By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – After a five-win campaign in its inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference, not much was expected of Missouri on the gridiron in 2013 outside of Columbia.
At SEC Media Days in July, Mizzou was tabbed by media pundits to finish sixth in the Eastern Division behind Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Now sitting at 7-0 overall and 3-0 in league play, the Tigers have already notched wins over three of those squads picked ahead of them and will be aiming for another on Saturday when No. 20 South Carolina visits Faurot Field.
The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2) have run into a couple road blocks on their quest for Atlanta, stumbling at Georgia early in the season and slipping up against Tennessee last weekend after a last second field goal boosted the Vols to a 23-21 win. South Carolina is still in the hunt for the division title, but with Mizzou streaking through the East at an impressive pace, it doesn’t have any margin for error this week against the Tigers.
“It's a huge game for us,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday. “It's a game that is going to decide whether or not we are in the division hunt. Simple as that. I think all of our players know that and we've talked about that briefly.”
While Gary Pinkel’s Missouri team is not playing for its divisional life, it certainly realizes the importance of keeping its momentum going and not getting caught up in early BCS rankings, which currently have the Tigers ranked No. 5 in the nation.
"All that other stuff doesn't help you play well,” Pinkel told reporters this week. “Our players are aware of one thing: You keep winning, good things are going to happen."
A key to victory this weekend for both teams will be the matchup of South Carolina’s ground game against Mizzou’s run defense. Gamecocks’ running back Mike Davis currently leads the SEC and ranks 10th nationally in rushing yards per game (125.5) and has found the end zone 10 times this season. Contrarily, the Tigers are limiting opponents to 3.6 yards per carry on the ground, the second-best average in the conference in that regard.
With Dylan Thompson running the offense in place of the injured Connor Shaw, Davis will be an even bigger focal point for a Mizzou defense that has limited film on Thompson but does boast the toughest run defense that USC will have faced to this point in the season.
"You do the best you can with what you have, no matter who the quarterback is,” Pinkel said. “Last week, [Florida] had no film on Maty Mauk, other than a few plays. You just do the best you can."
Mauk will be making his second consecutive start for the Tigers after leading them to a 36-17 defeat of the Gators last weekend. The redshirt freshman threw for 295 yards and a score against UF last weekend, and he will look to spread the ball around the Missouri’s big wide-outs against one of the SEC’s best pass defenses.
While the Tigers have set themselves up in prime position in the East, they will have to hold off a South Carolina squad that knows its season could be on the line at 7 p.m. Eastern this Saturday. But the good news for Missouri is that their head coach thinks his team is just scratching the surface of its potential.
"We can get a lot better,” Pinkel said. “We're a lot better than we were eight weeks ago. And you become more confident, so they kind of go hand-in-hand."
Missouri and South Carolina have met just three times previously, with the Tigers currently holding a 2-1 advantage against the Gamecocks…This will be the second time that Mizzou and USC have met since the Tigers joined the Southeastern Conference in 2012…The first two meetings between the two schools came in bowl games, with Mizzou winning both of those contests…The first meeting came in 1979 in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham…In the two meetings since 1995, Gary Pinkel of Mizzou and Steve Spurrier of South Carolina have split two meetings head-to-head.
2012 – South Carolina 31, Mizzou 10 (Columbia, S.C.)
2005 – Mizzou 38, South Carolina 31 (Shreveport, La.)
1979 – Mizzou 24, South Carolina 14 (Birmingham, Ala.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
Missouri traveled to Columbia, S.C., to face seventh-ranked South Carolina in what was the Tigers’ second ever Southeastern Conference game. The Gamecocks did not give the Tigers a kind welcome, handing them a 31-10 defeat at Williams-Bryce Stadium behind strong performances from quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Marcus Lattimore. Shaw threw for 249 yards and a pair of touchdowns while Lattimore ran for 85 yards on the ground and tacked on two touchdowns of his own to pace the SC offense. South Carolina limited the Mizzou attack to just 255 yards on the day, and Ace Sanders manufactured an electrifying, stop-and-go punt return that set up a Gamecocks touchdown and a 21-0 second quarter rally that propelled USC to the big victory.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Mizzou – Physically Formidable Receivers
Missouri enters this weekend’s showdown with South Carolina with the SEC’s third-rated passing offense. Three big – literally and figuratively – reasons that Mizzou sits at No. 3 in that category are receivers L’Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas. The trio has combined for 1,348 receiving yards and 12 touchdown grabs this season for the Tigers, and they all have great size on top of stellar talent that creates matchup problems for opposing defenses. Washington (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) leads the group with 539 yards and seven scores, Green-Beckham (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) has racked up 451 yards and four touchdowns, and Lucas (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) has hauled in more passes than any other Mizzou receiver with 36 receptions for 358 yards and a score. Mizzou’s “big three” combined for nearly 200 yards last week to help new starting quarterback Maty Mauk record a QB rating of 122 against Florida’s fourth-ranked defense, which surrendered over 225 yards more than their season average versus the Tigers. Missouri will need these three to play well once again this week, as South Carolina brings a pass defense ranked third in the conference and 19th in the nation to Columbia. USC’s tallest corner on the two-deep depth chart stands at 5-foot-11.
