Missouri faces game of questions in Mayor’s Cup clash against South Carolina

In this year’s Mayor’s Cup showdown, nobody quite knows what to expect.
Keke Chism (6) evades two defenders during Missouri's 41-17 loss to the Gators on Oct. 31, 2020. SEC Media Portal

For the first time this season, Eli Drinkwitz will be the most experienced head coach on the sidelines when Missouri takes on South Carolina this Saturday.

On Sunday night, just one day after the Gamecocks lost 59-42 to Ole Miss, Athletics Director Ray Tanner finally decided to pull the plug on coach Will Muschamp, stomaching the roughly $13.2 million buyout it took to relieve the coach of his duties.

When the Tigers travel to Columbia, S.C., it will be interim coach Mike Bobo, not Muschamp, at the helm.

That’s just one change that Missouri will face in a game that will be full of them.

“We got a tremendous challenge ahead of us because you know they’re going to have great energy and rallying effort for their staff and for coach Muschamp,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s really about us and making sure we execute our job more than trying to figure out who is playing for them.”

Back in Columbia, Mo., the Tigers are preparing for just their third game in the past 42 days and their first since a Halloween loss to Florida.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Drinkwitz acknowledged the rapidly-changing situation at South Carolina but stressed the importance of his own team making strides on the field. Among them: taking care of the ball and preventing self-inflicted mistakes such as drops.

“You got to plan for what you have and always have to adjust, we learned that in the Florida game,” Drinkwitz said. “Really, it’s all about us. It’s about us executing offensively. It’s about us playing with the tempo that we need to play. It’s about us running the football effectively in key situations.”

This isn’t the same South Carolina team that Drinkwitz and his staff scouted over a second consecutive bye week. Starting cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu both opted out before Tuesday afternoon while safety R.J. Roderick and Makius Scott shortly followed.

Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak played off a question about South Carolina’s depleted secondary and instead shifted focus to his team, which has plenty to clean up since its game in Gainesville, Fla.

“No, it’s not really about them, it’s about us,” Bazelak said. “If we execute then we’ll play well. I’m not too focused on who they’ve got back there. We play in the SEC, so everyone is going to be good.”

Muschamp may have had a 3-1 record against Missouri during his time at South Carolina, but his replacement is no stranger to the SEC East. Bobo was the head coach at Colorado State between 2015 and 2019, but he played college ball at Georgia and eventually went on to become the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator before his move to the Mountain West Conference.

“I know that whoever plays is going to be coached up really well and that they’re going to have great schemes,” Drinkwitz said. “[The coaching staff] is going to put them in a position to be successful.”

No one knows what this South Carolina team will look like come Saturday after its chaotic start to the week, but Bazelak suspects it will be a team with pride on the line.

“With coach Muschamp being gone, they’re going to come out with an edge and a chip on their shoulder,” Bazelak said. “We just got to start fast, hit them early and I think it’s super important to get up early, get a lead and continue to execute.”

Another question that will be floating around all week is whether the Tigers will have enough scholarship players to compete come Saturday. As of Wednesday morning, Missouri has 54 scholarship players available, an awfully close number to the 53 scholarship players necessary to play a game.

Right tackle Larry Borom, defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside and left guard Xavier Delgado are all questionable with injuries, but Drinkwitz didn’t sound as confident about Whiteside or Delgado. Jatorian Hansford, who planned to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery in the summer, is anticipated to start against South Carolina.

Meanwhile, left guard Luke Griffin is projected to get his first collegiate start as Dylan Spencer serves his first half suspension he picked up for his involvement in the halftime brawl against Florida.

To help with numbers at key scholarship positions, the Tigers spent their time off cross-training players to be able to play multiple roles. Drinkwitz cited freshman center Drake Heismeyer as a player that could go in as a defensive lineman if called upon. He said that multiple receivers are being trained as defensive backs, too.

“We’re trying to do everything possible for us to have the ability to play,” Drinkwitz said.

It was barely a year ago that Drinkwitz and his Appalachian State team traveled to South Carolina and upset the Gamecocks. Now, he heads to South Carolina’s capital with his team six-and-a-half-point favorites.

“It’s a trophy game,” Drinkwitz said. “If you can’t get fired up to play for a trophy, then you’re probably in the wrong sport and you’re probably in the wrong line of work. If we’re giving out a trophy at the end of this game, we sure want it.”

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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