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Missouri, South Carolina look to gain leg up in unpredictable SEC East

Steve Spurrier wasn’t happy with South Carolina’s 48-34 over Vanderbilt last week, but by one measure, the Head Ball Coach thinks his team is getting better.

“In the first game, we set some school records giving up first downs and yards and against Texas A&M,” Spurrier said on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “We haven’t given up any records since that game, so I guess we have made some improvement.”

Spurrier’s comment dripped with sarcasm, but it reflected the state of a program that has experienced ups and down in this young college football season. The Gamecocks were blitzed by Texas A&M in a 52-28 loss on Aug. 28, but they’ve won three straight since, including a 38-35 win over Georgia on Sept. 13. Now Spurrier’s crew prepares to host Missouri in a rematch of one of the wildest SEC games of 2013. It’s only September, but the SEC East is already a hodgepodge. This week could clear things up -- or perhaps make the race even crazier.

The Tigers were 7-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country when No. 20 South Carolina traveled to Columbia last Oct. 26. Mizzou dominated for three quarters and built a 17-0 lead before the Gamecocks rallied in the fourth to force overtime. In the second extra period, Elliott Fry kicked a 40-yard field goal to give South Carolina a 27-24 lead. Missouri’s Andrew Baggett missed the game-tying 24-yard kick on the next possession to seal the Gamecocks’ come-from-behind win.

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That loss didn’t end Missouri’s SEC title chances. The Tigers reached Atlanta, where Auburn beat them 59-42. Still, coach Gary Pinkel reminded reporters on the SEC teleconference that South Carolina was Mizzou’s only regular-season loss. Will it be tough for the Tigers to keep emotion out on Saturday? “Not for me,” said Pinkel, whose team has won six straight on the road, “and I hope it isn’t for them.”

Despite winning 12 games and the SEC East last year, the Tigers entered 2014 as a forgotten contender. All eyes focused on Georgia and South Carolina; nobody seemed to care that Maty Mauk returned as one of the league’s top quarterbacks, or that the Tigers’ defensive line would boast one of the SEC’s top tandems in ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray. The ‘13 season was the program’s best since ‘07, but media picked the Tigers fourth in the East at SEC Media Days in July. They didn’t garner a single vote as preseason conference champions.

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Missouri’s critics looked smart last Saturday when the Tigers unexpectedly lost to Indiana 31-27. With Golden sidelined with a hamstring injury, the defense gave up 241 rushing yards, including a go-ahead, three-yard score to D’Angelo Roberts with 22 seconds left. The loss spoiled the Tigers’ 3-0 start, but players quickly focused on what’s ahead. After all, Mizzou remains unbeaten in SEC play.

“I expected some guys to be down about the loss, but everyone was enthusiastic in practice,” tailback Marcus Murphy told reporters this week. “The guys were ready to just let it go and focus on South Carolina. I can see the urgency to come out, compete, and get back on track."

That’s the case for both teams. The Tigers will look to address questions in the trenches. Golden, who has 6.5 tackles for loss including four sacks, will return, but Mizzou’s offensive line lost senior left guard Anthony Gatti for the season with a torn ACL. Junior Brad McNulty will step in to replace him, although Mauk isn’t concerned. "It doesn't matter,” Mauk said this week. “I'm comfortable with any of those top eight, nine or 10 guys. They're here for a reason, so they've got to put that extra work in this week, study some film, and know what their job is.”

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South Carolina has problems of its own, especially on defense. The Gamecocks are allowing 6.8 yards per play (worst in the SEC) and 36 points per game (second worst). Spurrier told reporters his defense is still searching for pass-rushers after losing star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and fellow standout Kelcy Quarles.

“I think progress is a process,” linebacker Sharrod Golightly said this week. “We’re still 3-1. I feel like all our goals are ahead of us.”

Given the state of the SEC East, anything could happen in this weekend's clash. But the division’s unpredictability doesn’t provide much room for error. South Carolina still must travel to Auburn (Oct. 25) and Florida (Nov. 15). Missouri must venture to Florida (Oct. 18) and Texas A&M (Nov. 15). Nobody knows how the SEC East will look come November, but as Spurrier -- who is still chasing his first conference crown -- knows, winning is the best way to take care of business.

“We're still in the hunt for whatever we're in the hunt for,” Spurrier said. “But obviously we need to concern ourselves with playing the game at a lot better level than we've been playing, and we'll find out if we can do it Saturday night."