It was at Missouri two years ago where South Carolina suffered the most dispiriting loss of Steve Spurrier’s final season as coach. Up against one of the worst rushing offenses in America — and a freshman quarterback making his first start in the wake of Maty Mauk’s suspension — the Gamecocks were thoroughly manhandled 24-10 by a Tigers team that would go on to finish 1-7 in the SEC.
It was one of many signs that season that something was amiss with South Carolina. And it was the continuation of a troubling trend — the Gamecocks finding ways to lose the kind of games that good teams win.
It was evident again last season, even in a debut campaign by coach Will Muschamp that defied so many expectations by landing a bowl bid. Against a Kentucky squad that had lost its opener at home to Southern Miss and entered as one of the nation’s worst teams defensively, the Gamecocks were inept on offense and made the Wildcats look like the Steel Curtain in a 17-10 loss.
All of which brings us back to Faurot Field in Missouri, this time on Saturday night, where South Carolina played the kind of game it’s been prone to falling on its face on during the past few seasons. The Tigers came into the game after putting up 72 points in their opener, the Gamecocks after being outgained by 258 in theirs. Las Vegas had no qualms installing Missouri as a 3-point favorite, despite the fact that the Tigers went 4-8 last year.
No wonder South Carolina fans from Charleston to Chester were uneasy about this one. And what happened? The Gamecocks went to CoMo and completely handled Missouri 31-13, playing their most complete game since … since … maybe the 38-35 upset of then-No. 6 Georgia in early 2014?
Perhaps. South Carolina’s epic slide — from an 11-win program in 2013 capable of finishing fourth in the final AP poll to 3-8 laughingstock in 2015 — was riddled by winnable games that got away. It began with the trio of two-touchdown collapses late in 2014.
And now, for Muschamp’s team to take the next step as a program, that business had to end. It’s one thing to lose to the likes of Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, but it’s another to lose to opponents barely scraping by. Missouri’s not even doing that. The Tigers are very near to scraping rock bottom.
How can you make progress from the Birmingham Bowl if you can’t take care of business against the worst team in your division? You can’t. But Saturday night, South Carolina did — behind a defense that again made all the plays it had to, behind two more touchdowns from scoring machine Deebo Samuel, and behind perhaps the most Muschamp offensive play ever, a tight end jet sweep.
As a result, it’s hard to find another SEC team that’s been as impressive through two games as the Gamecocks, who followed an upset of a dark-horse ACC contender in N.C. State with a conference victory on the road. The Gamecocks are 2-0 for the first time since 2012, and now prepare for a huge game next week in Williams-Brice Stadium against Kentucky. Is the SEC on CBS matchup already set? Or could Verne Lundquist at least stop by?
If South Carolina finds a way then, against a Wildcats team it’s unthinkably lost to for three years running, and the prospect of being 6-0 going to Tennessee is suddenly very real. Louisiana Tech, the Gamecocks’ opponent the following week, was drilled at home Saturday by Mississippi State in a game where the Bulldogs faced a third-and-93. Then it’s at Texas A&M, which clearly has issues. Then it’s Arkansas, which looked slow and confused in getting handled at home by TCU.
They have to win the games, of course, but the potential path for the Gamecocks is easy to see. It’s amazing what happens when a team doesn’t slip up against the kind of opponents they should beat. Now let’s see if South Carolina can do the same thing again in a different Columbia, their own Columbia, next Saturday night.