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South Carolina at Missouri preview: Interesting matchups and ridiculously high stakes

Win in the trenches, tackle well, find the open man, score more points than the other team.

Bill Carter

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here. Or just skip to the words. I won't be offended. (Okay, I'll only be a little offended.)

South Carolina at Missouri

Record BCS
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
South Carolina 5-2 21 22 14 24 118
Missouri 7-0 5 9 21 11 86

Let's revisit the updated win probabilities, as posted at SBN on Wednesday.

Mizzou's win probability
at Kentucky (96%)
Tennessee (93%)
Texas A&M (75%)
South Carolina (71%)
at Ole Miss (61%)

When I first unrolled these win probabilities before the Vanderbilt game, they said that, on average, Missouri could expect about 1.21 wins through the first three games. Missouri has three. The Tigers have already turned the two least winnable games on the slate (they originally had a 26 percent chance of beating Georgia and a 31 percent chance of beating Florida) into 15- and 19-point beatdowns. Again, yes, Georgia's and Florida's injuries had a role to play in the final margin. But Mizzou still a) won by a lot in each case and b) did so at least partially without James Franklin and E.J. Gaines. So maybe Mizzou's F/+ ratings are a bit inflated, but not by much. When you see Mizzou projected to win by seven to eight points, maybe think of that more like six. Then again, Mizzou was projected to win by 5.5 last week. And Connor Shaw is out. So yeah. Believe whatever you want to believe.

When Carolina Has The Ball…

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this game will come when South Carolina has the ball on standard downs. When Mizzou's on offense, we basically know what the Tigers are going to try to do at this point, no matter who the quarterback is. Carolina, however, could go in a couple of different directions.

Standard Downs
SD % Run 65.1%
S&P+ Rk 29th 15th
Success Rate 53.8% 46.3%
PPP 0.62 0.43
S&P 1.161 0.896
Rushing S&P 1.067 0.823
Passing S&P 1.335 0.965

So far this year, the Gamecocks have been all sorts of run-heavy on standard downs,  Their run rate of 65 percent is 24th in the country. They will typically throw a heavy dose of running back Mike Davis at you and see if you hold up. But we know that the cheapest yardage you can get against Missouri comes from throwing quickly on standard downs. It didn't even remotely work for Florida last week, but Toledo and Arkansas State did damage in this department in September. And more importantly, South Carolina did damage in this regard to Missouri last year. Steve Spurrier definitely knows the trick. And it will be interesting to see if Mizzou can tackle as well in space against this darty group of receivers.

Targets & Catches
Damiere Byrd: 19 targets, 11 catches, 270 yards (14.2 per target)
Nick Jones: 16 targets, 12 catches, 118 yards (7.4)
Bruce Ellington: 13 targets, 11 catches, 121 yards (9.3)
Shaq Roland: 10 targets, 6 catches, 126 yards (12.6)
Mike Davis: 10 targets, 8 catches, 68 yards (6.8)
Rory Anderson: 7 targets, 4 catches, 46 yards (6.6)

If South Carolina is going deep on play-action, Damiere Byrd is the most likely target. He lines up in the slot quite often and could pose matchup problems if Missouri is intent on staying in its 4-3 (which would handle the run threat) as much as possible. But the short passes could go to any number of wideouts. And while Davis is only being targeted about 1.4 times per game on standard downs, I'd be shocked if he didn't see the ball out of the backfield at least 3-4 times on such downs.

If South Carolina wins this game, it's probably because the Gamecocks dominated on first down. But as we see from the full-season numbers, Missouri's defense has been, on average (and adjusted for opponent) better on standard downs than Carolina's offense.

Passing Downs
PD % Run 35.9%
S&P+ Rk 32nd 39th
Success Rate 38.6% 32.7%
PPP 0.66 0.47
S&P 1.051 0.799
Rushing S&P 0.885 0.950
Passing S&P 1.144 0.744

Technically South Carolina's offense grades out a bit better than Missouri's defense on passing downs, but a) it's close, and b) the defense almost always has a built-in advantage on passing downs. Here's where Dylan Thompson's general lack of mobility (as compared to Connor Shaw, at least) could help out the Tigers. As you see below, Carolina generally stays pretty aggressive on passing downs passes; sending guys downfield means Mizzou's pass rushers have a chance to get to Thompson.

Targets & Catches
Ellington: 18 targets, 9 catches, 208 yards (11.6)
Byrd: 14 targets, 8 catches, 114 yards (8.1)
Anderson: 13 targets, 6 catches, 87 yards (6.7)
Davis: 12 targets, 9 catches, 123 yards (10.3)
Jones: 11 targets, 7 catches, 77 yards (7.0)

Passes to Ellington, Byrd and Anderson, the tight end, have connected just 23 of 45 times (51%) but are averaging 17.8 yards per completion. Screens to Davis have been damn effective, but here's where it comes in handy that Mizzou doesn't blitz much. If only the front three or four are rushing the passer (and doing so pretty well), the counter-punch of a screen has less effect.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

You never know when a redshirt freshman might lay an egg. For all we know, Maty Mauk could do just that on Saturday. But if he doesn't, if he plays at a level comparable to where he was last weekend against Florida, there are certainly points to be scored here.

Standard Downs
SD % Run 52.2%
S&P+ Rk 26th 9th
Success Rate 54.7% 45.2%
PPP 0.66 0.43
S&P 1.203 0.880
Rushing S&P 1.130 0.833
Passing S&P 1.282 0.954

It's counter-intuitive, really, but South Carolina is really good at forcing passing downs but lets you off the hook quite a bit. That's not what you expect from a team that lines up Jadeveon Clowney at end, but the rest of the team hasn't been good enough at getting to the passer to counteract the double-teams on Clowney.

