The Battle of Columbia
By Matt Smith
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Missouri will travel from one Columbia to another to take on South Carolina in their first ever SEC road game on Saturday.
SEC play resumes on Saturday afternoon for both Missouri and South Carolina, as the Tigers (2-1, 0-1 SEC) travel from one Columbia to another to meet the seventh-ranked Gamecocks (3-0, 1-0). The new SEC East rivals will meet for the first time since the 2005 Independence Bowl, a 38-31 shootout won by Missouri. Let’s look at five key questions heading into Saturday afternoon’s clash in the Palmetto State.
Missouri at (7) South Carolina
Saturday, 3:30 ET
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson)
1. How healthy are the quarterbacks?
Connor Shaw missed the Gamecocks' win over East Carolina two weeks ago, and played only a half last Saturday against UAB, a 49-6 South Carolina rout, before reinjuring his throwing shoulder. Head coach Steve Spurrier said on Tuesday that Shaw’s shoulder was strong enough for him to start the team’s first SEC home game of the season and it is simply a matter of Shaw tolerating the pain. Shaw is unlike most Spurrier quarterbacks in that he’s a running threat, and therefore susceptible to more hits. Missouri’s front seven has proven SEC-worthy thus far, with nine sacks in three games.
The situation under center for the Tigers is slightly murkier. James Franklin missed last week’s 24-20 win over Arizona State, with Tigers coach Gary Pinkel citing pain in his shoulder as the reason for his absence. It was revealed earlier this week that Franklin refused to take any pain medication or injections prior to the game, stirring up a bit of controversy when Franklin’s father cited personal beliefs for his son not taking any medication. Franklin has said his shoulder is close to 100% and he should be able to start in the team’s first ever SEC road game.
2. How big of an impact is D.J. Swearinger’s suspension?
The leader of the South Carolina secondary was handed a one-game ban on Monday by SEC commissioner Mike Slive for a helmet-to-helmet hit against UAB. A preseason All-SEC safety, Swearinger’s absence will be highly visible against the Tigers’ spread offense. He had 10 tackles and an interception through three games, as well as a 65-yard fumble return for a touchdown last week.
Freshman T.J. Gurley is expected to start in place of Swearinger, but he may not be the determining factor in how impactful Swearinger’s loss is. That distinction goes to cornerback Akeem Auguste, who has missed the first three games with a thigh injury. The Gamecocks secondary is extremely versatile, which would allow defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to move a cornerback to safety. The Gamecocks 4-2-5 scheme should be effective against Missouri’s spread, as it was against Clemson’s last season. However, Swearinger’s loss magnifies a concerning lack of depth in the secondary.
3. Who wins the rushing battle?
Through six SEC games this season, the team that rushed for the most yards has won all six, magnifying the importance of the ground game for the No. 60 and No. 63 rushing attacks in the nation. Marcus Lattimore has been fine in his first three games back after tearing his ACL last October, but he hasn’t quite been the pre-injury Lattimore. He’s been limited to only 25 carries over the past two weeks with the Gamecocks having both games comfortably in hand.
Missouri doesn’t have a Lattimore, but does have Franklin and two quality tailbacks in senior Kendial Lawrence and sophomore Marcus Murphy. Lawrence has received the majority of carries, but it was Murphy who ran for more yards in the showdown with Georgia. With Franklin likely not yet 100% by Saturday, the Tigers will need more from their stable of running backs to compete in Columbia.
4. Can the Tigers block Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney?
It was expected that Clowney, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country in the 2011 class, would show marked improvement from his freshman to his sophomore season. The preseason All-SEC defensive end turned in his best performance as a Gamecock last Saturday night, with 3.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks against UAB. Taylor, meanwhile, has been relatively quiet by his standards thus far in 2012, with just nine tackles in three games and no sacks.
Missouri’s offensive line is its biggest concern at this point in the season with two preseason starters out and guard Jack Meiners still working his way back from a strained knee ligament. The Tigers had to do some shuffling up front once perennially-injured left tackle Elvis Fisher went down again in the loss to Georgia, with Meiners moving from guard to right tackle and Justin Britt moving to the left side. Bulldogs linebacker Jarvis Jones was able to expose the Tigers line late in that game. The fear this weekend for Missouri is that Taylor and Clowney will do the same for 60 minutes.
5. Will Williams-Brice Stadium affect the Tigers?
Missouri traveled to some hostile environments in the Big 12, none more so than Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, where the Tigers have won in each of the past two seasons (and will again play there Nov. 24), but SEC venues are a different level of hostility. They’ll catch a slight break with an afternoon kickoff, but Williams-Brice Stadium should still be raucous with 80,000 garnet and black-clad Gamecock backers.
The Tigers struggled away from home last season, going just 1-4 in true away games. This trip will be the longest the program has ever made for a conference road game, surpassing Texas Tech by almost 100 miles. South Carolina has been a strong home team of late, having not dropped an SEC East home game since 2009.
Bonus: Who wins?
Parallels can be drawn to last year’s Auburn-South Carolina game, in which a fledging Tigers team went into Columbia and stunned the No. 10 Gamecocks in an ugly, turnover-filled contest. Now, another group of Tigers rolls into Williams-Brice to face a South Carolina team ranked in the top 10. The difference? Stephen Garcia, who had two interceptions and just nine completions in the loss to Auburn, is nowhere to be found. The final score and stats won’t be overly impressive, but the Gamecocks defensive front will be strong enough to avoid an upset. If things break the Gamecocks’ way in some other games, this could be a top five team by late Saturday night. South Carolina 27, Missouri 22.