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Now more than ever, Missouri looms as an opportunity for South Carolina

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Bowl eligibility is within reach. Can the Gamecocks take advantage?

NCAA Football: Florida at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The 5-4 South Carolina Gamecocks find themselves entering this weekend at an intriguing and unexpected place: knocking on the door of bowl eligibility.

After a 2-8 COVID-altered campaign that came on the heels of a similarly sad 4-8 mark, no one expected a miracle out of these Gamecocks, who lost a load of talent to attrition and are under a new, first-year head coach in every sense of the word. When the first half of 2021 started with nailbiting wins against the likes of ECU and Troy, and eventually included a last-gasp escape against woeful Vanderbilt sandwiched around multiple blowout losses, you could be forgiven for writing this off as a season of taking your lumps and hoping something comes out of it eventually.

But now, after manhandling the Florida Gators to the tune of setting a program record, the Gamecocks have a chance to do what they haven’t done in two years, as well as accomplish something else they’ve historically struggled with: keeping the momentum going, and not faceplanting after a signature win that could have changed the course of their season.

That brings us to this Saturday’s date against Missouri. These games against the Tigers are usually pretty important — the two programs tend to be on similar footing, both in terms of positioning in the division and the general ability to compete with each other, so there’s always a sense of not wanting to let the other get ahead. With wins so hard to come by in the SEC, these teams circle this contest as a possibility every year, and in some years, as a must-win.

In that case, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this is now the Gamecocks’ most important game of the season. Beat Missouri, and the narrative changes almost completely: not only has a bowl spot been secured, but the program is seen as on the rise, which will do wonders for rehabbing South Carolina’s image with recruits, pundits, and other observers. There’s also a chance that if USC wins, this team is riding high with confidence, in which case being able to compete and possibly steal another win from either Auburn or Clemson enters the picture (in which case the season becomes a genuinely smashing success).

Lose, of course, and the picture gets dimmer. Although Auburn and Clemson are both home games, and neither have been worldbeaters this year (CU, in particular, has its weakest team in nearly a decade), the talent advantage belongs to those rosters, and Clemson still has a top-flight defense to worry about. By any reasonable measure, Missouri remains South Carolina’s last best chance at a win, and a victory in Other Columbia could unlock so much. Can Shane Beamer flip the script and starting writing a different narrative for the Gamecocks? We’ll find out Saturday.