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South Carolina v. Missouri - The winner will finish drives

The Tigers come into Columbia a well-balanced unit. Carolina comes in anything but. Can the offense keep USC ahead of Missouri? Or can the defense finally play a complete game?

The Gamecocks need to celebrate touchdowns on Saturday if they want to beat Missouri.
The Gamecocks need to celebrate touchdowns on Saturday if they want to beat Missouri.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As a general rule - and a smart one - folks discount or credit a team's statistics based on the competition its faced.  That said, people frequently forget that offensive and defensive strength of schedule do not necessarily relate to one another.  While the South Carolina defense has faced one of the most difficult strength of schedules in the nation, the offense has faced a challenging, but not overly daunting, collection of defenses.  This isn't to pick on the offense, but rather to note that most teams bring to the ballyard offensive and defensive units of differing strengths.

Not Missouri.  The Tigers come into Columbia with two above-average units on each side of the ball, but nothing that truly threatens to overwhelm the Gamecocks.  Rather, Missouri seems almost a test case for the two units.  Can the Carolina offense light up the scoreboard so that Missouri's good but not great offense simply can't keep pace?  Or might the Gamecock defense wilt against the Tigers' decent offense, as they seem to have against every opponent thus far, including the lackluster Vanderbilt offense they faced last week?

Record AP Rank F/+ Rank S&P+ Rank FEI Rank
South Carolina 3-1 (2-1) 13th 23 23 23
Missouri 3-1 (0-0) NR 26 28 16

Speaking of a model of consistency, advanced statistics agree that the Gamecocks come into this game as a fringe top-25 team.  On the other hand, the Tigers could be a little better or worse depending on if you prefer drive-based statistics (FEI) or play-by-play data (S&P+).

While both teams come into this game at 3-1, they're each at very different parts of their season.  This game marks the halfway point for the Gamecocks in the SEC East race, and a win gives them the tiebreaker against three of six Eastern teams, with Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida still to play.  Given Carolina's upcoming game at Auburn, a sweep of the East may allow them to drop their game in Jordan-Hare Stadium and still march to the Eastern Division title, unless one of the non-Vanderbilt Eastern teams can run the table.

As for Missouri, they finished their non-conference obligations last week with a disappointing loss to Indiana, after beginning the season with wins over South Dakota State, Toledo, and UCF.  Thus, their SEC destiny remains entirely unwritten at this point, and a win over Carolina would put them in the best position of any SEC East team as the calendar rolls to October.

When South Carolina has the ball
USC Offense Missouri Defense
S&P+ 126.5 (10th) 111.2 (36th)
Success Rate 43.2% (38th) 34.8% (46th)
IsoPPP 0.96 (59th) 0.91 (62nd)
Rushing S&P 0.489 (56th) 0.466 (75th)
Passing S&P 0.581 (39th) 0.454 (26th)
Std. Downs S&P 0.550 (49th) 0.521 (85th)
Pass. Downs S&P 0.527 (44th) 0.366 (14th)

The Gamecocks come into this game with relatively weak numbers when you look at the un-adjusted ratings, due to their relatively difficult strength of schedule (three of their games have been tougher than Missouri's toughest to this point).  Yet, they still match or out-pace the Tigers in most categories, with one exception - passing downs.

So far this season, Missouri has found another gear when its put opponents behind schedule.  Carolina's done a decent job in all aspects of the game so far this season, but at times Dylan Thompson puts the team a little behind schedule.  That plays right into the hands of Missouri's best players, including star defensive end Markus Golden, who missed the Indiana game with an injury.

