South Carolina at Missouri
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium in Columbia
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Line: Missouri by 2 1/2
The lowdown: The Tigers and Gamecocks open Southeastern Conference play early, and it’s a game rife with bowl implications. Mizzou hasn’t reached the postseason since finishing the 2014 season with a win against Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl. Beating South Carolina may well be a prerequisite for snapping that drought. On paper, a home game against Will Muschamp’s squad is the easiest conference game on the schedule. The Tigers’ other SEC home games are against ranked teams — Auburn, Florida and Tennessee — while there are no gimmes on the road docket at Kentucky, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
Missouri keys to success: Tackling, tackling, tackling. Missouri’s offense ought to light up most opponents if junior quarterback Drew Lock remains healthy. Sophomore running back Damarea Crockett is making a case as the SEC’s best running back and the Tigers’ pass-catching talent — receivers J’Mon Moore, Jonathon Johnson, Dimetrios Mason, Emanuel Hall, along with tight ends Jason Reese, Kendall Blanton and Albert Okwuegbunam — is terrific. But MU’s defense coughed up 43 points to Missouri State of the Football Championship Subdivision’s Missouri Valley Conference thanks in large part to awful tackling. That has to change for second-year coach Barry Odom’s squad to win moving forward.
South Carolina keys to success: Give the Gamecocks full credit for going to Charlotte and knocking off North Carolina State 35-28 in the season-opener. It’s a quality win, but the result obscured some issues on offense. The Wolfpack dominated time of possession (36:41) partly because Muschamp’s squad deployed an anemic rushing attack. Sophomore running back Rico Dowdle managed only 27 yards on 12 carries, but his 2.2-yard average was actually better the Gamecocks’ team average of 1.5 (21 carries for 31 yards). A repeat performance will make it hard for South Carolina to keep pace with Missouri’s potent offense.
South Carolina player to watch: Gamecocks sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley is immensely talented. His on-the-run, third-quarter bomb after escaping the pocket to Deebo Samuel is a thing of beauty. Bentley finished 17 of 29 for 215 yards with three touchdowns and an interception against North Carolina State, so keeping him in the pocket and limiting deep-ball opportunities will be critical for Mizzou’s defense against South Carolina.
Key matchup: Junior wide receiver Deebo Samuel vs. Missouri’s secondary: Aside from senior cornerback and Lee’s Summit West graduate Logan Cheadle and freshman reserve Adam Sparks, the Tigers’ secondary ranged from lackluster to downright awful against Missouri State. Samuel might be one of the nation’s best receivers. He torched MU for nine catches, 125 yards and a touchdown last season. If sophomore DeMarkus Acy doesn’t rebound and the Tigers’ safeties don’t play with more discipline and tackle better, Samuel may be poised for an even bigger game.
Prediction: Mizzou 41-35