1. Can Mizzou avoid midgame meltdown?
The Tigers carry a three-game losing streak against the Gamecocks into Saturday’s kickoff in a series that’s seen some wild finishes over the years. In four of the last six meetings, the winning team overcame a double-digit deficit, including last year when the Gamecocks feasted on a third-quarter Mizzou meltdown in Columbia, S.C. Can the Tigers shake off their tendency to let one setback snowball into an avalanche? That’s what happened last year when penalties, a special teams gaffe and an interception quickly buried Barry Odom’s team in the midst of a monsoon at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Tigers suffered similar breakdowns in the season opening-loss at Wyoming. When something goes wrong Saturday Odom must make sure his team doesn’t implode. Do the Tigers have the kind of leadership to overcome the first sign of adversity?
2. Another year, another backup Gamecocks’ QB
For the second straight year Missouri faces a South Carolina quarterback who wasn’t the team’s starter when the season began. Last year it was seldom-used senior Michael Scarnecchia, who carved through the Tigers and outplayed Drew Lock. Now it’s freshman Ryan Hilinski, who’s fresh off a 324-yard day against Alabama in his first SEC start. Mizzou will have to be ready for a short, quick passing game. Of Hilinski’s 57 pass attempts last week, 44 were targeted within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If that’s the strategy Saturday, the Tigers might not have time to rush the pocket and will have to rely on crisp coverage and tackling. Mizzou’s defense has been outstanding in third-and-long situations this year but can’t get there without smothering the run and short passing plays on first and second down.
3. Rain, rain go away
The forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms throughout the day. Uh oh. At least this year, the Tigers will be prepared for adverse weather. Last year’s storm in Columbia, S.C., came by surprise and the Tigers responded like they’ve never played in the rain. Should things get wet and wild on the Faurot Field turf, the coaches will have to adjust their play-calling. Playmakers will have to secure the ball. The Tigers can’t lose their pose. Poor weather might also impact the crowd size. Mizzou drew nearly 57,000 for last week’s game against Southeast Missouri and could push 60,000 if the skies stay clear.
4. Can Mizzou expose a shaky secondary?
A week ago South Carolina handled Alabama’s usually potent running game but had no answer for the Tide’s short passing game, giving up 495 passing yards, with 404 of those yards coming after the catch. Coach Will Muschamp has been shuffling players around in his secondary since the start of the season and last week watched his defense miss 11 tackles, most of them in space against Alabama’s wide receivers. The Tigers could expose those issues with a passing game that’s been a strength so far behind new quarterback Kelly Bryant.
5. Can Tigers control the trenches?
It’s time for the real Missouri defense to show up. The Tigers came undone by two long Wyoming touchdown runs in Week 1 but have since recovered and shut down the line of scrimmage against West Virginia and Southeast Missouri. Other than Wyoming’s two long TDs, Mizzou’s three opponents have averaged just 2.2 yards per carry. But here come the Gamecocks, who averaged 4.7 yards per rush against Alabama last week and were especially effective running the ball on first down. South Carolina features two dangerous runners in Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster, Kelly Bryant’s former teammate at Clemson, who ranks among the SEC leaders with 18 broken tackles for the year and averages 4.7 yards after contact.
Prediction: Missouri 34, South Carolina 30