When Missouri has the ball
Missouri Offense USC Defense
S&P+ 113.0 (31st) 100.9 (62nd)
Success Rate 45.1% (23rd) 44.6% (121st)
IsoPPP 0.96 (61st) 0.93 (74th)
Rushing S&P 0.478 (57th) 0.516 (104th)
Passing S&P 0.620 (20th) 0.566 (109th)
Std. Downs S&P 0.561 (39th) 0.557 (109th)
Pass. Downs S&P 0.533 (39th) 0.517 (98th)

Again - adjust for strength of schedule.  However, as we detailed in our box score breakdown of Vanderbilt, even with those adjustments, this unit struggles, as its 62nd in the nation ranking indicates (this would be the lowest rating for any Carolina unit since Spurrier arrived, and the only unit to finish outside the top 40 in that timeframe).  This is a very weak defense so far, and if it fails to improve, the Gamecocks can't realistically expect to contend for a championship of any sort.

It's hard to glean much of what Carolina does well from these numbers, but we do know that Missouri doesn't really trade efficiency for explosiveness.  Unsurprisingly with the loss of Henry Josey, the Tiger running game took a step back this season, despite an offensive line that returned five players with starting experience.  However, Missouri's passing game has continued to shine under Maty Mauk, who started against South Carolina last season in place of the oft-injured James Franklin.

Of course, with the Gamecocks conceding over five yards an attempt on the ground in their first four games, Missouri could spend this Saturday finding the ground game they thought they'd bring into the 2014 campaign.  Then again, with the pass defense still yielding over eight yards an attempt, why mess with a good thing?

Special teams
South Carolina Missouri
ST Points -1.1 +10.1
Field Position Adv. .470 (90th) .506 (57th)
Avg. Field Pos. 72.8 (98th) 72.3 (98th)
Avg. Opp. Field Pos. 69.2 (87th) 71.9 (50th)
Delta -3.6 (96th) -0.3 (64th)

Aside from the two kickoff fiascos on Saturday, Carolina's been somewhat competent on special teams this season, particularly in the punt game (thanks, Tyler Hull!) and in field goals (Elliott Fry is 7-8 so far).  However, this -1.1 special teams points is somewhat inflated by the fact that opponents are just 8-12 on field goals against USC, though the fact that Carolina blocked two of those attempts counts in their favor.

That said, kickoff coverage remains woeful (average return yardage of 29.4 rates 126th out of 128 FBS teams) and neither return game does much of anything, with that 21.5 yard mark ranking 58th in the nation and the 2.0 yard per punt return average ranking 117th.

If the game stays close, a huge special teams play could tilt the balance.  It seems likely that if that play comes on a kickoff or a punt, it's going to go Missouri's way.  But, as we learned last year, if it comes on a field goal, Carolina should like its chances (Andrew Baggett, who you may remember from last year's content, is 4-6 so far this year).

Final Thoughts

There's no reason to feel great about this game as a Carolina fan.  There's plenty of scripts where the Gamecocks come out ahead, most of them involving Dylan Thompson playing like he did against Georgia, not like he did in the first quarter of the Vanderbilt game, where Carolina missed some shots down the field early that could've changed the entire trajectory of that match-up.  If the Gamecocks and Tigers get into a scoring contest - and they might - you feel good that the Gamecocks can keep up.

The question becomes can the Gamecock defense continue to make stops.  While they've struggled mightily to make anyone punt all season - Carolina's forced only eight punts in their first four games - the Gamecock defense has bowed up in the red zone against everyone but Texas A&M.

In fact, when you look back at the three Carolina wins, it's big advantages when the ball crosses the 40 that's led to their success - they out-paced the Pirates by averaging 4.7 points a trip to their 3.3, and posted an outstanding 6.3 point-per-trip average against Georgia's 4.4 (the difference in that game).  And again in Nashville, the Gamecocks averaged 5.3 points a trip to Vandy's 4.0, though unlike those first two games, the Gamecocks finally took more scoring trips than their opponent, the only time they've pulled that off all year.

Missouri's done the same - they've bested their opponent in three of four match-ups when they've moved the ball downfield, and the time they didn't, it resulted in a loss.

Missouri Opponent
S. Dak. St. 4.43 3.40
Toledo 7.00 4.80
UCF 6.20 2.00
Indiana 5.40 5.20

Given the Gamecock offense and defense, expect each team to take plenty of trips into opposing territory.  The way those drives conclude likely decides this game.