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South Carolina at Missouri preview: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Looking at season-to-date stats only matters so much when Saturday's two starting quarterbacks have combined for one career start. Obviously. But Drew Lock and Lorenzo Nunez are only two of the 44 players who will be starting on offense and defense, and there's still quite a bit we can learn.

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When Mizzou has the ball...

Locktoberfest is upon us. But Drew Lock's going to need to come up with quite a few magic tricks for Mizzou to move the ball too much better than it has of late.

Standard Downs

Missouri Offense SC Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Standard Downs S&P+ 80.4 120 110.3 41 SC big
Standard Downs Success Rate 34.8% 128 38.9% 24 SC very big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.16 44 0.80 4 SC
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.05 125 2.22 20 SC very big
SD Sack Rate 3.0% 47 6.4% 38 push

Dreadful. Hilariously dreadful. Missouri has the worst standard downs success rate in the country, and it's not hard to see how that comes about when you can't run, block, throw, or catch consistently. But at the least, Mizzou does have the power of the unknown on its side. South Carolina has been able to scout a handful of Lock possessions, but the Tigers have never hit the field with a gameplan catered specifically to him.

Plus, in theory, Russell Hansbrough will be a little healthier this week than he was last week, just as he'll be a little healthier next week, too.

Mizzou came out using Hansbrough as a decoy against Kentucky last week, and while decoys don't work for very long, there's no question that the Tigers looked better early than they had for a while. And Josh Henson now have two potential decoys -- Hansbrough and Lock's arm.

The chess game early on will be fascinating. Will Mizzou assume South Carolina is blitzing a lot early on (the generic "attack the freshman QB" approach) and go with screens and draws? Will the Tigers come out assuming South Carolina is minding Hansbrough and try to work a little bit of play-action off of it? Will Henson dial up the opening series that we saw in Maty Mauk's first start against Florida, where any sort of "they'll play it safe with the new guy" assumption was blown up by two long passes and an immediate touchdown? Meanwhile, what will South Carolina dial up on its end?

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 15 targets, 5 catches, 72 yards (4.8 per target)
Nate Brown (WR): 14 targets, 9 catches, 116 yards (8.3), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 8 targets, 7 catches, 45 yards (5.6)
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 5 targets, 4 catches, 74 yards (14.8), 1 TD
Keyon Dilosa (WR): 5 targets, 5 catches, 36 yards (7.2)
Emanuel Hall (WR): 5 targets, 2 catches, 12 yards (2.4)
Ish Witter (RB): 4 targets, 3 catches, 24 yards (6.0)
Jason Reese (TE): 4 targets, 1 catch, 8 yards (2.0)

As I wrote on Wednesday, Lock has (in a limited sample) built a pretty good rapport with both Moore and Brown. Combined, he's completed six of eight passes to them for 87 yards. They are clearly the two guys Mizzou wants to be leading the way in the receiving corps, especially with Sean Culkin out, and with Lock infinitely more likely than Mauk to throw to space instead waiting to see a guy open, they should get opportunities to prove themselves, for better or worse. On standard downs, it's been mostly better for Brown, mostly worse for Moore.

Passing Downs

Missouri Offense SC Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Passing Downs S&P+ 89.7 109 97.1 74 SC
Passing Downs Success Rate 28.1% 87 26.3% 42 SC
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.64 92 1.45 20 SC big
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.20 69 2.10 17 SC
PD Sack Rate 6.2% 71 9.8% 26 SC

SC's defense isn't amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but it is better than last year's, and the biggest improvement has come on passing downs, where the Gamecocks have a little bit of a pass rush to complement an increasingly experienced secondary.

I would assume that Mizzou runs quite a bit on these downs, both because that seems to be a big part of Henson's philosophy (especially in terms of stealing yards on second-and-long to create third-and-manageable) and because that's a common approach with a young quarterback. You don't want to hang him out to dry or call any more high-pressure passes than you have to. I assume we won't see nearly as many QB draws as we would with Mauk, either.

