[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]
Missouri’s Independence Bowl foe won’t be the famed Florida Gators as anticipated the past few weeks, but the Tigers will take on Steve Spurrier, one of the greatest coaches in Florida football history.
Spurrier, who spent 12 successful seasons with the Gators, now coaches the South Carolina Gamecocks, who finished a surprising 7-4 and were named Missouri’s opponent in the Dec. 30 game.
“Preseason we were picked by most of the experts to be around 4-7 or 5-6,” Spurrier said. “Our goal was to win at least six and go to a bowl and our players achieved that so we’re really looking forward to this.”
The Gamecocks finished second in the SEC East this season, Spurrier’s first as coach. After leaving Florida to coach the NFL’s Washington Redskins for two seasons, he returned to the college game this season and led South Carolina to five wins in its past six games, including upsets against Tennessee and his alma-mater Florida that snapped school losing streaks of 12 and 14 games to those teams.
The Gamecocks are going to their first bowl game since the 2002 Outback Bowl.
They were bowl eligible last season but school officials vowed not to accept an invitation as punishment for an embarrassing fourth-quarter brawl in the season finale against Clemson.
Spurrier said he has seen a lot of excitement from Gamecock fans about returning to the postseason.
“They’re well rested,” he said with a laugh.
Missouri senior Jason Simpson said he is looking forward to the matchup with one of college football’s biggest names.
“It’s a great honor to play against a man like that,” he said. “...but he won’t be playing, so he have got to beat the other 22 guys.”
Spurrier said his team has been a scrappy and has eked out wins in close contests.
“We didn’t dominate hardly anyone but we hung in there and won more than our share of the close games,” he said. “Statistically we’re not going to awe you.”
South Carolina ranks ninth in the 12-team SEC and 104th among 117 NCAA Division-I teams in total offense, gaining 307 yards per game.
Receiver Sidney Rice is the team’s top weapon. His 95 receiving yards per game and 12 touchdown catches were tops in the SEC.
“Sidney is our wide receiver who has probably been our most valuable player,” Spurrier said “He’s a big kid, 6-4, who came out of nowhere.”
Defensively, South Carolina surrenders 347 yards per game but only allows 22 points per game.
“We gave up a lot of yards but kept people out of the end zone,” Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks’ biggest struggle against the Tigers will probably be stopping the run. They were 11th in the SEC and 88th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game and Missouri’s rushing attack, led by Brad Smith (the Big 12 Conference’s leading rusher) ranks 19th nationally.
The only previous meeting between the two teams was the 1979 Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. where the Tigers won 24-14.
The only common opponent between the Missouri and South Carolina this year was Troy, who was blown out by both teams. Mizzou beat the Trojans 52-21 on Sept. 19, a week before the South Carolina defeated them 45-20.