For most seasons during the Steve Spurrier era, special teams units have been a weakness for South Carolina, though they haven't often cost us games (some of this has to do with the fact that we haven't lost many games, and the fact that of our five losses the last three years, three of the five were by double-digits). However, that old bugaboo came back to haunt the Gamecocks on Saturday.
Against the Volunteers, the Gamecocks matched-up evenly against Tennessee in kickoffs, but in the punt game, Tyler Hull and the Gamecock punt coverage team averaged six fewer net yards per punt in their eight punts than the eight punts by Michael Palardy (40.6 yards to 34.3 yards). That, combined with a missed 45-yard field goal by Elliot Fry and made 37-yard, 33-yard, and and 19-yard (offset by a 46-yard miss) field goals by Michael Palardy led the Volunteers to outplay the Gamecocks by 6.8 points in special teams.
The fact that Carolina outplayed the Voulnteers on both offense and defense takes into account the fact that the Gamecock offense gave away 6 points worth of expected points in its two turnovers, while the defense failed to create a single turnover against the Volunteers (although there's certainly an argument it created one or two).
In a game where Carolina outplayed the Volunteers on a per-play basis both offensively and defensively, those points (combined with an extra possession thanks to Tennessee ending both halves with the ball) were the difference for the Volunteers. South Carolina lost despite gaining over 5.0 yards/carry and 7.5 yards/pass (for exactly 6.0 yards/play), while conceding only 4.9 yards/rush and a glaring 3.6 yards/pass (for a mere 4.2 yards/play). That's a brutal, brutal loss no matter how you slice it.
While there's plenty to be upset about, the one positive is that special teams and turnovers are two of the most variable aspects of football, and the underlying performance by South Carolina suggests the team is still pretty decent. They'll need to be as they head to Columbia, Missouri with their SEC East title hopes hinging on pulling off an upset win over the Tigers.
The Gamecocks have the capacity to bother Missouri in a number of ways offensively on Saturday night. Typically, the offense finds success and is able to do so in a number of ways - they rank 6th in the nation in first down rate at over 80% (achieving at least one first down in a drive), average over 10 yards/play on over 20% of their drives (18th nationally), and take 10 or more plays on over 25% of their drives (4th). The Gamecocks aren't reliant on the run or pass, on explosion or methodicalness. They're good all the way around, though they did struggle with six three-and-outs on Saturday.
That said, they haven't faced a defense as good as Missouri's all year, and they'll have to find success in the less than friendly confines of Faurot Field. Missouri's defense is strong in all phases, particularly against the pass. It'll take a strong effort from the offensive line to keep Dylan Thompson upright long enough to move the ball successfully in the air. With luck, that'll set up the Mike Davis show on the ground, where Missouri has been good but not great on defense.
On the other side of the ball, the Missouri offense played very well in their toughest test to date against the Florida Gators. However, they got a massive assist from the Florida offense, who only managed to stay on the field an average of four plays per drive (read that sentence again). While Missouri obviously had success against the Gators, they were unable to put together sustained touchdown drives. Missouri has been incredibly successful this season moving the ball between the 20s, so it'll be critical to the Gamecocks chances for the defense to hold the Tigers to 3s, not 6s.
The other area the Gamecocks will need to step up is in second- and third-and-long situations. As we saw on 3rd and 10 in Knoxville - and have seen all season - the Gamecocks continue to struggle to get teams off the field, though their seven three-and-outs forced against Tennessee were a welcome sight. Missouri's offense takes it up another level on passing downs, and if Carolina spends 3rd downs giving up long gains, or even too many conversions, the Tigers will likely be too much for them.
Ultimately, this match-up isn't as lopsided as it appears to the layperson basing their opinion solely on the most recent outings of each of these two teams. Clearly, given the point spread, linesmakers and gamblers see something in South Carolina (or in Missouri) that should allow the Gamecocks to hang around. If they can find a way to win the crucial battles - as they weren't able to do last week - then Carolina could find itself right back in the thick of the SEC East race come Sunday morning.