COLUMBIA – As the team bus pulled away from Neyland Stadium on Saturday, South Carolina freshman linebacker Skai Moore didn’t know who led the SEC East standings.
Moore knew it wasn’t the Gamecocks, not after their upset loss at Tennessee. He knew Georgia and Florida also lost in a wild, upset Saturday. These were the three titans of their division, the teams expected to run away from the pack.
When he learned Missouri held a two-game lead in the division, Moore admitted he was surprised.
“I actually didn’t know much about it,” Moore said. “This week was my first time actually watching any type of film on them. I never really caught a game in high school, or previous years, watching it either. This is my first week really getting to know about the Tigers.”
Moore isn’t alone. The rest of the nation is still getting to know Missouri, the biggest surprise in college football this season.
When the Tigers were picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the SEC East, coach Gary Pinkel was expected to be on the hot seat this fall. Now, Missouri is ranked fifth in the season’s first BCS standings, and Pinkel is the national Coach of the Year frontrunner.
At 7-0, Missouri is one of two remaining undefeated teams in the SEC. The other is top-ranked Alabama, the two-time defending national champion.
“Missouri is the team that, I guess, has caught everybody off guard a bit,” USc coach Steve Spurrier said. “They weren’t picked to win the East, and yet they got a two-game lead on all of us right now.”
Spurrier admitted Missouri came out of nowhere. Three weeks ago, the Tigers were unranked in the Associated Press and Coaches Poll. Their first time cracking the nation’s top 10 was this week.
Missouri had beaten up on non-conference teams, from a home win against Toledo to a road victory at Indiana. It wasn’t until the Tigers started doing the same against SEC opponents — including a road win at Georgia two weeks ago — that they were taken seriously.
“When they beat Georgia is when they got the attention of everyone, and of course followed up with the victory over Florida last week,” Spurrier said. “They’re a sound team, they play good zone defense, always in position. Pretty fast team, too. Their offense has been outstanding.
“They’ve done some really good recruiting there at Missouri, which you have to do if you’re going to be a top team, as we all know.”
Missouri looks nothing like the group that finished 5-7 — and 2-6 against conference opponents — in its inaugural SEC season.
This fall, the Tigers rank second in the conference with 44.3 points per game and fourth with 22.1 points allowed per game. Missouri’s average margin of victory is 22.5. In 2012, the Tigers’ scoring margin was minus-2.5 points per game.
Moore began learning about Missouri as the team bus headed toward the Knoxville airport. The more he learned, the more impressed he became.
“I really didn’t have any prior knowledge about Missouri or anything,” Moore said. “I was just going in there expecting it to be cold. That’s pretty much all I know about it, but I think we’ll be ready.”
Moore said preparation for the Tigers began on that bus ride, before the team could take their flight home. As they saw quick highlights of Missouri’s win against Florida, Moore took mental notes. Defensive players talked about stopping backup quarterback Matty Mauk, who didn’t miss a beat in starter James Franklin’s absence.
“It was just friendly chatter amongst the team, just talking about the next opponent,” Moore said. “It wasn’t anything serious.”
Still, it helped the Gamecocks move past their bitter loss to the Volunteers.
Spurrier stopped short of saying the defeat will help his team be more focused this week. The coach said he’ll find out when his team takes the field Saturday night. Senior guard A.J. Cann said playing Missouri doesn’t give his team time to dwell on last week’s disappointment.
“I don’t think anybody’s down in the dumps right now,” Cann said. “More than anything, I think we’re a lot more focused because we’ve got a big test this week.
“We’re not, I guess, paying attention to how they’re ranked or how good they are. We just want to prepare for them like we do any other team. We’re going to come out here and play the best way that we can.”
Follow South Carolina beat writer Ryan Wood on Twitter @rwood_SC.