The fifth-ranked Missouri Tigers will try to further secure their place atop the SEC Eastern Division standings when they play host to the 20th- ranked South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday night.
While many expected Missouri to improve upon its 5-7 record from 2012, few anticipated that it could climb this high, this quickly. It has started the season a perfect 7-0, which includes wins over Florida (36-17) and Georgia (41-26) in recent weeks to move to 3-0 in the SEC, opening up a two-game lead in the East.
“This team is resilient, coming back from where we were last year,” Missouri wide receiver L’Damien Washington said. “I told Coach Pinkel, ‘We’ve got to stop talking about bowl games around here. Let’s talk BCS, let’s talk national championships.’”
After being unranked at the beginning of October, the Tigers are now No. 5 in both the AP poll and the first BCS standings. A win in this matchup will give them a three-game win streak against ranked opponents for the first time since 1939.
Missouri leads the all-time series with South Carolina, 2-1. The Gamecocks defeated the Tigers in the first matchup between the two as SEC foes last season, 31-10.
South Carolina was in the midst of a strong campaign, having won five of its first six games, but it fell victim to a last-second field goal at Tennessee last weekend to lose, 23-21, falling to 5-2 and 3-2 in conference as a result. The setback caused the Gamecocks to take a tumble in the latest AP poll from No. 11 to No. 20.
South Carolina has one of the most efficient, balanced offenses in the SEC, scoring 32.6 ppg, rushing for 224.6 ypg and throwing for 247.3 ypg, but it will be hard-pressed to get close to those numbers in the likely absence of its dual-threat quarterback.
Connor Shaw (1,704 total yards, 14 TDs, INT) is listed as doubtful for this contest after suffering a knee injury last week. Luckily for the Gamecocks, Dylan Thompson has been worked into the lineup plenty this season even with a healthy Shaw, and he has completed 56.9 percent of his passes for 421 yards with four touchdowns (two rushing) and two interceptions.
Without Shaw, South Carolina will likely lean even more heavily on Mike Davis, who leads the SEC in both rushing yards (879) and touchdowns (10). The sophomore ran for 137 yards in last week’s loss for his sixth 100-yard performance of the season.
Bruce Ellington (332 yards), Damiere Byrd (384 yards) and Nick Jones (195 yards) have all been active at receiver with three touchdowns apiece.
The Gamecocks defense has played well this season, ranking sixth in the SEC in points allowed (22.7 ppg) and third in yards allowed (342.6 ypg), although the effort is still shy of the sky-high expectations placed upon them in the preseason.
Facing double- and triple-teams all season long, Jadeveon Clowney has just two sacks, although he has 5.5 TFL and six QB hurries. Kelcy Quarles (7.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks) and Chaz Sutton (6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) have taken advantage of all the extra attention put on Clowney. Jimmy Legree has a team-high 32 tackles to go with two picks, while Victor Hampton also has a pair of interceptions.
Missouri’s offense is one of the most potent in the country, ranking eighth in scoring (44.3 ppg) and 11th in total offense (513.4 ypg). A drop-off in production was expected following the loss of starting quarterback James Franklin (1,867 total yards, 17 TDs, three INTs), but the squad didn’t skip a beat against a very good Florida defense last week with 500 total yards.
Maty Mauk was up and down in his first career start, but he played well enough to lead the team to victory by completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards with two touchdowns (one rushing) and a pick.
“He looked like a seasoned veteran out there,” head coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s a great competitor. Sometimes he tries to make too much happen … But I couldn’t be more pleased with him. He’s a playmaker. It’s great to see a backup quarterback come in and play at that kind of level.”
“We did what we do best,” Mauk added. “It couldn’t have gone any better for us.”
The Tigers’ potent rushing attack was as good as advertised against Florida, amassing 205 yards. Henry Josey leads a three-headed tailback committee with 494 yards and eight touchdowns on 83 carries. Russell Hansbrough (438 yards, three TDs) has also played well, and Marcus Murphy (357 yards, five TDs) is the most explosive of all as he averages 8.7 yards per carry.
Mizzou’s seemingly endless supply of weapons spills over to the receiving corps, as Marcus Lucas (358 yards) leads the team with 36 receptions, while Washington (32 receptions, 539 yards, seven TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (30 receptions, 451 yards, four TDs) are two of the best big-play threats in the league.
Equally responsible for the Tigers’ outstanding season has been the solid play of their defense, which holds opponents to just 22.1 ppg and 381.0 ypg. The unit is also tied for 11th in the nation with 18 turnovers.
Michael Sam is one of the nation’s premier pass-rushers with 13.0 TFL and 9.0 sacks. Kentrell Brothers and E.J. Gaines have three interceptions apiece, although Gaines is questionable for this contest with a quadriceps injury. Andrew Wilson leads the team with 50 total tackles.
TIM FISHER CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.