Editor's Note: Sports writer Adam Stillman will cover Saturday evening's Missouri football game. Follow @adamstillman87 and @NTsports on Twitter for gametime updates. The following is his gameday preview.
COLUMBIA, Mo. - It wasn't an unpopular opinion in 2012 that the Missouri Tigers didn't belong in the Southeastern Conference. Fast forward to 2013, and those very same Tigers are just a win away from planting one foot in Atlanta for the SEC title game.
No. 5 Missouri (7-0, 3-0 SEC) can possibly take a three-game lead in the SEC East Division with a victory against No. 20 South Carolina (5-2, 3-2 SEC) at 6 p.m. today (ESPN2-TV) at Faurot Field.
"We're still out there to perform our best and we're still out there to earn the respect," Missouri center Evan Boehm said. "The respect isn't given, and we know that right now. It's earned.
"I personally like being the underdog because not a lot of people are expecting us to do the things that we're doing right now. We're out there to create those big eyes and saying "Holy cow, where did Mizzou come from?' At the same time I don't think we've delivered our best game yet. We're out there to get better and deliver our best game."
A Missouri win would give the Tigers a three-game cushion over South Carolina, and even if Georgia and Florida win today to stay at two conference losses, Missouri holds the tiebreaker over both. Tennessee currently has two league losses but plays at No. 1 Alabama today.
"I haven't looked at the standings," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. "I just know this is our eighth game, and that's what we decided we're going to do this year. We're just going to go right down game by game by game. I don't care who we play. We're just going to try to play our best football. We only have 12 shots at it.
"Our players are aware of one thing - you keep winning and good things are going to happen. That's where our focus is."
Even if Pinkel doesn't look at the standings, he realizes the significance of Missouri's third straight game against a ranked opponent.
"They're all big, and they keep getting bigger," he said.
The biggest yet might be this week against South Carolina.
"Steve Spurrier is a great football coach, he's done a great job," Pinkel said. "I have great respect for him and how well-coached they are. They have a lot of great players and it's certainly going to be a challenge for us. We're excited again to be back-to-back weeks at the Zou. Our fans were awesome last week, we were very appreciative of that."
In what's become a theme for Missouri opponents, the Gamecocks will be without starting quarterback Connor Shaw who has a knee injury. Dylan Thompson will take his place. The junior is 29-of-51 on the season for 421 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"I just think you do the best you can with what you have, no matter who the quarterback is," Pinkel said of the situation. "You understand you just play football and do what you normally do. You have to deal with what you've got and adjust the best you can."
Shaw's absence might make South Carolina rely on the running game more than the Gamecocks already do. They're 19th in the nation with 224.6 yards per game, led by Mike Davis, who leads the SEC with 879 rushing yards.
"It's a big challenge. He's a big, physical runner," Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. "We have running backs that are just as good as him, and we practice against it every day, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem for us."
Missouri is on a roll right now with seven straight wins and a No. 5 national ranking. But Pinkel believes there's still room for improvement.
"I think we can get a lot better," he said. "We're a lot better than we were eight weeks ago. You become more confident, so they kind of go hand in hand."
The Tigers look to get better this weekend against a tough opponent.
"It's going to be a good game," Britt said. "They're tough, phsyical and big. We've played some really good defenses this season, and we're just going to do what we have to do to get it done."
And if Missouri does get it done, you might want to start booking your hotel in Atlanta.
Missouri backup quarterback Corin Berkstresser had surgery Thursday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The redshirt sophomore suffered the initial injury in practice Oct. 15, but didn't report any problems until last Sunday.
Berkstresser went in for an MRI on Monday that revealed the damage.
Freshman Eddie Printz will back up starting quarterback Maty Mauk should the need arise today against South Carolina. The original plan was to redshirt Printz, but the situation might call for that to be pulled.