Since leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in 2012, Missouri has been looking for a natural rival to fill the void left by the Kansases and the Oklahomas of the world. Sure, the shoehorned Battle Line Rivalry rivalry with Arkansas has gained steam in recent years. And animosity with Illinois has picked up too — mostly on the basketball court. But the Illini won’t take on the Tigers inside the hashes until 2026.
How about South Carolina? Missouri has faced the Gamecocks six times since joining the conference, and the meetings have featured plenty of close and contentious contests — tight games in 2014, 2015 and 2016 delivered — and at least one iconic moment: Tigers quarterback Drew Lock sipping out of a water bottle thrown at him from the stands in 2016.
On whether there’s a rivalry brewing between the SEC East foes , Lock certainly seems to think so.
“It’s becoming something. I think you’re going to see that Saturday,” he said. “Everyone comes in jazzed up every time they go play South Carolina. You get a different type of feeling every time you step into that stadium.”
Missouri (3-1) will open another chapter in the budding rivalry this Saturday when it kicks off its road conference schedule with a trip to Columbia East for a battle with South Carolina (2-2) at Williams-Brice Stadium. Missouri heads into the weekend as a 1.5-point favorite over the Gamecocks, per Bovada.
In South Carolina, the Tigers face a team that has yet to fully prove itself in 2018. Nobody is sure who the Gamecocks truly are. The Gamecocks showed firepower in victories over Coastal Carolina and Vanderbilt, holding those opponents to 15 and 14 points respectively, and displaying a powerful offensive attack.
But in its losses — Week 2, a 41-17 drubbing courtesy of No. 2 Georgia, and a 24-10 loss to then-No. 17 Kentucky last Saturday — South Carolina has fallen flat. The defense that limited Coastal Carolina and Vanderbilt turned porous, and struggled to get off the field. The Gamecocks sputtered on offense in those contests too; their runners averaged just 91 yards on the ground, and quarterback Jake Bentley tossed a combined five interceptions.
There’s no telling which South Carolina team will show up Saturday.
What the Tigers can expect from the Gamecocks is a balanced offensive attack. Bentley, a three year starter, has remained steady for head coach Will Muschamp in 2018, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes so far. On the ground, South Carolina has relied on the triumvirate of Rico Dowdle, Ty’son Williams and A.J. Turner, who have rushed for a combined 186.3 yards per game. Dowdle, a junior from Asheville, North Carolina, has been the team’s primary ball carrier and averages 5.1 yards per carry.
South Carolina’s true playmakers are its wide receivers, and there’s none more dangerous than redshirt senior Deebo Samuel. The 6-foot, 200-pound wideout has hurt the Tigers through the air, on the ground and in the return game in each of their last two meetings, and he’ll be the top priority of Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ and his secondary come Saturday afternoon. Though he’s been less of a force in the rushing game and as a returner in 2018, Samuel has been just as lethal with 22 catches, 206 yards and two touchdowns through four games.
“He’s really strong, and he plays physical,” Walters said of Samuel. “Every play he’s playing it like it’s its own individual game. He goes all out.”
Playing alongside Samuel are a pair of wideouts who will further test Missouri’s secondary in Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith. Edwards, who stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs 220 pounds, is a walking matchup problem who has already hauled in 17 passes and three touchdowns receptions. Smith is a speedster who averages 15.4 yards a reception, and is the perfect compliment to Samuel and Edwards.
Together, the trio of pass catchers will require heavy attention from Missouri’s defensive backs all afternoon.
On defense, South Carolina’s strength is in its back end. Through four games, no opposing quarterback has eclipsed 200 yards, and the Gamecocks have allowed just three passing touchdowns. Two weeks ago, against an elite Georgia secondary, Lock finished with just 221 yards and was held without a passing touchdown for the first time since September of 2017. He’ll get another crack at a top-tier secondary once again this weekend, and how he handles it this time around will dictate the level of potency Missouri’s offense brings Saturday.
Where Missouri will be able to make a mark Saturday is in the run game. South Carolina gave up 196 yards on the ground to Benny Snell and the Kentucky rushing attack a week ago, and are allowing 177 yards per game to opposing rushers. Even if Lock and Co. struggle to get things going in the passing game, Missouri’s own three-headed monster of Larry Rountree III, Damarea Crockett and Tyler Badie should find success establishing the ground game.
Rivalry or not, this will likely come as the Tigers’ most competitive game yet, and possibly their most crucial of the season. With Alabama up next, it’s imperative the Tigers pick up another game in the win column this week. The Tigers’ 3-0 start this fall was a sign of progress. But a three-game slide to follow it up would effectively erase it all.
The game is slated to kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday and will be aired on the SEC Network.
Supervising editor is Seth Bodine.