With senior Connor Shaw taking the snaps and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney lining up at defensive end, it was a fair assumption in August that South Carolina would be one of the two participants in the most important game of the year in the SEC East.
It will be, although not many people had Missouri pegged as its opponent.
The Gamecocks will visit Missouri on Saturday in what is the most important game in the SEC East this season. The 7-0 Tigers are ranked fifth in the BCS standings, have a two-game cushion in the division standings and hold head-to-head tiebreakers over Georgia and Florida.
|SEC East Standings|
|Team||Conf. Record||Overall Record||Remaining SEC Games|
|Missouri||3-0||7-0||South Carolina, Tennessee, at Kentucky, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M|
|South Carolina||3-2||5-2||at Missouri, Mississippi State, Florida|
|Georgia||3-2||4-3||Florida (Jax), at Auburn, Kentucky|
|Florida||3-2||4-3||Georgia (Jax), Vanderbilt, at South Carolina|
|Tennessee||1-2||4-3||at Alabama, at Missouri, Auburn, Vanderbilt at Kentucky|
|Vanderbilt||1-3||4-3||at Texas A&M, at Florida, Kentucky, at Tennessee|
|Kentucky||0-3||1-5||at Mississippi State, Missouri, at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, Tennessee|
Just how big is this game for both programs?
With only three games remaining on its SEC schedule, South Carolina can't afford to have the gap in the division widen with a loss to the Tigers. While they're the new kid on the block, and not a team many people expected to be in this situation, head coach Steve Spurrier isn't sleeping on Missouri.
"We are looking forward to playing Missouri, maybe the hottest team in the conference other than Alabama," Spurrier said. "They have got a lot of momentum and they're a very good team with a good defense, offense, special teams. They can do it all."
Missouri's offense is averaging 513.4 yards per game this season—the second-best mark in the SEC. While the play of the Tigers offense has drawn headlines, the surprise has been how well the defense has played.
The Tigers are giving up 381 yards per game, lead the SEC with 23 sacks, are second with 54 tackles for loss and lead the SEC in turnover margin at 1.43 turnovers gained per game.
"They don't have any fat guys out there playing," Spurrier said. "They are a quick defense. They play their zones extremely well. Very seldomly do you see a guy out of position. They play a little bit of man-to-man of course. It's hard to tell exactly what coverage they're in. They can get excellent pressure without blitzing, although every new and then they'll blitz too."
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel credits the play of defensive Michael Sam—who leads the conference with nine sacks—as the man setting the tone for the Tigers.
"[Sam] has raised the bar for high-level play every play," Pinkel said. "It's kind of contagious."
That Missouri defense will facing backup quarterback Dylan Thompson, who Spurrier confirmed would be the starting quarterback for Saturday's game after starter Connor Shaw was knocked out of last week's loss to Tennessee with a sprained knee.
"It's time to let Dylan [Thompson] show what he can do," Spurrier said. "Connor is probably going to be able to back up Thompson this week. He's not going to practice much this week but should be OK by Saturday night."
Thompson is no stranger to the starting lineup. He topped the 300-yard mark last year in Shaw's stead versus Clemson, threw for 261 yards against UCF when Shaw hurt his shoulder earlier this season and played well in last season's Outback Bowl while splitting time with Shaw.
If South Carolina gets the win and wins out against Mississippi State and Florida, it would put an enormous amount of pressure on Missouri to protect its division lead. Missouri has games against Tennessee, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Texas A&M left, with the final two games taking place after the Gamecocks will have wrapped up their conference schedule.
At that point, not only would the target be on Missouri's back, but all eyes would be on Missouri as South Carolina sits in the clubhouse and waits.
Of course, there are still variables. Georgia, with two conference losses, could win out, Tennessee could spring the upset on Alabama and get into contention, and there could easily be multi-team ties to muddle the SEC East title picture.
Success isn't new to Pinkel, and he recognizes the importance of this game and the need for his fans to make Faurot Field a hostile atmosphere on Saturday night against the Gamecocks.
"There's a lot of energy around, but it was there last week and the week before," Pinkel said. "It'll be full. I constantly talk to [our fans] about being 'SEC fans', because they set the bar around the country. Our fans have done a great job, and we're excited that we're playing here."
This will be the game of the year in the SEC East.
If Missouri wins, it's over. The Tigers would hold on to their two-game cushion over the two teams it holds tiebreakers over. It would drop the Gamecocks to three conference losses, where they'll likely be joined by Tennessee after the Vols visit Alabama this weekend.
That's too much separation.
But if the Gamecocks spring the upset, all bets are off, and the race to Atlanta in the SEC could be a photo finish.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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