College Sports

Five burning questions for South Carolina-Missouri: Ryan Hilinski vs. Kelly Bryant

South Carolina football plays its first true road game of the season Saturday, facing SEC East foe Missouri at 4 p.m. in Memorial Stadium. The contest will be televised on the SEC Network Alternate channel.

With a 1-2 record and games still to come against ranked opponents Clemson, Georgia, Texas A&M and Florida, the Gamecocks’ path to six wins likely hinges on a win against Mizzou, whom they have defeated three times in a row. Here are the burning questions USC has to answer to extend that streak to four.

How does Ryan Hilinski look in his first road game?

Freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski has passed his first two tests — first career start against Charleston Southern and first SEC start against Alabama. He’s got another this week in his first road start at Missouri. The Tigers have been working hard to boost attendance this season, and while it might be a stretch to declare this series a full-fledged rivalry, there will likely be a somewhat hostile atmosphere to challenge Hilinski on Saturday.

The highly-hyped freshman has yet to lose his cool through two games. And after Alabama’s defense, there probably isn’t much that can scare him. But Hilinski is going for his first FBS win in a game where coach Will Muschamp has acknowledged his team is desperate for a win. The pressure is on.

How many times will Hilinski throw the ball?

Against Alabama, Hilinski came just one pass attempt short of tying the program record for the most in a game. A lot of that came out of necessity, Muschamp said afterward — in order to beat a top-rated team like Alabama, you have to take risks, especially when playing from behind like South Carolina did all game.

But after being promised an up-tempo attack last season under new coordinator Bryan McClendon, fans were happy to see a gun-slinging quarterback moving the Gamecock offense up and down the field, even if the unit did stall somewhat in the red zone.

The Tigers’ defense has allowed just 11 completions and fewer than 100 yards per game so far this season, though they’ve yet to face an offense with as much talent as USC. Will coach Muschamp gamble on his young QB to let it rip and challenge Missouri’s secondary?

Can the defense get its act together?

Between a win over FCS Charleston Southern and a blowout loss to No. 2 Alabama, South Carolina’s defense has put up some wildly divergent numbers over the past few weeks, leading the team to be ranked 13th in the SEC in yards and points per game.

Missouri boasts a solid offense with SEC talent that, while obviously not as good as Alabama’s, will challenge the Carolina defense in a meaningful way. Will the Gamecocks crumble like they did late against North Carolina? Or can they fix their issues — tackling, communication, one-on-one battles? Especially in the secondary, there’s not a whole lot of depth that can step up or take over. Whoever’s back there simply needs to play better for USC to have a chance.

Will Kelly Bryant beat the Gamecocks again?

The last time Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant played South Carolina, he was wearing Clemson orange in 2017, leading the Tigers to a 34-10 win at Williams-Brice Stadium. In that contest, he completed 23 passes on 34 attempts for 272 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

But Bryant’s not at Clemson anymore, and the talent level of his weapons is not quite what it was. That’s not to say Mizzou doesn’t have any players who will give South Carolina’s defense trouble. It’s just that this time around, Bryant’s performance will have a much larger impact on the game. Clemson’s suffocating defense made his job easy in 2017. That might not be the case Saturday.

Is this a rivalry or not?

As mentioned above, South Carolina-Missouri has been an odd series ever since Mizzou moved to the SEC. Despite being division foes, the Gamecocks and Tigers have no geographical reason to be bitter rivals, but the powers that be have been trying to make it happen with the “Mayor’s Cup,” so named because both schools are located in cities called Columbia.

Muschamp, for his part, has been game, telling reporters that he has the Mayor’s Cup, which USC has won three years in a row, in the team meeting room this week. And Missouri players have certainly not backed away from describing the matchup as a rivalry.

It helps that the past seven years’ of games have been mostly competitive and produced memorable moments, and that Muschamp and Missouri coach Barry Odom were hired in the same year, putting them on parallel trajectories. Another thriller this Saturday could add to the pro-rivalry argument.

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.
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