After scoring an upset at Kentucky, No. 20 Missouri is positioned to deliver a breakthrough season for fourth-year coach Eli Drinkwitz.
The Tigers (6-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) will continue that quest when they host South Carolina (2-4, 1-3) in their homecoming game Saturday in Columbia, Mo.
Missouri finished 5-5, 6-7 and 6-7 during Drinkwitz’s first three seasons.
“We got an opportunity to be 7-1,” Missouri defensive end Darius Robinson said. “My whole career has been one-and-this, two-and-this, three-and-this, and the opportunity to be 7-1 is a blessing.”
Missouri has gained bowl eligibility and moved into contention for a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
“This is good,” Drinkwitz said. “We’ll see how it plays out. We’re not really worried about bowls right now.”
Missouri rallied from a 14-0 deficit to defeat then-No. 24 Kentucky 38-21. The Tigers scored a touchdown off a fake punt to start their rally, then they secured the victory with three strong defensive quarters.
“We were able to limit the run game and force them into some pass opportunities,” Drinkwitz said.
Until the Kentucky game, Missouri’s offense had performed much better than the team’s defense. Quarterback Brady Cook has passed for 2,046 yards and 14 touchdowns with a 71.0 percent completion rate.
Cody Schrader has rushed for 648 yards and seven touchdowns, and Luther Burden III (56 catches, 808 yards, five touchdowns) and Theo Wease Jr. (34 catches, 394 yards, five TDs) are Cook’s top targets.
South Carolina is coming off a 41-39 home loss to Florida on Saturday. The Gamecocks rushed for 152 yards and piled up 465 offensive yards.
“Proud of the offensive line,” Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer said Sunday. “Thought they played really well. They gave us a chance. We were able to get the run game going and opened up the passing game and a lot to build on.”
Missouri’s defense applied significant pressure at Kentucky, so offensive line play will be critical for South Carolina. The Gamecocks shuffled the personnel on that unit going into the Florida game.
Center Vershon Lee moved to right tackle and was replaced at center by guard Nick Gargiulo, Beamer also plugged true freshmen Trovon Baugh (right guard) and Tree Babalade (left tackle) into the starting lineup and started Trai Jones at left guard.
When Lee suffered a knee injury in the third quarter, Sidney Fugar replaced him. Lee’s status for the Missouri game is unclear.
“As far as the moves, it was something that we had talked about moving Vershon to tackle a couple of weeks ago,” Beamer said. “It was one of those, ‘Do you want to make that change?’ because that is pretty radical to move your starting center to right tackle. We said, ‘Let’s just keep trying to get these guys a little bit better and see how we can evolve.’
“Certainly, coming out of the Tennessee game (a 41-20 loss), that didn’t happen. Felt like we needed to do something.”
South Carolina’s offense is led by quarterback Spencer Rattler, who has passed for 1,724 yards and 11 touchdowns with a 73.6 percent completion rate. Mario Anderson has rushed for 328 yards on 64 carries and Xavier Legette has caught 37 passes for 716 yards and three TDs.