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South Carolina has won its last three games against Missouri, including last year's 37-35 victory at Williams-Brice Stadium. File/Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

COLUMBIA — Don’t lose to North Carolina, and South Carolina’s right where it wanted to be and feeling pretty good.

But the Gamecocks did lose to North Carolina. It’s an anchor that started the football season on the bottom of the sea, and a strong performance in a loss to Alabama last week only raised it a couple of turns on the winch.

USC’s first true away game has the Gamecocks heading to Missouri on Saturday. Tigers coach Barry Odom has never beaten USC, and the Gamecocks have won the last three in the series.

It’s difficult to say which team will show up on either side. Will USC look like the team that played well offensively against the No. 2 team in the country? Will Missouri be the same team that has put up all sorts of pretty statistics but hasn’t played a good team (and lost to one of the bad ones)?

The winner will take a big step toward defining its season. Here's four keys to a Gamecock victory:

Quick trigger

“Defensively, we've got to improve tremendously on the back end,” USC coach Will Muschamp said. “The explosive plays are something we emphasize going into the game, and we didn't obviously handle that situation very well.”

It’s the second straight year Muschamp has called out his secondary, and this time there aren’t any injuries to blame it on. The defense is too talented to be playing this miserably.

The Gamecocks expected to be led by their young defensive backs, but that hasn't been the case. Bad angles, bad technique in playing the ball and bad tackling have allowed UNC and Alabama to burn crop circles in USC’s coverage.

If something’s not working early Saturday, Muschamp should start switching positions or putting in other players. The look alone could confuse Mizzou quarterback Kelly Bryant and make him hesitate, but it could also solve the problems.

Nothing like a backup to provide a solution.

Bama book

It’s Missouri’s worst nightmare. USC is about to play the Tigers with a backup quarterback.

This will be the fifth time in eight games the Gamecocks are in that scenario, and USC has won three of the previous four.

Ryan Hilinski, the reigning SEC Freshman of the Week, looked calm and methodical against Alabama, making quick decisions and unleashing his right arm for a staggering 57 pass attempts in his first collegiate start. He’ll be doing the same Saturday, trying to channel the other USC backups who beat Missouri (Connor Shaw, Jake Bentley, Michael Scarnecchia).

Whatever the Gamecocks did offensively last week, don’t touch it. Let Hilinski do what he does, allow the running game to flourish and stay out of the way.

Especially in the red zone. That spot could use some improvisation.

Where’s D.J.?

Remember how D.J. Wonnum was going to return and show exactly why the NFL was a consideration after last year? How he was going to be one of the most underrated defenders in the country?

Through three games, Wonnum has no sacks and three tackles for loss. The secondary’s problems are their own, but not having any threat of a pass-rush doesn’t help the defensive backs do their jobs.

Any quarterback will get knocked out of rhythm with constant pressure. If Wonnum can get to Bryant early and often, it will help.

Every game’s a season

It’s one of the many mantras Muschamp has for his team. The only game that matters is the one in front of them.

Those players have a little extra on this one. This game could determine if they keep playing for Muschamp.

The patience of the USC fan base is running out, especially after the season-opening loss to UNC. If the Gamecocks were 2-1 with a hard-fought loss to Alabama, that’s understandable. But they’re not, and Missouri (and Kentucky next week) are two games that could determine the season.

Muschamp is supported and respected by his players. He’s made great progress. But even he says the only stats that matter are wins, and USC needs more of them.

This is a game they can win.

Prediction

South Carolina 31, Missouri 24

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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