That said, the Gamecocks are still really good on standard downs. They aren't incredibly efficient, but they prevent big plays pretty well and hone in well on the run. Mizzou's a pretty unique matchup, though. If you don't handle blocking very well in space, the Tigers will carve you up with well-blocked receiver screens and whatnot. If you line up too tight, Mauk has shown he has no problem looking downfield. And if you don't protect the line of scrimmage well enough, Mizzou will run and run. This is a wonderfully distinct offense, and while it's only good on standard downs, not great, there could be some options available.

And if recent games are any indication, the first option is Mr. Washington.

Targets & Catches
L'Damian Washington: 33 targets, 22 catches, 393 yards (11.9 per target)
Marcus Lucas: 32 targets, 19 catches, 183 yards (5.7)
Dorial Green-Beckham: 30 targets, 17 catches, 263 yards (8.8)
Bud Sasser: 14 targets, 9 catches, 113 yards (8.1)
Jimmie Hunt: 13 targets, 11 catches, 152 yards (11.7)
Jaleel Clark: 6 targets, 5 catches, 38 yards (6.3)
Darius White: 5 targets, 3 catches, 44 yards (8.8)

I'm really confident in this offense at this point, but if things go very poorly on Saturday, first downs are probably the reason on both sides of the ball. If South Carolina gets a push up front and interferes with Mizzou's gameplan, things could go south.

Passing Downs
PD % Run 37.8%
S&P+ Rk 9th 76th
Success Rate 43.7% 37.0%
PPP 0.70 0.57
S&P 1.139 0.941
Rushing S&P 1.279 0.907
Passing S&P 1.054 0.961

Again, the defense has a built-in advantage on passing downs. But Mizzou will certainly have a chance to make up ground against a defense that is strangely leaky on second- and third-and-long. You don't want to count on passing downs, especially with such a young quarterback, but Mizzou did quite well against the best passing downs defense in the country last week (a 30% success rate, but with 0.67 PPP), and Carolina has given opponents more on such downs than Florida had. Much more, actually.

Targets & Catches
Lucas: 19 targets, 16 catches, 165 yards (8.7)
DGB: 15 targets, 12 catches, 185 yards (12.3)
Washington: 12 targets, 8 catches, 128 yards (10.7)
Sasser: 5 targets, 3 catches, 23 (4.6)

By the way, one of my favorite things about the Josh Henson offense? Look at the run percentages on standard and passing downs. Mizzou passes 10% more than the national average on standard downs and runs 11% more than the national average on passing downs. Third-and-5 is almost a running down in this offense, and opponents can't do anything about it because they're spread from sideline to sideline by threatening receivers. I really, really like this offense...

...but I'd still rather see a lot more third-and-1s than third-and-5s.


So here are the key factors, then:

1. First quarterHere's what I said in my SBN preview this morning:

Against every BCS opponent it has played, Missouri has gone up double-digits in the first half. If South Carolina can strike early a couple of times, an excitable Tiger Homecoming crowd could clam up, and the team could follow suit. Forced to make a play against a Carolina defense with its ears pinned back (and the most acclaimed defensive end in college football just a few steps away), Missouri quarterback Mauk could force some throws and make serious mistakes.

It bears mentioning that late leads haven't really been South Carolina's friend this year. The Gamecocks led Vanderbilt 28-0 in the second quarter and 35-10 in the fourth before the Commodores charged back to make it 35-25. They led UCF, 28-10, in the fourth quarter and won, 28-25. They led Kentucky, 27-7, heading into the fourth quarter and won, 35-28. And last week, they took a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter and lost, 23-21.

Closing games might be an issue for South Carolina, and that's very encouraging considering how Mizzou's played in the final 15 minutes this year. But Mizzou has also mostly dominated out of the chutes. Only Toledo and Arkansas State really managed to land some damaging early punches. If South Carolina can get a couple of early scores, the crowd will get awfully nervous, and it could make Maty Mauk look like the freshman he is.

2. First down. Again, here's where South Carolina could do damage that nobody else has done in conference play. Will the Gamecocks attempt to establish some power running early on, or will the 'Cocks do what they did last year and try to thrive via dump-off? More importantly, whatever they try ... will it work? Because if it does, this is a game to the end. Meanwhile, Mizzou's offense may have some opportunities on passing downs, but will the Tigers be able to avoid facing too many of them?

3. Again, no fatal errors, Maty. Points will probably be at less of a premium in this game than I figured they would be last week. So a single catastrophic error can certainly be survived. But count 'em up again. Mauk is probably allowed a few freshman moments; more than five, though?

4. Line play. Mizzou dominated Vanderbilt in the trenches, split with Georgia (making the big plays and winning the second and fourth quarters, however), and dominated Florida, especially on defense. Winning this battle makes such an enormous difference, as we learned last year when Mizzou never won this battle on offense. If Mizzou's depth shines through once again, and if Jadeveon Clowney doesn't have a "five tackles for loss" coming-out party, it will be very difficult to beat the Tigers.

The F/+ projections say Mizzou wins by something in the neighborhood of 30-23. In recent weeks, the F/+ projections have both a) seemed too optimistic and b) ended up being far too pessimistic. There is plenty of reason to worry here; South Carolina matched up well with Mizzou last year, and even without Connor Shaw this time around (damn, was he good in that game last year), Thompson isn't chopped liver. If Mizzou is missing tackles on the perimeter and giving up some big runs to Davis, this game might not be very fun. But if the Tigers and Gamecocks played 10 times, I like Mizzou to win six or seven times, just because of Carolina's consistency issues. Here's to hoping this is one of the six or seven. Time to move to 8-0. Do what you've been doing, boys. Win in the trenches, tackle well, find the open man, score more points than the other team.

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