Columbia, SC (SportsNetwork.com) - After being dropped from the likes of the nationally ranked, the Missouri Tigers will try to get back on the winning track as they open their SEC schedule with a road bout against the 13th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Missouri opened the campaign with three straight wins over South Dakota State (38-18), Toledo (49-24) and UCF (38-10) to ascend to No. 18 in the AP Poll, but it closed out its non-conference slate of games with a disappointing home loss to Indiana, 31-27. The Tigers took the lead on a field goal with 2:20 to play only to surrender the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
"Any time there's a game that close you can go back and find a lot of little things that could have been different," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "Ultimately, it plays out the way it does. Like any game, win or lose, we'll go back and evaluate what we've done and where need to improve and things we can correct."
While Missouri is trending downward, South Carolina is on the upswing. Since losing to nationally-ranked Texas A&M on opening night (52-28), the Gamecocks have reeled off three straight wins, including a pair in league play over Georgia (38-35) and Vanderbilt (48-34) to get off to an early lead in the SEC Eastern Division.
Coach Steve Spurrier is keeping an even keel despite his team's hot streak.
"We're not a very good team, but we're 3-1 somehow," he said. "We got all the voters fooled thinking we're pretty good and I guess that's because we beat Georgia...I'll try to get smarter in the future and hopefully we can get better."
Each side has beaten the other twice in the all-time series, with South Carolina winning both matchups since Missouri joined the SEC in 2012. The Gamecocks outlasted the Tigers in double-overtime last season, 27-24.
Missouri's offense has been on point through the first month of the season with 38.0 ppg and 430.0 ypg, but while it racked up over 500 yards of offense in last week's loss, it scored a touchdown on just 1-of-3 red zone drives.
Maty Mauk has played well in his first season as the full-time starting quarterback, completing 61.6 percent of his passes for 978 yards with 15 touchdowns (one rushing), although he's also been prone to mistakes with four interceptions.
Bud Sasser has emerged as Mauk's primary target, as he's reeled in 24 passes and four touchdowns, while ranking in the top-20 nationally in receiving yards (368). Jimmie Hunt (16 receptions, 198 yards, five TDs) and Darius White (15 receptions, 230 yards, three TDs) round out one of the best receiving trios in the country.
Russell Hansbrough has shined in the backfield by turning 57 carries into 377 yards (6.6 ypc) and three touchdowns. Marcus Murphy racks up the all-purpose yardage in a multitude of roles with 215 rushing, 81 receiving and 218 return yards, while scoring a pair of touchdowns.
Although the defense let the team down late in last week's loss, the Tigers have generally been strong on that side of the ball in allowing just 20.8 ppg and 391.8 ypg, while forcing nine turnovers.
The strength of the unit comes in its pass rush, with Shane Ray (9.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks, FF) and Markus Golden (6.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) generating plenty of pressure in the backfield. Michael Scherer has racked up a team-high 41 tackles and Aarion Penton has a pair of interceptions.
Since scoring 28 points in its opener, South Carolina has improved offensively with each game, culminating in a 48-point explosion versus Vanderbilt. The unit now averages 36.8 ppg and 442.5 ypg.
Just like Mauk, Dylan Thompson is also impressing in his first season as a starter by completing 62 percent of his throws for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions while running in a pair of scores as well.
Mike Davis hasn't been very explosive in the backfield but has nonetheless been solid with 58 carries for 264 yards and two touchdowns. Brandon Wilds (40 carries, 210 yards, TD) also sees plenty of work at tailback.
Pharoh Cooper shined in the Vanderbilt win with 10 receptions for 114 yards in addition to ripping off a 70-yard run. He now has a team-high 21 receptions on the season for 244 yards and two scores.
"Pharoh can just do it all," Thompson said. "We saw that (against Vanderbilt). He's just a humble kid that comes to work every day, so you have to appreciate that."
Nick Jones has been impressive in his own right out wide with 17 receptions for 259 yards and three scores.
While the Gamecocks' offense has soared, the defense has fallen well short of lofty preseason expectations by ranking 13th in the SEC in scoring defense (36.0 ppg) and last in total defense (480.0 ypg).
The unit has forced just four turnovers in four games and has only four sacks. Skai Moore (28 tackles, sack) and T.J. Gurley (24 tackles, INT) are the only standouts for the disappointing unit.