COLUMBIA — We gathered here today to see how South Carolina would handle a step up in competition from East Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham.
We left wondering whether new Southeastern Conference East member Missouri was in fact a step up in competition from ECU and UAB.
“It was evident we were a little stronger than Missouri,” said Gamecocks head ball coach Steve Spurrier in the understatement of his 180-second postgame interview after South Carolina’s 31-10 victory at Williams-Brice Stadium.
When they weren’t stopping themselves, the Gamecocks looked more like the No. 7 team in the nation then they have all season.
Quarterback Connor Shaw was nearly flawless in his efficiency, completing 20 consecutive passes for 249 yards.
Running back Marcus Lattimore was snapping off healthy chunks of turf and punching it in from the goal-line when given the chance.
Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington were bouncing and weaving for big gains on every kick return.
How all of these weapons would have fared if Missouri had actually covered receivers or tackled ball carriers is still open to debate.
The newly annexed Tigers from the other Columbia looked ill-equipped to compete in the SEC. Whatever emotion and adrenaline that carried them into the second half before folding against Georgia two weeks ago did not make the first conference road trip.
That was painfully obvious after the most lopsided scoreless first quarter imaginable. The only thing that kept South Carolina out of the end zone was South Carolina.
Shaw’s first (and only) incomplete pass bounced toward Lattimore to end the first possession in Tiger territory.
Damiere Byrd fumbled the ball away at the Mizzou 14 on the second.
The head ball coach failed to let Shaw hand off to Lattimore twice at the goal-line on the third to turn the ball over on downs. This after a 79-yard march that started with Shaw’s 80-yard touchdown run being nullified by a penalty.
These were the kind of wasted opportunities that typically lose SEC games. Yet there was little doubt in the minds of any of the 80,000 people in attendance that none of those failures would come back to haunt the Gamecocks.
“We messed up on the 1-yard line and did not score,” said Spurrier. “Other than that we played pretty well. All the guys played well.”
Missouri wasn’t capable of taking advantage. The Gamecocks defense bottled up the Tigers with its speed and strength and allowed only one meaningful drive that culminated in a field goal.
But it was the offense that made this first conference meeting between the two Columbias seem as simple as a scrimmage. Other than two fumbles and a turnover on downs, Shaw and Co. had their way in winning the first annual Columbia Mayor’s Cup.
“Connor got off to a slow start,” Spurrier said. “He missed his first one, I think. ... Sort of surprising Missouri laid back in a Cover 2 zone most of the first half, mixed it up just a little bit after that and didn’t blitz a whole lot.”
Shaw didn’t miss after his first hurried toss. Most of his targets were all alone in expansive voids in the Tiger defense. Tight end Justice Cunningham was so largely ignored that Shaw completed one pass to him left-handed just to spice things up.
The whole thing made it so laughable that many pundits (present company included) had questioned whether the so-far underwhelming Gamecocks could handle Missouri. Shaw, for one, didn’t think the doubts were funny.
“That’s something we talked about before the game,” he said. “I kind of felt it was disrespectful to us and we wanted to prove what the SEC is all about.”
Missouri is finding out the hard way about life in the SEC. Its first two conference losses came against division teams ranked in the top seven.
“That was a pretty dominating performance so we will learn from it and get better,” Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel said.
Judging from Saturday, Mizzou can’t improve enough in the three weeks before they play No. 1 Alabama.
South Carolina, on the other hand, will have to wait two more weeks before the real competition begins and a legitimate SEC team finally comes to town.