This post continues my series discussing our 2013 opponents. Today, we're talking about a fairly interesting game, our first-ever trip to Columbia, MO to take on the Missouri Tigers. The Gamecocks have taken on the recent additions to the SEC East just three times over the course of our history. Two were in bowls, the 1979 Hall of Fame Bowl and the 2005 Independence Bowl, both Mizzou wins. In last year's first meeting of the two teams as conference foes, the Gamecocks won in style on the strength of one of Connor Shaw's best games and a stifling defensive performance.
There's been a lot of discussion lately of whether Mizzou has what it takes to compete in the SEC after the Tigers struggled during last year's 5-7 record in its first year of play in the conference. Some of that discussion has taken place here at GABA, and I agree in spirit with what Connor had to say about the topic. Particularly for fans of a South Carolina program that took it's lumps before becoming a force in the conference, it's a little shortsighted to say that Mizzou can't compete. They clearly weren't ready last year, as injuries exposed their lack of depth. It's also worth wondering whether Missouri has the recruiting base to remedy that deficiency. The in-state base isn't known as a hotbed of talent, although the fact that Mizzou is the only major program in the state coupled with the draw membership in the SEC may have to big-time recruits in surrounding states without an SEC program may mean that Mizzou can build its roster by locking down its borders and poaching good players from its neighbors. In any event, even if this program isn't ready to win big right now and has question marks going forward, it's too early to say that it won't ever be able to find a winning formula.
As for this season, while it remains questionable whether the Tigers can compete for a division title, there is some reason for them to be optimistic that they can return to postseason play and maybe even win eight or nine games. The first four games are winnable OOC matchups, and the Tigers could get to six wins by beating Tennessee at home and Kentucky on the road. Road games against Vandy and Ole Miss provide additional opportunities. Mizzou gets South Carolina, Florida, and Texas A&M at home, and while those will obviously be tough games, there's some potential for upsets; Mizzou is fortunate in getting so many of its toughest opponents at home. Georgia on the road is the only game that looks particularly unwinnable. In all likelihood, they'll probably lose to USC, UF, TAMU, and UGA, with another loss thrown in there to Ole Miss or Vandy, ending in a seven-win season or so.
Offensively, the Tigers will look to take a second shot at reproducing their prolific Big 12 offense in the SEC. There is some reason for optimism. James Franklin was projected to be a breakout star in the SEC last year, but he struggled with SEC pass rushes and with staying healthy. Consequently, the passing game never really took off despite a bevy of talent at receiver. If he can stay healthier this year, he may have a better season. The Tigers lose leading rusher Kendial Lawrence but have some quality players waiting in the wings, including 2011 leading rusher Henry Josey, who didn't play last year due to a knee injury. At receiver, they lose star T.J. Moe but again have some quality players waiting to take a bigger role, particularly former uber-recruit Dorial Green-Bechkham, who came on strong at the end of last season.
The big question for Mizzou on offense regards line play. Last year, the line struggled with the speed and physicality of SEC defensive lines, and it was devastated by injuries. The good news there is that many younger players got big-game experience, which may pay off this year. Still, there remain questions regarding whether an outfit that was recruited to block for a finesse offense is capable of maintaining health and physicality over the course of a season in the SEC. Mizzou apologists excuse the team's struggles last year in part based on what they describe as an unlucky streak of injuries on the offensive line, but it's par for the course in the SEC for your offensive line to take a beating over the course of the year. The good teams are the ones whose lines have the power and depth to fight through that adversity. Can Mizzou be that team this year? That's not at all clear.
Defensively, Mizzou had some decent players last year, including some who return, such as star corner E.J. Gaines. However, outside of do-it-all tackle Sheldon Richardson, who departs, this defense struggled to be disruptive and to impose its will on the better offenses in the conference. The way South Carolina methodically moved the ball up and down the field against the Tigers was indicative of Mizzou's inability to line up and compete defensively, particularly in the trenches, against teams with physical, diversified offenses. In particular, Mizzou needs to improve dramatically on the defensive line if it's going to do any better than it did last season.
In short, this game is probably most frightening to Gamecocks fans because it comes at the tail end of a relatively difficult road trip. However, unless we regress and Mizzou improves dramatically, there's no reason Carolina shouldn't win this game. Whatever happens in the other Columbia over the long run, right now, there's a world of difference between these two program.