COLUMBIA, Mo. – There is a festive spirit outside Faurot Field, the joy that accompanies Homecoming for a surprise 7-0 football team.

Missouri tailgates have been cranking music and grilling brats since the morning. As the sun begins to set on arguably South Carolina’s biggest game of the season, that energy will start flooding Memorial Stadium.

No. 20 South Carolina and No. 5 Missouri will kick off at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. For both teams, SEC East title hopes are likely on the line. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0 SEC East) enter as the surprise of the college football season, holding a two-game lead in the division. The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC East) could rebound from a disappointing loss at Tennessee last week and cut its deficit to one game in the standings, while also holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over Missouri.

In an ironic twist, both teams will fight for their turf in the division with backup quarterbacks. Dylan Thompson is expected to start in place of Connor Shaw, while Missouri freshman Maty Mauk will make his second straight start. Mauk’s first start was an impressive 36-17 win against Florida last week.

Missouri got on the college football map with wins against Georgia and Florida the past two weeks. Both teams were suffering severe injuries, with key players out of the game. Even with Shaw relegated to the backup role as he tries to get past a knee sprain from last week, USC is much healthier than Georgia or Florida. Guard Ronald Patrick (ankle) and safety Chez Elder (concussion) are among the Gamecocks players expected to return from injury tonight.

South Carolina will be the biggest test Missouri has faced this season. Of course, the same could be said about Missouri for South Carolina. Which team will cave? Therein lays the intrigue tonight.

As always, check PostandCourier.com for full updates throughout the game. The Post and Courier has beat writer Ryan Wood and columnist Gene Sapakoff on location in Columbia, Mo. You can follow them on Twitter @rwood_SC and @sapakoff. Make sure to pick up a copy of Sunday’s edition of The Post and Courier for full, in-depth coverage.