Things are looking up for South Carolina after a big win against Tennessee. It was another close game in a series that has been tightly contested of late, which again is the case this Saturday.
Missouri is coming to Columbia for a 4 p.m. ET kickoff (SEC Network). The Tigers and Gamecocks have played close games in recent seasons.
To get a closer look at the matchup with Missouri, we enlisted the help of the Columbia Daily Tribune’s Blake Toppmeyer.
Wilson: In Missouri’s first year under Barry Odom, how has the program’s identity changed and how have players responded to his move into the head coaching role?
Toppmeyer: The selection of Odom to replace Gary Pinkel was largely a popular one within the team. Players find Odom to be very motivational. However, there has been some adjustment to the new staff, I think particularly on defense. Only one of Odom’s defensive assistants was on the staff last season, and a couple popular faces – including Odom himself – are no longer assistants on that side of the ball. Also, Missouri changed defensive schemes in the offseason from its old scheme that featured an aggressive front four trying to get upfield and disrupt plays, with the back end playing a lot of Cover-2 zone, to a read-and-react scheme in which linemen are more tasked with reading keys and plugging gaps. Several players expressed angst with the scheme change during the preseason and season. The defense has regressed greatly from 2015 to ’16, and Odom took over defensive play-calling last week, stripping first-year defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross of the relative autonomy he’d enjoyed. Odom said he’ll continue calling the defense for the rest of the season. Additionally, Missouri largely switched back to its 2015 scheme before last week’s game against Kentucky. Although the results weren’t much better, players have welcomed the reverting to the old scheme. On offense, Missouri’s identity has changed somewhat under coordinator Josh Heupel. The Tigers are operating at a breakneck pace, averaging 3.27 plays per minute of possession. Heupel’s offense is pretty similar with to what Baylor does. Missouri uses a heavy leaning on run-pass options, wide splits for the wide receivers and tempo, tempo, tempo. Although Missouri has found more offensive success than last year, it has still struggled in games against Power 5 opponents, and it also ranks last in the nation in average time of possession.
Wilson: Drew Lock looks like he has taken a jump this season. What has been key to his improvement and what is he doing well as a sophomore?
Toppmeyer: Lock’s been great at times and pretty poor at others. He hasn’t been consistent against Power 5 competition, and his stats are largely padded by his performances against Eastern Michigan and FCS school Delaware State. In those two games, Lock accumulated a completion rate of 68.5 percent, 852 passing yards, 10 touchdowns with no interceptions. In Lock’s other six games – which includes his five games against Power 5 opponents – he has a 48.8 percent completion rate, 1,363 passing yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s completed less than 60 percent of his passes in each of his last four games. Bottom line: Lock has shown he has many of the raw skills needed to be a top-tier SEC quarterback. He throws a good deep ball. Jesse Palmer has said Lock has the strongest arm that he’s seen in college football this season. But Lock’s overall consistency just isn’t there yet. That said, this season has been a step forward. He went from being one of the SEC’s worst starting quarterbacks as a true freshman to being a middle-of-the-pack quarterback this year. Lock has hit it off well with Heupel. Lock says his mental development has progressed greatly from last year to this year in terms of diagnosing defenses and making sound decisions.
Wilson: What’s behind the run defense struggles for Missouri? Have those been exacerbated by recent injury losses?
Toppmeyer: Missouri’s massive struggles in run defense have been a bit of a surprise, especially given the switch to a read-and-react defense that was designed to contain the run, even if it sacrificed a little pass rush. I think part of what we’re seeing is just how valuable weakside linebacker Kentrell Brothers was as a senior in 2015. Brothers led the nation last year with 152 tackles. We all knew he was really good, but I don’t think it became truly apparent just how good and meaningful he was to Missouri’s defense until he was gone. I think probably a lot of the runs that have gone for big chunks this year were probably runs that Brothers cleaned up last year about 3 yards from the line of scrimmage, and none of us were any the wiser. This team has proven itself to be a really poor tackling team. Cross has said week after week that poor tackling, more so than a change in scheme, is the biggest bugaboo for this defense, and I agree. As for the injuries, it certainly didn’t help when Missouri lost linebacker Michael Scherer and defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. for the season due to knee injuries suffered in an Oct. 22 loss to Middle Tennessee. They were two of the defense’s top talents. Then, last week against Kentucky, leading tackler Donavin Newsom strained his quad. His status for the South Carolina game is uncertain.
Wilson: What is it going to take for Missouri to get back to fighting for division titles like it did early in its SEC years?
Toppmeyer: For starters, Missouri needs something it can hang its hat on. Right now, it doesn’t have anything. Even last year, when the offense was abysmal, Missouri had a top-six defense that at least kept it in games. Now, the offense has improved a bit, but not enough, and the defense has collapsed. Missouri doesn’t have much of an identity. Frankly, I think there’s a big talent gap between the roster Odom inherited compared to the ones that captured East titles in 2013 and ’14. If you look at the makeup of those ’13 and ’14 Missouri teams, a lot of Missouri’s top players were diamonds in the rough the staff unearthed from Texas. The Lone Star State used to be a stronghold for Missouri recruiting, but late in Pinkel’s tenure, he shifted the out-of-state recruiting focus from Texas to the Southeast. I think that backfired. It’s not like Missouri was outdueling Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the like for the Southeast’s top talent, and many of the diamonds in the rough didn’t pan out in the same way those Texas kids did. Odom, from Day 1 since he moved into the head chair, has said he fully intends to get Missouri back to making Texas a recruiting priority. Maybe that will pay dividends.
Wilson: How do you see things unfolding Saturday?
Toppmeyer: Saturday probably will prove to be the make-or-break game for South Carolina’s bowl hopes, so the Gamecocks should be plenty motivated. South Carolina’s defense is solid, and although its offense isn’t good, I’m not sure Missouri can bottle up anybody at this point. I’ll take South Carolina, 27-21.