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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It hasn't been the season Steve Spurrier envisioned for No. 13 South Carolina when the year began.
Still, the Gamecocks can take control of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division when they face Missouri on Saturday night.
The Gamecocks (3-1, 2-1 SEC) were voted the favorites this summer to supplant Missouri (3-1, 0-0) as East champions and play for an SEC title. But South Carolina's status took a major hit in the first game when it was run over by No. 6 Texas A&M, 52-28. Spurrier and the Gamecocks have steadily climbed back to the top of the division with wins over No. 12 Georgia and, last week, at Vanderbilt.
South Carolina will move to 3-0 in the division with a win against the Tigers.
There were plenty of things for Spurrier to grouse about in the Vanderbilt win, including the breakdown that still sticks in his craw — the Commodores running back a pair of kick-off returns for touchdowns in the 48-34 victory.
"It's always frustrating for coaches when you can't quite get your players to play at the level you need to and it was embarrassing the last game," Spurrier said. "There is no question about that. I think every Gamecock that watched it on TV or was there said, "Man, that was an embarrassing performance at times'."
Spurrier said stellar play of quarterback Dylan Thompson and receiver Pharoh Cooper helped the Gamecocks dig out of a 14-0 hole and leave with a victory.
Thompson threw for 237 yards and three TDs while Cooper caught 10 passes for 114 yards. He also had a 70-yard run out a wildcat quarterback formation. Despite the win, Spurrier knows South Carolina must improve starting this week against Missouri.
"We're still in the hunt for whatever we're in the hunt for," he said. "But obviously, we need to concern ourselves with playing the game at a lot better level than we've been playing."
Things to watch for when Missouri plays No. 13 South Carolina:
MISSOURI MINDSET: No team or individual has vexed Missouri since it joined the SEC than South Carolina and quarterback Connor Shaw. The Gamecock passer completed 20 of 21 for 249 yards passing and two touchdowns to beat the Tigers 31-10. A year later, Missouri held a 17-0 lead at home on the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter when Shaw, who had been ill all weekend, entered to rally his team to a 27-24 win in double overtime. The comeback included a 15-yard TD pass to Bruce Ellington on fourth-and-goal in overtime. Shaw, now on the Cleveland Browns practice squad, will make an on-field appearance at Saturday's game. "You know what? Last year was last year. That's what we're really preaching," Missouri center Evan Boehm said.
THOMPSON'S TIME: Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson struggled early against Missouri in last year's victory before coming out in favor of Shaw said he used that poor showing to motivate him to improve in taking over for Shaw. Thompson is second in the SEC with 1,130 yards passing this season.
MISSOURI DEFENSE: The Tigers still have some bite up front even without SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam. Missouri defensive linemen Shane Ray and Markus Golden rank first and third in SEC sacks, Ray with six and Golden with four. Linebacker Michael Scherer leads the SEC with 41 tackles.
HELP WANTED: PASS RUSHERS: South Carolina has struggled putting pressure on passers this season, so much so that when asked about improving that discipline, Spurrier quipped: "Pass rush? What's that?" For a team accustomed to NFL No. 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney the past three seasons, this year's group has been disappointing and is tied for last in SEC sacks with four.
GAMEDAY SUCCESS: Steve Spurrier's usually had a good night after ESPN's College GameDay has been on South Carolina's campus. The preview show is making its fifth trip since Spurrier became Gamecocks coach before the 2005 season. South Carolina as gone 3-1, including a 35-21 victory in 2010 over then No. 1 Alabama. Spurrier even won a GameDay contest here when he was Florida's coach, defeating Lou Holtz's team 54-17 in 2001.
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