The first SEC tilt of the season kicks off Saturday night inside Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium as theMissouri Tigers play host to the South Carolina Gamecocks. The Tigers and Gamecocks both enter the matchup with a record of 1-0, although it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for either team to get there.
Missouri appeared to be on the ropes in the first half of its season opener against FCS opponent Missouri State. The Tigers ultimately managed to pull away in the second half en route to a record-setting day and a 72-43 victory. South Carolina opened its 2017 campaign with a hard-fought 35-28 victory against a solid NC State team in Charlotte.
Life won’t get any easier for either of these division foes as they embark on their first conference matchup of the season. It's a game that has all the necessary ingredients to turn into a real shootout with early-season control of the SEC East on the line.
This will be the eighth meeting all time between South Carolina and Missouri. The Gamecocks beat the Tigers last season by a score of 31-21. However, Missouri has won two out of the last three meetings and holds a slight 4-3 edge in the all-time series.
South Carolina at Missouri
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Missouri -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Defense anyone?
The Missouri defense was absolutely abysmal in the first half of its home opener against FCS Missouri State, allowing 380 yards and five touchdowns. While Barry Odom’s defense settled in a bit in the second half, the Tigers ultimately gave up 492 yards and 43 points in the game. The Missouri defense, which ranked No. 118 in the nation a season ago, will be in for a much bigger challenge in week 2 against an improved South Carolina offense that tallied 428 yards and 31 points against it in 2016.
Meanwhile, Will Muschamp’s South Carolina defense will be charged with trying to slow down a Missouri offense that led the SEC in total offense last season (500.5 ypg) and returns 10 starters. It's a challenge that appears even more daunting following Mizzou’s school-record 815-yard offensive performance in week 1. The South Carolina defense surrendered 504 yards last week against a good, but not great, NC State offense. So, it seems very likely that the Gamecocks will have their hands full on the road against the Tigers’ high-powered attack.
2. The air show
Missouri’s Drew Lock and South Carolina’s Jake Bentley (above, right) are quickly emerging as two of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. And given that both team’s defenses struggled mightily to defend the pass in their season openers, you can probably expect to see the ball in the air early and often on Saturday.
Lock shattered Missouri’s single-game passing record last week with 521 yards and seven touchdowns against Missouri State. The junior quarterback accounted for 302 passing yards against the Gamecocks last season. He should easily top that number this time around against a South Carolina pass defense that gave up 415 yards through the air last week to NC State’s Ryan Finley.
Bentley, a sophomore, is quite likely to open up the Gamecocks’ aerial assault as well, particularly if this game turns into a track meet, which seems likely. Bentley threw for a respectable 215 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against a very good NC State defense. He should find even more passing lanes available against a Mizzou pass defense that was torched routinely in its season opener. Bentley completed 22-of-28 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns against the Tigers in 2016 as a true freshman. The potential is there for a much bigger performance on Saturday.
3. Deebo Samuel
Bentley is the focal point of the South Carolina offense, but he may not even be the Gamecocks’ most important weapon on that side of the football. That honor might just go to Samuel, South Carolina's do-it-all junior wide receiver. Samuel’s prowess as a versatile playmaker was on full display last week against NC State. After taking the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, he proceeded to add two more touchdowns from his wide receiver position.
Samuel also has a proven track record against Missouri. He racked up nine catches for 125 yards against the Tigers last season, adding a rushing touchdown to an already impressive stat line. He’s certainly a player worth keeping tabs on in Saturday’s matchup. And as the most electric player on the field, he should make that task easy for you.
If last season wasn’t already a pretty a good indication, the Missouri offense is definitely for real. Drew Lock is severely undervalued at quarterback. Damarea Crockett may be the most underrated running back in the country. And J’Mon Moore is a bonified star at the wide receiver position.
The problem is that the Mizzou defense is every bit as bad as the offense is good. And the Tigers offense isn’t always going to have enough to bail out the porous defense, particularly when it comes to SEC competition. I suspect that will be the case on Saturday. South Carolina will be hard-pressed to outscore Missouri on the road. However, the Gamecocks have an edge as the more balanced and complete team overall.
Prediction: South Carolina 41, Missouri 38
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.