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Missouri at South Carolina preview: Line play and quarterbacks should tell the tale

With good line play and a nice game from Maty Mauk, Missouri will give itself a chance to win at South Carolina. But at home, the Gamecocks have the clear edge.

Kevin C. Cox

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Missouri at South Carolina

Record AP
F/+ Rk S&P+ Rk
Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
Missouri 3-1
26 28 33 28
South Carolina 3-1 13 23 23 9 47

South Carolina 32, Missouri 28 (Mizzou: 36% chance of winning)

Missouri and South Carolina have taken drastically different roads to 3-1. One faced a schedule that was neither cakey nor brutal, looking excellent in two wins and awful in a loss. The other has faced a rugged three-game stretch to start the season, got smoked by what now appears to be a top-10 team, won two tough battles over top-40 teams, then looked pretty sketchy against a bad Vanderbilt team. One has looked both good and bad at times on both offense and defense. The other has looked mostly good on offense and mostly bad on defense. According to the odds below, this is the second least-likely win remaining on Missouri's schedule (thanks to home-road status, basically), but if Missouri can shore up its sudden line issues, and if Markus Golden is healthy enough to be Markus Golden, then the Tigers can give themselves a shot. South Carolina is fast and battle-tested but hasn't been nearly as good as expected this year.

F/+ Win Probability (remaining games)
Vanderbilt (92%, down 2% from last week)
Kentucky (86%, down 3%)
at Tennessee (70%, down 6%)
Arkansas (69%, down 10%)
at Florida (63%, down 1%)
Georgia (57%, down 7%)
at South Carolina (36%, down 6%)
at Texas A&M (23%, down 11%)

In one week, Mizzou's projected win total dropped from 9.2 to 8.0. That's what happens when a) you lose, b) you look bad losing, and c) most of the other teams on your schedule perform pretty well. If we think of anything over 70% as a "likely win," Mizzou went from five last week (Vandy, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, Arkansas) to two, although obviously UT and UA are right on that borderline. That's a pretty clear illustration of what happens when you play as poorly as the Tigers did last Saturday. Saturday will help us to determine whether the Indiana game was an aberration or the start of a trend.

When South Carolina Has The Ball…

NOTE: The stats below are not the "+" stats that are adjusted for opponent because four weeks into the season, opponent adjustments only have so much value. But keep that in mind, especially as you look at the rankings below. They require quite a bit of context -- for instance, South Carolina's tougher-than-most schedule to date.

ACTUALLY, ONE MORE NOTE: Below, I'm also using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

OKAY, FINE, ONE MORE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
SC Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 61% (47th)

Success Rate 50.6% (49th) 48.4% (82nd) SC
IsoPPP 0.80 (54th) 0.78 (83rd) SC
Rushing Success Rate 49.1% (55th) 44.1% (53rd) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.69 (65th) 0.82 (103th) SC
Passing Success Rate 52.9% (46th) 56.1% (115th) SC big
Passing IsoPPP 0.97 (49th) 0.72 (31st) push

Adjusting for opponent, South Carolina's offense has been pretty decent on standard downs. Not spectacular, but solid ... and good enough to take advantage of a Missouri team that is pretty conservative and reactive when an offense isn't behind schedule. The rushing IsoPPP ranking above is still getting hurt by Zach Zenner's flukey broken-play touchdown on the first play of the season, but it's certainly not hurt as significantly at this point. Tevin Coleman's own steady running last week also contributed to Missouri's No. 103 Rushing IsoPPP ranking.

If there's a silver lining in the numbers above, it's that big pass plays haven't really been that big against Missouri. One of the most worrisome aspects of South Carolina's passing attack is the depth of speed at receiver. Nick Jones, Pharoh Cooper, Shaq Roland, and Damiere Byrd are all proven playmakers to some degree, and if Missouri has to focus its attention toward stopping the run, it's not hard to imagine a receiver getting behind coverage. The numbers above suggest that Mizzou might just allow itself to get hurt by the run to prevent the big pass, at least until South Carolina gets into scoring position; we'll see.

Targets & Catches
Nick Jones: 16 targets, 14 catches (88%), 193 yards (12.1 per target), 3 TD
Pharoh Cooper: 15 targets, 11 catches (73%), 110 yards (7.3), 2 TD
Shaq Roland: 13 targets, 9 catches (69%), 116 yards (8.9), 1 TD
Rory Anderson (TE): 12 targets, 7 catches (58%), 101 yards (8.4)
Damiere Byrd: 8 targets, 1 catch (13%), 29 yards (3.6), 1 TD
Mike Davis (RB): 5 targets, 5 catches (100%), 27 yards (5.4)
Jerell Adams (TE): 2 targets, 1 catch (50%), 27 yards (13.5)
Brandon Wilds (RB): 2 targets, 1 catch (50%), 24 yards (12.0)
K.J. Brent: 2 targets, 1 catch (50%), 13 yards (6.5)

Dylan Thompson has done a nice job of spreading the ball around to a large number of targets on standard downs. He hasn't really played favorites, distributing almost equally to four primary targets and occasionally looking toward deep-threat Byrd or the running backs. Missouri is still a bit uncertain at the cornerback position -- Aarion Penton is doing a solid job, but it's been pick-your-poison between Kenya Dennis (not incredibly fast) and John Gibson (fast but inconsistent) -- and Thompson will have no qualms throwing to his No. 3 or No. 4 receiver if there's a matchup advantage.

Still, a large portion of South Carolina's attack will be based around handing to Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds. Missouri can live with a couple of big pass plays if Davis and Wilds are averaging 3-5 yards per carry instead of 5-7.

Passing Downs
SC Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 22% (110th)

Success Rate 36.7% (37th) 22.4% (20th) push
IsoPPP 1.18 (53rd) 0.91 (21st) MU
Rushing Success Rate 29.4% (60th) 16.7% (23rd) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.84 (91st) 1.04 (74th) push
Passing Success Rate 38.7% (37th) 24.6% (29th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.25 (43rd) 0.87 push

Targets & Catches
Pharoh Cooper: 13 targets, 11 catches (85%), 150 yards (11.5 per target)
Shaq Roland: 10 targets, 5 catches (50%), 60 yards (6.0), 1 TD
Rory Anderson (TE): 8 targets, 2 catches (25%), 27 yards (3.4), 1 TD
Nick Jones: 7 targets, 3 catches (43%), 66 yards (9.4)
Mike Davis (RB): 6 targets, 5 catches (83%), 48 yards (8.0)
Brandon Wilds (RB): 5 targets, 4 catches (80%), 27 yards (5.4)
Jerell Adams (TE): 5 targets, 2 catches (40%), 27 yards (5.4)
Damiere Byrd: 3 targets, 2 catches (67%), 70 yards (23.3), 1 TD
K.J. Brent: 2 targets, 2 catches (100%), 26 yards (13.0)

Thus far, South Carolina has gone all-in on the pass on passing downs. Thompson isn't much of a run threat, and if he's going to get the ball to running backs, it's as likely to be via dump-off as hand-off.

Well ... this has been the case against other teams. We'll see what happens with a Missouri team that has closed out drives quite well, in part because of its pass rush. Through three weeks, Mizzou had made more havoc plays with its line than any team in the country, and as we saw against UCF, if the Tigers have a lead in the second half, they're pinning their ears back and coming after the quarterback. Steve Spurrier's a smart guy, an if Mizzou gets overly aggressive, Thompson will try to pick the defense apart with short passes. At the same time, however, Thompson isn't the best at handling pass pressure. If Mizzou can get to him a couple of times, he might start rushing throws.

South Carolina hasn't been particularly aggressive on passing downs -- Thompson's top two targets are averaging just 13.1 yards per catch, which isn't a lot on more big-play reliant second- or third-and-longs. He'll occasionally try to go deeper, but he hasn't been amazingly successful at it. The goal for the 'Cocks on these downs is just to catch back up to the chains, not strike it rich.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense SC Defense Advantage
SD % Run 60% (51st)

Success Rate 50.8% (48th) 53.9% (116th) MU big
IsoPPP 0.85 (44th) 0.77 (80th) MU
Rushing Success Rate 48.6% (62nd) 53.6% (106th) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.58 (85th) 0.78 (97th) push
Passing Success Rate 54.2% (36th) 54.1% (110th) MU big
Passing IsoPPP 1.21 (19th) 0.77 (51st) MU

Both offenses hold most of the standard downs advantages. Again, take into account the fact that South Carolina has faced the Texas A&M, East Carolina, and Georgia offenses so far -- when it says SC ranks 116th in Standard Downs Success Rate, realize that an opponent-adjusted figure would rank them quite a bit higher. Still, these numbers are bad, particularly the efficiency numbers. If Mizzou's line plays like it did in the first three games of the year (that is, a bit inconsistent but solid overall) instead of like it did in Game 4 (error-prone and leaky up the middle), the Tigers should be able to establish the run and move the chains. If they can remain steady in their execution, they'll score some points.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 18 targets, 17 catches (94%), 226 yards (12.6 per target), 3 TD
Darius White: 15 targets, 8 catches (53%), 127 yards (8.5), 2 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 13 targets, 10 catches (77%), 118 yards (9.1), 4 TD
Marcus Murphy: 11 targets, 7 catches (64%), 68 yards (6.2)
Sean Culkin (TE): 8 targets, 4 catches (50%), 33 yards (4.1), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 4 targets, 3 catches (75%), 21 yards (5.3)
Wesley Leftwich: 2 targets, 1 catch (50%), 5 yards (2.5)

BUD SASSER HAS CAUGHT 17 OF 18 PASSES ON STANDARD DOWNS. Holy moly. He and Jimmie Hunt have been wonderfully consistent targets on these downs, and that's a good thing considering a potential deep threat in Darius White is out for Saturday. We haven't seen new starter Wesley Leftwich's track speed turn into football speed yet, but if he (or J'Mon Moore, or a freshman) can just catch the two to four passes thrown his way on standard downs, it will keep South Carolina's mostly young secondary (which will likely feature CB-turned-safety-turned-CB Brison Williams trying to muscle up Sasser) honest. Do that and get four to six yards running the ball, and you're in good shape.

Passing Downs
MU Offense SC Defense Advantage
PD % Run 20% (115th)

Success Rate 40.0% (22nd) 40.6% (120th) MU big
IsoPPP 1.08 (79th) 1.02 (43rd) SC
Rushing Success Rate 38.5% (26th) 32.1% (95th) MU big
Rushing IsoPPP 0.82 (95th) 0.99 (66th) SC
Passing Success Rate 40.4% (30th) 46.3% (122th) MU big
Passing IsoPPP 1.15 (62nd) 1.03 (48th) push

Targets & Catches
Jimmie Hunt: 12 targets, 6 catches (50%), 80 yards (6.7 per target), 1 TD
Bud Sasser: 9 targets, 6 catches (67%), 131 yards (14.6), 1 TD
Darius White: 8 targets, 7 catches (88%), 103 yards (12.9), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 6 targets, 3 catches (50%), 53 yards (8.8)
Marcus Murphy: 5 targets, 1 catch (20%), 13 yards (2.6), 1 TD
Wesley Leftwich: 2 targets, 1 catch (50%), 5 yards (2.5)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 2 targets, 2 catches (100%), -10 yards (-5.0)

Mizzou continues to basically say "Hey Maty, go make a play" on passing downs. And it's working. Mizzou's not breaking huge gainers, but they're catching back up to schedule pretty frequently. That was the case even last week, when Mizzou was struggling to avoid falling behind schedule.

That Mauk has been so consistently strong at making a play on what I often call the play-maker downs is huge against a South Carolina team that has struggled dramatically in this regard. Again, even adjusting for opponent, South Carolina's passing downs success rates are awful. The Gamecocks aren't giving up huge plays, but they're giving up whatever leverage they've generated.

As mentioned in Thursday's defensive piece, South Carolina's inability to make disruptive plays -- to get to the quarterback, to get hands on passes, etc. -- has been its downfall to date. Its overall numbers should improve, both as opponents adjustments are taken further into account and as its load of young cornerbacks and (to a degree) linemen gain more experience. But it has struggled to get off of the field, and while the SC offense should find some advantages, Mizzou's offense should find some as well.


