COLUMBIA — Saturday's game between Missouri and South Carolina — if it's played — will be a test of wills and what a football team can do when presented with a unique set of challenges.
The Gamecocks (2-5) fired coach Will Muschamp on Sunday after one of the worst three-game stretches in program history on defense, the day after South Carolina allowed 59 points and more than 700 yards to a Mississippi team in its first year under Lane Kiffin.
During the next two days, three of the Gamecocks' defensive starters — cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu and safety R.J. Roderick — opted out, along with backup defensive lineman Markius Scott. Horn and Mukuamu are likely NFL Draft picks.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is South Carolina's interim head coach. He was previously head coach at Colorado State where he crossed paths with Eli Drinkwitz and Boise State in the mid-2010s.
"We've got a tremendous challenge ahead of us," Drinkwitz said Tuesday in his weekly press conference. "Because you know they're gonna have great energy and rallying effort for this staff and coach Muschamp, a circle-the-wagons type game for them."
Those opt-outs are big blows for a defense that already struggled to stop the pass: South Carolina has allowed 18 passing touchdowns through seven games, and opposing quarterbacks are completing 67.4 percent of passes for 9.4 yards per attempt, all numbers in the bottom 20 nationally among pass defenses.
In losses to Texas A&M and Mississippi this month, South Carolina allowed a 76.3 percent completion rate, 390 yards passing per game, nine passing touchdowns against no interceptions and an astounding 13.2 yards per pass attempt, the worst mark among all college football teams by a full yard (Wake Forest has allowed 12.2 yards per attempt).
"It's really just about us," Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak said Tuesday. "I'm not too focused on who they've got back there. We play in the SEC, everybody's gonna be good."
But the Tigers (2-3) aren't in great shape either. Missouri has been off since an Oct. 31 loss at Florida, and that 20-day stretch is the longest time since the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the team has been between games during a season. Missouri has played two games since beating LSU 45-41 on Oct. 10.
Two positive COVID-19 tests and subsequent isolation protocols last week postponed a home game against Georgia, and Drinkwitz confirmed Tuesday there were "a couple" positive test results, and further isolation, revealed by subsequent testing.
Missouri has been close to the cutoff line of 53 scholarship players available at kickoff for most of the season because of injuries, opt-outs, transfers and scholarship reductions. The Tigers are right on that line as of Tuesday, with offensive linemen Xavier Delgado and Larry Borom and defensive lineman Kobie Whiteside all questionable for South Carolina, and tight end Daniel Parker Jr. listed as doubtful.
"I think right now the way I have it, we're at 56 scholarship players, with one of those being suspended in the first half," Drinkwitz said. "And we still have two tests to go, so I don't know what our final roster number will look like. We all committed to playing this week. We want to play, our players want to play, so we will do whatever we can in order to have that opportunity, but it is what it is."
Missouri held a four-quarter scrimmage Saturday at Faurot Field in place of the Georgia game with the players it had available. Backup center Drake Heismeyer has been working with the defensive line during recent practices, and Drinkwitz said some wide receivers have been working in the secondary to help with depth.
Because of numbers, there will likely be two new starters in Saturday's game against South Carolina: defensive end Jatorian Hansford, who played for the first time this year at Florida after missing the first four games of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery, and redshirt freshman Luke Griffin at left guard.
Three players — offensive lineman Dylan Spencer, linebacker Chad Bailey and defensive lineman Markell Utsey — will be suspended for the first half of the South Carolina game after the halftime fight with Florida players, but Drinkwitz said only one of them will be available this weekend, not specifying which player that will be.
"We're committed to playing, but I can't predict the future or forecast what the future's going to be like," Drinkwitz said. "I learned my lesson the hard way last week. So I'm trying to be, I'm as open and honest with information as I can and always will be about COVID and COVID-related issues. But this is a year unlike any other."