The craziest thing about last year’s Missouri-South Carolina game at Williams Brice Stadium wasn’t the game-winning drive and touchdown from Tigers RB Russell Hansbrough or Missouri QB Maty Mauk running into Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier.

No, the craziest thing about that game was how the Tigers limited South Carolina WR/PR/all-around playmaker Pharoh Cooper.

Sure, Cooper caught a great touchdown in the fourth quarter. But for most of the game, Missouri limited who was, then and now, South Carolina’s most dangerous weapon. Cooper only had two more receptions besides that touchdown for a total of 52 receiving yards. More significantly, Cooper was only able to return two of Missouri’s 10 punts for positive yards. That proved huge for the Tigers in the field position battle.

There have been some changes on both Missouri’s and South Carolina’s rosters in the past year. But the most important player when the two Columbia schools play on Saturday in Missouri will, once again, be Cooper.

The junior hasn’t had consistency from the quarterback position this season, with South Carolina finally seeming to settle on freshman Lorenzo Nunez after Connor Mitch’s injury and Perry Orth’s performance against Georgia. Cooper made up for it with his play in the Wildcat formation, as well as with regular receptions (17 for 220 receiving yards and two touchdowns so far this season).

When you look at these two teams, Cooper is the only “breakout” player whose performance, or lack thereof, could be the difference in this game. Both South Carolina and Missouri have been fairly disappointing so far this season, and it’s tough to expect Hansbrough to be healthy enough to carry the Missouri offense or Nunez to be efficient enough to navigate past Missouri’s tough defense. Maybe Mauk plays inspired the game after his father had surgery for colorectal cancer, but his receiving corps hasn’t been good enough so far for the Tigers to have much of a passing game.

That leaves Cooper as this game’s X-factor. If the Tigers are able to limit him and the rest of South Carolina’s offense like they did last season, Missouri has a good chance to win this game at home and get back in the SEC East race. Should Cooper break loose on a return, run or reception, though, Missouri may not have the offensive or special teams fire power to pull even with the Gamecocks.

It will be interesting to see how Missouri defensive coordinator Josh Henson tries to contain Cooper, especially if LB Kentrell Brothers can’t play or is limited from last week’s injury. Missouri’s pass-rushers shouldn’t have much trouble getting past South Carolina’s offensive line, but pure speed and strength aren’t always the best ways to stop Cooper, especially as Nunez grows more confident as a scrambler.


Top player, offense: Pharoh Cooper, Jr., WR — Can run, catch and even throw, making him one of the most dangerous playmakers in the SEC.

Top player, defense: Skai Moore, Jr., LB — Has three interceptions and 40 tackles (third-best in the SEC) so far this season after trash-talking Mauk during SEC Media Days.

Top player, special teams: Elliott Fry, Jr., K — Made a 52-yard field goal last week and is second in the SEC in average kickoff return yardage.