So here are the key factors:

1. Duh, line play

After the dreadful 2012 season, we didn't need a reminder of how important offensive line play is to Mizzou's (or any team's) success, but we got it last Saturday regardless. Maty Mauk was fielding bad snaps, false starts were prevalent, and Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy were finding no room to run between the tackles. Almost every good play Missouri had involved getting either a running back or Mauk himself outside of the tackle box. It worked at times, but it didn't work nearly enough.

Quite simply, if Missouri is able to do its job competently up front -- solid snaps, minimal penalties, decent blocking -- South Carolina should oblige by allowing the Tigers to make some plays. But if the line is turning first-and-10s into first-and-15s or allowing the Gamecocks to get more penetration than they have against anybody else this season, then Mizzou simply won't be able to keep up on the scoreboard. Mitch Morse promised the best practice week of the season; if he's right, and Mizzou's freshly shuffled line holds up, Mizzou will have a chance.

2. Get to Thompson, don't almost get to him

When healthy (and for the sake of this preview, we're assuming Markus Golden is at least 90% on Saturday), Mizzou has perhaps the most destructive pair of defensive ends in the country. Shane Ray is tied for first in the country with 9.5 tackles for loss, and despite missing a game, Golden is still tied for 11th at 6.5. When they're both on the field, Missouri can get strong pass pressure without blitzing, which frees linebackers to make tackles on short passes and limits the potential damage of screen passes.

South Carolina's got a good standard downs offense (and Mizzou doesn't really have a great standard downs defense) and should have some success with Davis and Wilds running behind an enormous line. And I would expect the Gamecocks to hit on at least one or two deeper passes. But there will still be passing downs, and Mizzou has to clean up when it gets the chance. That means hitting Dylan Thompson as frequently as possible and making the secondary's job as pain-free as possible against a deep receiving corps. Don't almost get to Thompson when you have the chance, get to him.

3. Hey Maty, go make a play

Mizzou probably needs a passing downs success rate at or above 40%. Mauk's only road starts so far have come against Kentucky and Toledo, so this will easily be the most hostile environment he's faced for 60 minutes. Yes, he did play in the fourth quarter of the Georgia game last year, too, but he wasn't asked to do much; this Saturday, he'll be asked to do a hell of a lot. If he's able to bail Missouri out of some jams with his legs and creativity, he'll give Mizzou a good shot at a win. (It will also help if he doesn't actually FACE that many passing downs...)

4. The emphasis is on "special"

Both offenses could have the overall advantage in this one. South Carolina's passive defense gives Mizzou a chance to re-establish its whole offense if the line rebounds. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks' diverse, pretty-good-at-everything offense should allow them to take advantage of whatever weaknesses they spot in the Mizzou defense. If the top three items above in some way either break even or go in Mizzou's favor, special teams could push them over the top. Thus far, special teams have been mostly strong for the Tigers (good kickoffs, good punting, good returns, decent place-kicking) and about average for South Carolina (good punting, good place-kicking, decent kickoffs, non-existent returns). But on paper, Mizzou had the special teams advantage in last year's game, too, and ... yeah. Special teams only accounts for about 10-15 percent of a game's outcome on average, but if the matchups are even overall, that 10-15% could be crucial.


It's easy to see how Mizzou can put together a winning formula here. The offensive line plays well, the pass rush gets to Dylan Thompson, Maty Mauk outplays Thompson, special teams skew in favor of Mizzou ... voila. Victory. But it's also hard to assume that the offensive line plays well, or that, a week after losing to Indiana, Missouri is ready to bounce back enough to beat a South Carolina team that a) might not be as good as we thought this year but b) is still pretty damn good.

In that regard, the odds sound about right to me. If these teams play three times, Mizzou wins one ... but if I'm betting the house on a given outcome (and thank goodness I'm not), I'm thinking South Carolina capitalizes on Mizzou mistakes and wins by about 10.

Side note: I'm always wrong.

Here's to being 4-1 on Sunday morning...