hill has thrown for 1,372 yards (196.0 per game) with just six touchdowns to go along with six interceptions. He also has the second-lowest completion rate (59.0 percent) among starting SEC quarterbacks and the second-lowest pass efficiency rating (119.05) in the conference. Not good — but a South Carolina offensive line that has allowed 20 sacks (second-most in the SEC) hasn't done much to help his cause. Fortunately, pass protection shouldn't be a huge concern against a lackluster Missouri pass rush that has only generated seven sacks in five games.
The good news is that Hill does have one of the best wide receivers in the SEC at his disposal in Shi Smith (53 receptions, 596 yards, four touchdowns). And the Missouri pass defense is by no means a force to be reckoned with, allowing 263.6 yards per game through the air (11th in the SEC, 100th in the FBS). One of the more intriguing matchups to watch on Saturday will be Smith paired against Mizzou standout Joshuah Bledsoe.
This is a difficult matchup to gauge with so many intangibles and unknowns heading into Saturday. The only real certainty is that South Carolina's defense has been atrociously bad over its last three games. And that isn't likely to remedy itself with injuries and player opt-outs further depleting the Gamecocks on that side of the football. Missouri's offense isn't great, and there will be plenty of rust to knock off for a team that hasn't played in 22 days. The Tigers will likely be without some of their top players on both sides of the ball as well. That should keep it competitive, but it's hard not to like Mizzou in this matchup given the current state of the South Carolina defense.
Prediction: Missouri 34, South Carolina 30
Podcast: Week 12 Preview and Predictions
-Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.