In all, I think we'll see a lot of passing on first-and-10 and a lot of running on second-and-10. That's what you're supposed to do with a young QB, anyway. Who knows ... maybe they send him out there and simply say "Go win us the game."

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 12 targets, 8 catches, 82 yards (6.8)
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 8 targets, 2 catches, 14 yards (1.8)
Ish Witter (RB): 7 targets, 4 catches, 22 yards (3.1)
Sean Culkin (TE): 6 targets, 5 catches, 56 yards (9.3)
Nate Brown (WR): 5 targets, 2 catches, 43 yards (8.6)
Jason Reese (TE): 4 targets, 3 catches, 37 yards (9.3)

For whatever reason, Brown has been an almost total non-factor on passing downs, with Mauk/Lock looking far more to Moore and Leftwich and checking down to Witter. Culkin was a particularly nice weapon on these downs, so one assumes Jason Reese will get a couple of opportunities to make a play, too.

When South Carolina has the ball...

Standard Downs

SC Offense Missouri Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 123.8 20 110.3 41 SC
Standard Downs Success Rate 47.5% 66 38.9% 24 MU
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.18 42 0.80 4 MU
SD Line Yards per Carry 3.33 26 2.22 20 push
SD Sack Rate 5.9% 84 6.4% 38 MU

It appears South Carolina will be missing three starters for this one: center Alan Knott (who was starting in place of another injured Gamecock, Cody Waldrop), running back Brandon Wilds, and now receiver Deebo Samuel, who has gone from questionable to doubtful with a hamstring injury.

We know that Lorenzo Nunez (himself starting because of an injury to season-opening starter Connor Mitch) is infinitely more of a runner than we're used to seeing from South Carolina; he's basically early-career Connor Shaw before Shaw learned to pass. His insertion into the lineup means a bolstered running game (Shon Carson is doing well, at least, in Wilds' absence) and a potentially weaker passing game.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Pharoh Cooper (WR): 17 targets, 14 catches, 184 yards (10.8), 1 TD
Jerell Adams (TE): 7 targets, 4 catches, 54 yards (7.7), 1 TD
Brandon Wilds (RB): 5 targets, 4 catches, 58 yards (11.6)
Deebo Samuel (WR): 5 targets, 1 catch, 10 yards (2.0)

Losing Wilds and Samuel certainly limits passing options, but ... Pharoh Cooper and Jerell Adams are still in uniform. As you'll see, Cooper has one of the most amazing standard downs/passing downs splits you'll ever see -- he's averaging 10.8 yards per target with an 82% catch rate on standard downs, and 2.6 with a 21% catch rate on passing downs. Everybody knows where the ball's going to go on passing downs, and variety is even trickier without Samuel.

But you have to force passing downs first. Mizzou did a pretty solid job (and improved as the game wore on) against Arkansas State and rushing quarterback Fredi Knighten, but it requires discipline, and Mizzou's front is awfully young (and younger if Kentrell Brothers is limited).

Passing Downs

SC Offense Missouri Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 129.4 30 97.1 74 SC
Passing Downs Success Rate 34.7% 40 26.3% 42 push
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.36 125 1.45 20 MU big
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.64 43 2.10 17 MU
PD Sack Rate 4.1% 45 9.8% 26 MU

South Carolina has been pretty good at picking up just enough yards to move the chains. In an obviously limited sample, on third-and-4+, Nunez is 4-for-8 for 56 yards and four first downs. But the Gamecocks aren't ripping off tons of big plays here, and considering Mizzou's been pretty good at preventing big plays on these downs, it would be disappointing if that changed on Saturday.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
Pharoh Cooper (WR): 14 targets, 3 catches, 36 yards (2.6), 1 TD
Jerell Adams (TE): 10 targets, 5 catches, 78 yards (7.8)
Deebo Samuel (WR): 4 targets, 2 catches, 20 yards (5.0)
Carlton Heard (WR): 4 targets, 1 catch, 15 yards (3.8)
Shamier Jeffery (WR): 4 targets, 1 catch, 9 yards (2.3)

One assumes that South Carolina will be rushing semi-frequently on these downs, but this is where Jerell Adams becomes a concern. He's been the Gamecocks' best passing downs weapon, and while Mizzou hasn't struggled all year with tight ends, the Tigers certainly struggled last week.

