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We’re less than a week from learning what this Missouri team really is

Hard answers have been elusive for Missouri fans so far. For better or worse, the Tigers will provide some clarity on Saturday night.

NCAA Football: SE Missouri State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

If you think about it, things were always going to be this way for the 2019 Missouri Tigers.

No matter how these first three games ended up, Missouri fans were never going to know quite what they were seeing until Week Four.

3-0? “The schedule’s too soft.”

2-1? “It could be a fluke loss.”

1-2? “There’s clearly trouble, but the talent is so enticing!”

0-3? (Eh, OK, maybe this is where it falls apart)

Obviously, the Tigers have chosen to trod the middle path thus far. The thirstiest Kool-Aid drinkers will point to thorough dismantlings of both a highly-ranked FCS team and a Power-5 program (albeit a rebuilding one) as proof that this Tiger team is special; they just needed to get the jitters out! On the flip side, the most hardened cynics will point out that Missouri lost to a Wyoming team that probably isn’t great while dog walking two teams that have no business being on an FBS field until at least 2020.

Both of these arguments have valid points. Both are slightly skewed toward preconceived notions about Barry Odom and the Missouri program in general. As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

So where is the middle? Apparently, it’s down in South Carolina.

The Mayor’s Cup has become a sort of barometer for Missouri in the Barry Odom era. In 2017, the Tigers were fine, but a loss to the Gamecocks kicked off a five-game losing streak that brought Barry Odom’s tenure to the brink before the Tigers came roaring back to win seven games. Last year the Tigers were riding high at 3-1 before a devastating loss to the Gamecocks guaranteed they’d go into the meat of their schedule at .500. While they improved their previous year’s win total by one, a win over South Carolina felt like the elusive key to a lost great season.

No one would call it the Tiger’s biggest rivalry game, but there seems to be an odd sort of synergy between the two programs that makes Missouri fans measure themselves against the Gamecocks. Both programs are coming from Hall of Fame level coaches to young guns with both promise and plenty of shortcomings. Both have been decent — but no better — in the past few seasons. However, while a win over Missouri has become routine for the Gamecocks, the matchup feels like it means a little more to Tiger fans.

It might be that South Carolina occupies the permanent spot Missouri hopes to take in the SEC hierarchy. No one is confusing the Gamecock’s legacy with those of Alabama, Georgia, Florida or any of the other traditional SEC powers. But the school’s long history with the conference and many successful years under Steve Spurrier have afforded it a level of respect that the Tigers have never received in their near decade-long SEC membership. Both programs sit in the perpetual middle of the SEC East, swinging back and forth between Georgia and Vanderbilt every season. Yet while Missouri owns two more division championships in about a quarter of the time, they’re continually pegged as lower class.

That may not be fair, but it’s the reality Missouri occupies. Until the Tigers continually prove they’re better than the team in Columbia East, they’ll never get the benefit of the doubt.

In about five days time, we’ll get a much better idea of who Missouri is for the 2019 season. We were never going to find out by watching Wyoming, West Virginia or Southeast Missouri State. As usual, it comes down to South Carolina.