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After long layoff, Mizzou committed to playing Gamecocks — if roster numbers hold up

Missouri Florida Football

Florida running back Dameon Pierce (27) is brought down by the Missouri defense including safety Martez Manuel (3) and defensive lineman Chris Turner, front right, after a reception during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — For the Missouri Tigers and every other college football team trying to play games in the midst of a pandemic, the waiting game comes before the actual game. Saturdays are for football. Sundays through Friday are for test results, COVID-19 tests.

For Mizzou, this week is like last week and probably next week, too, with the fate of the weekend hinging on tests that will determine if the Tigers have enough players to play a game.

“It's hard not to think about it just because you're trying to focus on an opponent,” Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak said Tuesday. “But at the same time, you don't know if you're really going to play that opponent or even play that week.”

So it goes in 2020.

With two more COVID-19 tests to get through this week, Mizzou (2-3) hopes to have enough players available for Saturday’s game at South Carolina. But the Tigers are cutting it close.

As of Tuesday, Mizzou had 56 available scholarship players — down from 64 players for its last game against Florida. Injuries, COVID cases, contact tracing, NCAA sanctions and opt outs have stripped the Tigers to the brink of the Southeastern Conference’s roster threshold. Under its COVID protocols, the SEC requires teams to have 53 available scholarship players and meet other position-specific minimums, though teams can opt to play if they fall under the SEC’s thresholds.

“I don't know what our final roster number will look like,” MU coach Eli Drinkwitz said Tuesday. “We are committed to playing this week. We want to play. Our players want to play. We’ll do whatever we can in order to have that opportunity.”

Last week, the Tigers had to postpone their home game against Georgia because they fell below the SEC requirement for four available scholarship defensive linemen. Mizzou has not played since suffering a loss at Florida on Oct. 31. Should the Tigers have the numbers to play Saturday's game in Columbia, South Carolina, it will be the program’s longest stretch between regular-season games since a 20-day layoff in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks halted all college games for a week.

Further complications arose from Sunday’s COVID test when two more players tested positive, MU confirmed, leading to an undisclosed number of players quarantined through contact tracing. Missouri underwent another test Tuesday morning, the results of which will be available Wednesday. The team will have another round of tests Thursday. At least three players who quarantined last week through contact tracing are expected back this week, MU confirmed.

“I can only deal with the information that I have in front of me right now, which right now we have 56 players, one of them still suspended for the first half (of the next game),” Drinkwitz said. “We're committed to playing, but I can't predict the future or forecast what the future is going to be. I learned my lesson the hard way last week. I'm trying to be as open and honest with information as I can and always will be about COVID and COVID-related issues. But this is a year unlike any other. We will do everything in our power to play football Saturday because our team and our seniors deserve that opportunity. But obviously I can't predict the future. I can't control the virus. I can't tell the virus what to do. I wish I could, which I think everybody in the country wishes they could but can't. So, we'll see.”

Only one of the three players suspended for the first half of MU’s next game for the halftime fight at Florida is available for Saturday’s game, Drinkwitz said. He declined to identify which of the three among defensive tackle Markell Utsey, offensive guard Dylan Spencer and linebacker Chad Bailey. Drinkwitz said redshirt freshman Luke Griffin is the expected starter at left guard, where Spencer started against Florida. Injuries and quarantine have turned Mizzou’s offensive line into a turnstile at some positions the last few months. Two starters are questionable for Saturday’s game, right tackle Larry Borom and left guard Xavier Delgado.

The Tigers clearly have depth issues along the defensive line, too, so much that freshman center Drake Heismeyer (Francis Howell) has moved across the line of scrimmage to supply some depth on the D-line. Also, Jatorian Hansford, a defensive end/outside linebacker, will likely start Saturday, Drinkwitz said. Hansford initially planned to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery until the NCAA ruled that this season doesn’t count as a year of eligibility. Instead, he returned from his injury at Florida and played 11 snaps. Some wide receivers are moonlighting at defensive back to help with depth in the secondary, too.

“This year pretty much everywhere has been crazy,” offensive tackle Javon Foster said, “just because of the pandemic and everything going on. But we’re handling it right now and doing a good job. We’ve got it under control.”

For now — as always in 2020.

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