43F Memorial Stadium at Faurot Field, Columbia, MO
(AP) -- - Few outside of the Missouri locker room expected the Tigers to compete in the Southeastern Conference in just their second season in the league.
Predicted to finish sixth in the SEC East, Missouri is now ranked fifth in the country and holds a two-game lead in the division.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier knows his team won't be the main attraction Saturday night when it visits Missouri, but he's hopeful that his 20th-ranked Gamecocks can drag themselves back in the divisional race with a win.
The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) remained healthy until quarterback James Franklin and cornerback E.J. Gaines sustained injuries in a 41-26 victory at then-No. 7 Georgia on Oct. 12. But they won again last Saturday, beating then-No. 22 Florida 36-17 at home, and now are preparing to face South Carolina (5-2, 3-2) with a chance to practically wrap up the division.
Though the goals are getting much bigger.
"We'd be dumb if our goal wasn't to go to a national championship," left tackle Justin Britt said.
When Franklin and Gaines went down, their substitutes stepped in and stepped up.
Quarterback Maty Mauk led eight scoring drives and cornerback Aarion Penton nabbed his first interception against Florida.
"You came to perform at the college level," Mauk said. "It kind of is nerve-wracking, but at the same time, it's what you're here to do."
Now the team's challenge is to focus on South Carolina and not its status in the polls. In 2008, the Tigers lost consecutive games after opening the season 5-0 and reaching No. 3 in the country. Two years later, following a 36-27 win over No. 3 Oklahoma to start 7-0, they again lost their next two contests.
"I don't think we've accomplished much," receiver L'Damian Washington said. "Georgia, last week, you'd have thought, 'OK, that's a big win.' After the game, we were like, 'OK, that's just step six.' And this was step seven, and next week is step eight."
Winning its first seven games by at least 15 points apiece, Missouri has rediscovered the potent offense it employed from 2007-11 when it went 48-19 and scored 34.9 points per game. Under new coordinator Josh Henson, this year's team has bumped that number to 44.3, thanks to 279 yards per game through the air and another 234.4 on the ground.
Defensively, Missouri has limited opponents to 22.1 points and 381 yards per game, including just 116.6 rushing. The Tigers lead the SEC with 23 sacks, and end Michael Sam is tied for first nationally with nine.
The gaudy numbers don't necessarily translate into wins, but they explain why Missouri is in the driver's seat in the SEC East. If they win their next two games at home against the Gamecocks and Tennessee, the Tigers will clinch a berth in the conference championship game Dec. 7 in Atlanta.
"Personally, I like being the underdog, because not a lot of people were expecting us to do the things that we're doing right now," center Evan Boehm said. "And we're out there to create those big eyes and say, 'Holy cow, where did Mizzou come from?'"
Spurrier said the Gamecocks could get back on track against Missouri after losing 23-21 at Tennessee last weekend.
"We're not going to get much attention this week," Spurrier said. "Like I told the team, we're on TV but the nation wants to watch Missouri. They don't want to watch us now after losing a game. Maybe we can go out there and show them something, hopefully, so that's what we'll try to do."
Spurrier said he and the players understand that losing to the Tigers would knock them from the SEC chase for good. Linebacker Skai Moore said the team thought that may have been the case when it headed to the airport after getting stung by Tennessee on a last-second field goal.
Then they saw the other league upsets - Vanderbilt over Georgia, Missouri topping Florida and Ole Miss beating LSU - and realized they still had a road map to the SEC title game if they could play well against the Tigers.
"We're confident that we could go in there and take care of business this week," Moore said.
The Gamecocks offense stalled in the final quarter last weekend, in large part because quarterback Connor Shaw left with a sprained left knee, and managed only 15 total yards over the last 15 minutes.
Spurrier has talked to his players about what's at stake in the Gamecocks' first-ever trip to Missouri.
"It's a game that's going to decide whether or not we're in the division hunt or not. Simple as that. I think all of our players know that," he said.
The Gamecocks will most likely have a backup under center as well with Dylan Thompson. Shaw's rebounded from injuries several times in his career, but Spurrier expected him to need more than a few days of recovery to be ready.
At best, Spurrier said Shaw might suit up and be able to go a few snaps in a pinch.
"The doctors, the trainers feel like a couple of weeks, two to three weeks, (Shaw) may be close to a hundred percent on that thing," Spurrier said.
Thompson has had his moments in the sun as Shaw's replacement. The sophomore led South Carolina to a 27-17 win at Clemson last November with Shaw out with a bad foot.
Thompson was there at the end in the Outback Bowl last January, as his 32-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds to go gave the Gamecocks a 33-28 win over Michigan.
"He will be ready to go and he'll give it his best shot, we know that," Spurrier said. "This is his time this year."
Shaw went 20 of 21 for 249 yards and two TDs as South Carolina beat Missouri 31-10 last season.