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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Know your foe: Week 5, South Carolina

Sophomore linebacker Skai Moore will be one of the best players on a Gamecock defense that lost multiple stars from last season.

2013 Record: 11-2 (6-2)

Series History: 2-2

Last Meeting: Missouri lost 27-24 in double overtime (2013).

Players to Watch: South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore

2014 Projection: 10-2 (6-2)

On a cold October evening, a crowd of over 67,000 holds its collective breath. Faurot Field grows eerily silent as eyes focus their attention on No. 99.

The snap is on target, and the kick sails through the night air. The ball spirals 24 yards into the air before clanging off the left post.

A perfect season is lost.

Although it's an overused cliché, football is a game of inches, and nothing proved that quite like Missouri’s double-overtime defeat to South Carolina a year ago. A couple more inches in Mizzou senior kicker Andrew Baggett’s favor could have made all the difference.

The Gamecocks played the role of spoilers last October in Columbia, but a year later they have become the darlings of the conference. South Carolina is the near-unanimous preseason favorite to emerge from the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and play for the conference championship on Dec. 6 in Atlanta.

Like last season’s matchup, the “Battle of Columbia” could again carry SEC title game implications when the Gamecocks host the Tigers in Week 5.

It’s not hard to see why the Gamecocks are getting so much love this preseason. The team capped off its 2013 season with a 34-24 victory over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. South Carolina finished with an 11-2 record, its third consecutive season with 11 wins and the first such streak in school history.

The Gamecocks were dominant last season, smashing opponents by an average of two touchdowns per game. The recipe for that success was the team’s stingy defense, which ranked in the top five in scoring (20.3 ppg), passing (196.2 ypg) and total yardage (350.0 ypg).

Offensively, last season’s squad was nothing spectacular, but Connor Shaw and company played smart and efficiently. South Carolina finished drives more effectively than just about any other team in the country, averaging 5 points per possession inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. That means nearly every single time the Gamecocks passed the 40-yard line, they came away with points, making them fifth nationally in offensive efficiency.

South Carolina also virtually never coughed up the ball and maintained a +13 turnover margin, second in the SEC only to Mizzou.

However, Spurrier has a good deal of replacing to do after the winningest recruiting class in school history moves on to the game’s biggest stage.

The most obvious absence this fall will be star defensive end and 2014 NFL Draft’s No. 1 overall selection Jadeveon Clowney. But the Gamecocks’ holes go beyond Clowney.

Shaw moves on after exhausting his final year of eligibility, while his favorite target, wide receiver Bruce Ellington, decided to forgo his senior season in favor of the NFL draft. Defensively, in addition to Clowney, cornerback Victor Hampton and All-American defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles are gone.

As the Gamecock defense adjusts to life without last season’s top two pass rushers and cover corner, sophomore linebacker Skai Moore will have to pick up the slack after leading the team in tackles his freshman season (56).

Incoming quarterback Dylan Thompson will have to weather the storm behind center, but he has plenty of valuable experience already, including his matchup against Missouri’s incumbent signal caller Maty Mauk a year ago. At SEC Media Days in July, Thompson called that game his biggest learning experience as a backup – with an injured Shaw taking over for Thompson in the fourth quarter to lead the Gamecocks to a win.

“I’m excited, man,” Thompson said at media days of his starting role. “I’m probably going to say that a thousand times today. Just knowing that I’m going to get to go play, and be The Guy.”

Running back Mike Davis looks to be South Carolina’s biggest star this season. He ran for 1,183 yards last season.

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