Five Keys

1. The trenches ... my goodness, the trenches

It appears both defenses hold the advantage in the trench battles, but whichever offensive line is able to better prevent damage will be giving its team a potential advantage. Both in run blocking and pass protection, the story will be told up front.

This is the most important aspect of this game ... but I can't think of anything else to say here. It's just obvious.

2. Turnovers

Turnovers always matter, yes, so it's a bit of a cop-out to put it here. But here's why I'm doing it: both teams have excellent punters, and both punters will probably get used quite a bit. In theory, this has the potential to become what last week's game against Kentucky became -- a pin 'em deep contest where neither team is able to consistently derive a field position advantage. UK's average start was inside the 20, but Mizzou couldn't take advantage because the Tigers were starting in almost the same spot.

That makes turnovers, and the field position advantage they derive, enormous. In a game with two freshman quarterbacks, there will be turnovers. Granted, they could be of the arm-punt variety, but they could also flip the field and create easy scoring chances. In a game that features just a 42-point over-under (which seems dramatically high to anyone who's watched Mizzou this season), easy points and good field position could be enormous.

3. The first two possessions

Mizzou is expecting upwards of 68,000 in attendance for this one, and despite the early kick time and a couple weeks of demoralizing offense, the switch to Lock will, fairly or unfairly, give a bit of life to the crowd. When his face pops up on the jumbotron during starting lineup intros, there will be a noticeable, somewhat awkward (since Mauk could be starting again next week for all we know) pop. And if the Tigers can drive down and score some early points, that could result in sustained buzz from the crowd.

But if Lock comes out and throws a pick or Mizzou goes three-and-out a couple of times ... buzz gone. Mizzou can win without a hot start, but you don't want to have to attempt that with a young guy in his first start. A hot start could both build a cushion for a couple of funks later in the game and keep the crowd into it.

4. Finishing

Mizzou has been awful at it. That cannot continue if the Tigers want to reach a bowl this year. The end.

5. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

As I said at the top, season-to-date stats don't tell us a whole lot because Lorenzo Nunez has made only one start (and it was against a semi-awful UCF team that was able to make stops for most of the first half) and Drew Lock has made none. Missouri's is the best defense Nunez will have faced for 60 minutes, and South Carolina's is the only one Lock will have faced for that long.

To put that another way, some random, unexpected stuff is going to happen. Maybe one of the QBs catches fire and throws/rushes for five touchdowns. Maybe one throws five picks. Maybe one (or both) gets sacked eight times. We can talk about the things we know -- iffy line play, decent secondaries, etc. -- but what we don't know will account for a lot in this game, with such unknown circumstances.

***

This week's S&P+ rankings provided a pretty scary reminder that Mizzou simply could not continue on the path it was on and expect to reach a bowl game. On the Tigers' stat profile, you could see that they weren't projected to win another game all year. In this week's S&P+ picks, you found that the Gamecocks, a 4-point underdog, were projected to win by a touchdown. We could talk a lot about the incremental improvement we saw (at least for a while) in the offense against Kentucky, but the Tigers still lost that game and needed to make a ton of improvement, and quickly, to keep the season from derailing entirely.

Maty Mauk's suspension has officially thrown the dice into the air and redefined the season, at least in the short-term. We have no idea if Missouri's offense will be even 1% better on Saturday than it has been -- and putting all your chips on a guy who was at prom not too long ago and who has thrown 25 career passes doesn't tend to carry with it a high probability of success -- but it's a chance for a redefinition, a fresh start, however brief.

The unknown is exciting, and I remember just enough of Maty Mauk's performance against Florida in 2013 (and Blaine Gabbert's first start against Illinois in 2009, and Chase Daniel's first start in 2006, and Brad Smith's first start in 2012) to believe in my gut that Lock could come up with something pretty special. But the odds aren't going to see it that way.

But who needs "odds" and "math" anyway, right?