South Carolina – Mike Davis, Sophomore, Running Back
Davis enters this week as the SEC’s leading rusher, churning out 125 yards per game on the ground with a 6.6-yard per carry average. In seven outings this season, Davis has turned in six 100-yard performances, including a 137-yard day at Tennessee last week. Davis and LSU running back Jeremy Hill lead the conference in touchdowns scored with 10 apiece, and Davis’ 18.8 carries per game are more than any other back in the league, making him the workhorse of Steve Spurrier’s offense. Mizzou has been stout against the run this season, allowing 116 yards per game (third in the SEC) and just 3.6 yards per carry (second in the SEC) through seven games, so the Gamecocks will be tested on the ground against the toughest run defense they will have faced to date in 2013. With the status of quarterback Connor Shaw (sprained knee) in limbo, Davis could be taking on even more of a load in the ground game this week for USC in a game it needs to win to keep its SEC Eastern division hopes alive.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Mizzou – Michael Sam, Senior, Defensive End
Michael Sam has been a nightmare for opposing offenses in 2013, leading the nation in both sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (13) for the Tigers. Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy became more familiar with Sam than he would have liked in last Saturday’s game at Mizzou, when the 6-foot-2, 255-pound edge rusher registered three sacks in a 19-point win over the Gators. While Sam is a bit undersized compared to most NFL defensive ends, Florida coach Will Muschamp called him a future NFL player last week, and he lived up to the billing by earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. His disruptive pass rushing style has made a huge impact for a Missouri defense that racked up seven total sacks in a dominant performance that saw the Gators average just 2.5 yards per play. The Gamecocks enter this weekend’s game ranked eighth in the SEC in sacks allowed (14), and keeping Sam and his comrades on the defensive line at bay will be a priority for South Carolina at Faurot Field.
South Carolina – Jadeveon Clowney, Junior, Defensive End
By this point in the season, you’re well aware of Jadeveon Clowney’s presence on the South Carolina defensive line. College football pundits may have expressed disappointment in his early season performance, but that was mainly due to the astronomical expectations that the national media placed on Clowney’s broad shoulders entering the year. The fact remains that Clowney is one of the nation’s most disruptive, physically gifted defensive talents, and Missouri will join the long list of teams that have had to game-plan for the Rock Hill, S.C. product on Saturday. While he has only recorded two sacks this season, Clowney demands extra attention from blockers that helps free up his fellow defenders to make plays, and he showcased his own talents last week at Tennessee with 2.5 tackles for loss and several quarterback hurries. The performance of a defensive end like Clowney cannot simply be quantified by statistics, and whether or not he racks up multiple sacks or TFLs against the Tigers, he will have a significant impact on the game. "He's a great player,” Gary Pinkel said of Clowney. “We're going to try to have our plan for him. Everyone does. But the problem is you've got a problem on the other side, too."
• No. 20 South Carolina will be the third straight ranked opponent for Missouri, the first time the Tigers have faced three ranked foes in a row since 2009.
• South Carolina is looking to avoid losing back-to-back games for just the second time since the end of the 2010 season. Last year, the Gamecocks lost consecutive games to No. 9 LSU and No. 3 Florida.
• With its win over Florida last week, Mizzou became the first team since Tennessee in 1992 to beat Georgia and Florida in consecutive weeks.
• South Carolina, which sits at 2-2 against Eastern Division teams this year, has won 15 of its last 18 divisional games. The Gamecocks have won more than four divisional games in each of the past three seasons, something they had never done prior to Steve Spurrier’s arrival.
• Mizzou and Oregon are the only teams in the FBS that have won all of their games in 2013 by at least 15 points.
• The Gamecocks have been ranked in the Associated Press poll for 56 straight weeks, which is tied for the fifth longest current streak in the nation. Only Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and Oregon have longer streaks intact.
• The Tigers defense has forced at least one turnover in 37 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the FBS.
• South Carolina has thrived on fast starts in 2013, scoring on their opening drive in five of their seven contests (three touchdowns, two field goals).
• Missouri claims that it invented “Homecoming” when it staged a formal celebration around a football game in 1911. Since then, the Tigers are 59-37-5 all-time in homecoming games and have won nine of their last 11.
• With a win, South Carolina would become bowl eligible for the 10th straight season.