COLUMBIA – Little children from Plum Branch to Society Hill know the old college football adage, even if it’s as new as the most recent SEC expansion in 2012.
As Missouri goes, so goes the Gamecocks’ season.
• 2014: A 21-20 home loss for No. 13 South Carolina in Steve Spurrier’s final full season as head coach. You know it’s a bad year if the team is spending Christmas Day in Shreveport.
• 2015: A 24-10 loss, one game before Spurrier quit. Part of a disastrous 6-7 season.
Other than that, South Carolina owns the SEC series with Missouri. That’s part of what makes Saturday’s game against The Other Tigers in The Other Columbia the opener of a must-win doubleheader (Kentucky comes to the real Columbia next week).
The winning formula is simple enough: freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski plays with the poise sustained throughout last week’s 47-23 loss to Alabama, the revamped offensive line again blows holes open for Rico Dowdle (or Tavien Feaster) and pass rushers finally apply enough pressure to take heat off a struggling secondary.
Probably no bowl game for a team off to a 1-2 start.
South Carolina in The Show Me State must show its fans something to buy into.
“When you’re in the locker room and the game is over and you see the guys obviously hurting, that’s not a good thing,” head coach Will Muschamp said Tuesday. “But it’s a good thing.”
But a good thing post-Alabama is not a good thing post-Missouri, particularly when Missouri comes a few weeks after a disappointing showing against North Carolina in the season opener.
Trade Mizzou for UCF
That Missouri, which opened with a loss at Wyoming, is favored by 9.5 points is insulting to the Gamecocks, everyone who worked to build the program and those kids in Society Hill.
Sure, Missouri in its short tenure already has more SEC East titles (2) than South Carolina (1).
The Tigers also beat the Gamecocks twice in bowl games.
But if the natural order of SEC East football regularly includes an imported mid-level Big 12 program a cut above South Carolina, it’s time to reevaluate George Rogers Boulevard priorities.
Missouri is more of a defensive lineman school (Charles Harris, Shane Ray, Markus Golden, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Sheldon Richardson) than a football school.
It’s one of the least intimidating football environments for road teams in the SEC (fans usually bring radios to listen to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games and aren’t paying attention).
If the SEC traded Missouri back to the Big 12 for a few buckets of baseballs and recruited Central Florida, most of the conference fan bases and all high school geography teachers would celebrate.
But now the Tigers have former (Clemson) Tiger Kelly Bryant at quarterback. They have recently whipped West Virginia (38-7) and Southeast Missouri State (50-0).
They see South Carolina as a revenge game.
That’s because Missouri, with overrated star quarterback Drew Lock at quarterback, lost at South Carolina last season as Michael Scarnecchia made his lone college start: 37-35 Gamecocks, in the rain.
Bryant, 12-2 as a Clemson starter in 2017, is an upgrade over Lock, who didn’t throw for more than 257 yards in any 2018 SEC game.
He’s a winner.
And coming out a loser to a quarterback not good enough to start for Clemson won’t go over well at Gamecock Club meetings.
‘A dangerous team’
There is nothing wrong with the Gamecocks’ focus.
“It’s a huge game,” said tight end Kyle Markway, a junior tight end from St. Louis whose 27-yard catch set up Parker White’s game-winning field goal against Missouri last season. “It’s an SEC East game and we want to win the SEC East.”
Winning the Mayor’s Cup is the first step. Just in case anyone forgot the prize, Muschamp this week made sure to place the traveling trophy that goes to the Columbia vs. Columbia winner inside the team meeting room.
Dakereon Joyner, the redshirt freshman receiver/quarterback from Fort Dorchester High School, echoed the theory that South Carolina is a “desperate team.”
What does a desperate team look like?
“A dangerous team,” Joyner said.
The Gamecocks, by the way, are potentially much more dangerous if they get Joyner the ball more often than his one catch for 13 yards against Alabama.
But even when Missouri was going to the SEC Championship Game in 2013 and 2014, the Tigers lost to South Carolina, which was enjoying two of its three straight 11-2 seasons.
The kids know the stakes are at least as high this week. Losing is not an option if the Gamecocks want to avoid a Dec. 26 bowl game in Shreveport.
Or, worse, that ghastly holiday feeling of longing for such a trip.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff