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4 keys to Missouri’s vital game against South Carolina

Mizzou-South Carolina is absolutely enormous. Let’s look at what’s most likely to decide the game.

NCAA Football: Missouri State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The official S&P+ projection for this game is Mizzou 33, South Carolina 31. We’re basically talking about a tossup game, and I think the keys to the game are pretty clear.

1. Pass explosiveness

Obviously. Mizzou had a lot of it last week. So did Mizzou’s opponent. What we saw was an incomplete picture — Missouri wasn’t exactly facing an SEC defense, and Mizzou’s defensive disasters dissipated after the brutal early going — and we still won’t have a complete impression after two games. But we’ll still have a much better idea of what we’re dealing with.

If Missouri is able to keep turning short passes into big gains, that will probably be a weapon the Tigers can count on for much of the season. And if South Carolina is able to pretty easily create the same easy breakdowns and missed assignments that doomed Mizzou for a while last week, well, we’ll know that this wasn’t just a “bad start” kind of deal.

Oh yeah, and these big plays won’t just be telling: they’ll also probably decide the football game.

2. Rush efficiency

South Carolina basically forfeited the run game last week, and Missouri’s run defense was pretty active and exciting (mostly, but not completely, in a good way). Does that means things have changed from last year, when Rico Dowdle ran all over the Tigers? We’ll see! Missouri’s pass rush was pretty effective against SC last year and was solid a week ago.

Meanwhile, despite throwing mostly safe, short passes, Bentley took a couple of passing downs sacks. If the Gamecocks can’t avoid passing downs, Mizzou could be in very good shape, even if there’s a big gain or two.

On the other side of the field, an efficient Mizzou run game is a huge weapon. I’ve been talking about Mizzou’s attack as one with three prongs — the run, the horizontal pass, and the vertical pass. Even if South Carolina is tackling well and preventing big plays with the horizontal pass, the simple fact that they have to mind that prong means there could be run lanes for Damarea Crockett. And if he takes advantage of them, that might open up the vertical pass all the same.

3. Total possessions

This is a pure control issue. South Carolina and Missouri both want to define games on their own terms, and those terms are very, very different. Maybe the quickest way to figure out who dictated the terms of this game is by looking at the total number of possessions. If it’s 14 or fewer, South Carolina defined the game. If it’s 17 or more, Mizzou sucked the Gamecocks into the type of track meet it prefers.

4. Special teams wackiness

NCAA Football: South Carolina at North Carolina State
Deebo Samuel
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina defined the NC State game on its terms but still only won because of a Deebo Samuel kick return score and a couple of fourth down stops. That’s a formula with minimal margin for error. And if one team or the other develops a strong special teams advantage, that might tip the balance.

It’s not immediately easy to see which team might derive such an advantage. Odds slightly favor the Cocks because of Samuel ... and because, with the season-opening missed PAT, Mizzou’s Tucker McCann hasn’t completely proven he has shaken the yips he suffered from a year ago. (Remember that he missed an easy field goal in the fourth quarter at SC last year, a miss that basically ended the game.)

At the same time, SC has a redshirt freshman kicker who hasn’t been tested yet, and between Dimetrios Mason’s kick returns last week and Johnathon Johnson’s punt returns last year, Mizzou’s own return game has game-breaking potential.

We’ve been calling this maybe Mizzou’s biggest game of the year for a while now. Let’s get it on.