When the Missouri football team takes the field Saturday in its Southeastern Conference opener, the Tigers and South Carolina will be playing for more than just a leg up in the Eastern Division.
The two programs will also be vying for the Mayor’s Cup in the battle of Columbias.
South Carolina leads the all-time series against Missouri 5-4 and owns a 5-2 advantage in SEC meetings, including a 2-1 mark at Memorial Stadium.
Missouri coach Barry Odom, whose Tigers have yet to beat South Carolina in three tries during his tenure, said the challenge of facing South Carolina remains similar year to year — even with senior quarterback Jake Bentley out for the season due to an injury and true freshman Ryan Hilinksi, the SEC freshman of the week for his performance last weekend in a loss to Alabama, taking his place.
“A lot of respect for both of the quarterbacks that they've played this year,” Odom said. “I don't see that they've missed a beat. Hilinski is a super talented kid. We knew about him in high school, obviously, and to be put into that moment (against Alabama), he didn't look rattled at all."
Missouri fans would just as soon forget the Tigers' loss in Columbia, South Carolina, last season. The Gamecocks rallied with a 23-yard field goal by Parker White for a 37-35 victory.
What makes that loss even harder to swallow is that the Tigers had just taken the lead on a 57-yard field goal by Tucker McCann to put Missouri on top 35-34 with 1:18 left.
The Gamecocks also won 31-13 at Memorial Stadium in 2017 and defeated the Tigers 31-21 in 2016 in South Carolina.
Missouri’s last victory against South Carolina came in 2015 at Memorial Stadium, when it won 24-10.
This season, the Tigers come in at 2-1 overall with a 38-7 win over West Virginia in Week 2 and a 50-0 thrashing of Southeast Missouri State in Week 3. The only blemish on Missouri’s record came in the season opener in Laramie, Wyoming, where they were stunned 37-31 by the Cowboys.
As for South Carolina under coach Will Muschamp, who is also entering his fourth year, the Gamecocks have struggled at times. At 1-2 on the season, the Gamecocks fell to North Carolina 24-20 in the season opener and then beat Charleston Southern 72-10 in Week 2. Last week against Alabama, the Gamecocks finished with 459 yards, including 324 through the air, but it wasn’t enough in a 47-23 loss to the Tide.
Missouri finished with over 500 yards of total offense against SEMO last Saturday and scored four first-quarter touchdowns in four different ways — rushing, passing, punt return and interception return.
Junior running back Larry Rountree also had a banner day for the Tigers with 142 yards rushing, which moved him into 14th place all-time in program history in yards rushing with 2,206 in his Missouri career. Rountree passed Derrick Washington and Tommie Stowers in the record books.
Senior kicker and punter McCann left his mark in the win over the Redhawks as well. McCann finished the game with 14 points, including three field goals of 40 yards or more, while averaging 55.4 yards on five punts — two inside the 20-yard line. He also had a career-long 62-yard punt.
The Missouri defense, which has been stingy as of late, has given up just seven total points since the loss to Wyoming.
That’s the fewest points scored by MU opponents over two consecutive games since Kansas and Iowa State in November 2010.
The Gamecocks will offer a stiffer challenge than the Tigers' past two opponents, especially with senior wide receiver Bryan Edwards. Edwards, a three-time preseason selection in the SEC, has caught a pass in all 41 games in which he has appeared. After being limited to just one catch for seven yards against North Carolina, Edwards bounced back with a five-catch, 112-yard, two-touchdown performance against Charleston Southern. He also logged a career-high nine receptions for 79 yards against Alabama.
"Man, I feel like he and I played against each other, he's been there forever,” Odom said of Edwards. “What a great player and a great competitor. Watching him play last week, he was on a mission, and I admire and respect the way he plays the game. He's one of the best we’ll see all year."
MU defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said Edwards is an underrated player who is big and physical.
“He's a guy that's going to play on Sundays," Walters said.
Hilinski also has made a difference. Making only his second career start last week against Alabama, Hilinski completed 36 of 57 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns.
Missouri defensive line coach Brick Haley said Hilinski doesn’t play like a freshman.
“No, he doesn't,” Haley said. “He's operating at a high level right now. I think the guy is really special in the things that he's doing and being able to help his football team."
On defense, the Gamecocks will be led up front by 6-foot-6, 310-pound senior Javon Kinlaw, who some NFL experts have labeled a possible first-round draft pick. In three games, Kinlaw has filled up the stat line with nine tackles, including an SEC-leading three sacks, a quarterback hurry, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.
Albeit favored by nearly 10 points, Missouri will have its work cut out for itself Saturday afternoon.