By: Aaron Tallent
Saturday’s match-up between South Carolina and Missouri is a street fight for the SEC East. Barring an epic late-season meltdown, a win Saturday will mean a trip to Atlanta for 7-0 Mizzou. Meanwhile, South Carolina began the season as a favorite to win the East, but now has to beat the division’s most formidable opponent to still have a shot.
This is the fourth meeting between the two schools and a role reversal from their first meeting, the 1979 Hall of Fame Bowl (now the Outback Bowl). South Carolina began the season unranked, but hit a groove with a powerful offense led by junior running back George Rogers, who finished second in the country in rushing, averaging 5.4 yards a carry. The Gamecocks upset Georgia early and then beat 13th-ranked Clemson en route to its first 8-win season since 1903.
Mizzou, the favorite to win the Big 8, was 3-0 and ranked 5th going into a showdown with Texas. The Longhorns beat the Tigers 21-0 and Mizzou proceeded to lose 4 of its next 6 games. The Tigers closed the season with a 55-7 throttling of Kansas and became the first 6-5 team in Big 8 history to go to a bowl game.
While South Carolina was excited to go to Birmingham, Ala. (the game was moved to Tampa, Fla., in 1986), Mizzou was not. Players even discussed boycotting the game because Mizzou would only bring 84 players from its 117-man roster. Since the university had not allotted enough money to cover all expenses, the Mizzou Band did vote to not travel or perform at the game and asked that its funds be allocated to cover the team’s expenses. This was not possible because accommodations had already been booked.
“This is not where we wanted to be,” said Tiger quarterback Phil Bradley. “But a win here would be a moral victory and would give us something to look forward to next year.”
The forecast for the December 29 game warned of a slight chance of rain. It poured. South Carolina scored on its first drive but missed the extra point. The Tigers then kicked a field goal and capitalized on a fumble and a short punt to take a 17-6 halftime lead. By then, the crowd of 62,785 had dealt South Carolina quarterback Garry Harper a huge blow.
“We wanted to use the no-huddle offense more, but Garry’s voice was gone at half-time from hollering signals above the crowd noise,” said Gamecock coach Jim Carlen.
South Carolina cut the lead to 17-14, Mizzou responded with a short touchdown drive off an interception. The final score was 24-14 Mizzou, with its longest touchdown drive being 30 yards.
Both programs have become much stronger in the past 34 years, but the story is similar. One is on the verge of its greatest season ever. The other is on the ropes. This time both bands will be there, but there is a 10 percent chance of rain. Of course, turnovers will always be key.