COLUMBIA — In a normal year, college football reporters and fans are locked in on airports and tracking flights to try to glean information about potential head coaching hires.
In years where a Power 5 head coach needs to be replaced, airports can be wellsprings of information, and suddenly everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who works at the nearest airfield, as everyone rushes to make educated guesses on what comes next.
But in 2020, flight schedules and pictures of jets on tarmac are used just to verify college football games are actually being played.
Missouri's flight took off from Columbia Regional at 12:49 p.m. Friday and landed at Columbia (S.C.) Metropolitan at 2:19 p.m., one of the final hurdles to clear before the Tigers (2-3) and South Carolina (2-5) kick off at 6:30 p.m. tonight.
As of Thursday afternoon, Missouri was right at the 53-man cutoff for healthy scholarship players available to start the game established by the Southeastern Conference earlier this year, but they're not alone. Mississippi State's flight to Athens, Ga., was delayed slightly and a positive test result from the Bulldogs' most recent round of testing means they elected to face No. 13 Georgia on the road with fewer than 53 scholarship players, according to multiple reports, the first SEC game this season to be played in such conditions.
"We're 18 weeks into the season and have only played five games," Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz said Tuesday. "This is not normal, or new. But this is a no-excuse league, and we've got to figure it out as coaches and players. This week is a trophy week, we've got a chance the Mayor's Cup, so we've got to be really excited, and have an opportunity to play."
South Carolina fired Will Muschamp on Sunday after a 28-30 record in nearly five seasons, including a 17-22 mark in SEC play, but one of the bright spots of his tenure with the Gamecocks was a 3-1 record against Missouri, with a three-game win streak ended last year at Faurot Field.
Muschamp's team beat No. 4 Georgia on the road last year, 20-17 in two overtimes with South Carolina's third-string quarterback to knock the Bulldogs out of playoff contention, but lost five of their next six games to end the regular season and missed a bowl game at 4-8. That stretch included a 20-15 loss at home to Drinkwitz's Appalachian State team, which also beat North Carolina on the road in 2019, and a 38-3 home loss to No. 2 Clemson, the Gamecocks' main rival and a team Muschamp never beat.
Drinkwitz had nothing but praise for Muschamp this week, particularly for how he carried himself off the field, and said the Mountaineers' win at South Carolina meant a lot to the team, which was full of under-recruited players from the Palmetto State.
"I actually sent a picture to one of my offensive lineman from last year of him getting after one of their defensive lineman," Drinkwitz said of the game, "and it just brought a bunch of good memories back. It was a tremendous job by our defensive players, we had to hold on at the end, and it was fun. It was fun to go into an away game, App State, underdog, to an SEC school and get a win. It was a lot of fun, something I'll always remember, and those bus rides back to App, from UNC and then from South Carolina, were the shortest 4-, 4-, 5-hour bus rides of my life."
One of the key players in South Carolina's stunning upset of Georgia, defensive back Israel Mukuamu, will not be suiting up for today's game. Mukuamu had three interceptions against the Bulldogs, including a pick-6, but after Muschamp was fired, he and fellow cornerback Jaycee Horn both opted out of the remainder of the season to focus on preparing for the NFL Draft, as did safety/linebacker R.J. Roderick, who had two interceptions last season. Mukuamu and Horn shared the Gamecocks' lead in interceptions with two each this season.
"It's really not about them, it's about us," redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak said when asked if the opt-outs changed Missouri's game prep. "If we execute then we'll play well. It's really just about us, I'm not too focused on who they've got back there. We play in the SEC, everybody's gonna be good, no matter who they have, so it's really just about us."
With two full weeks idle between games, one due to a bye after the Florida loss and one due to the Georgia game's postponement because of COVID issues within the Missouri program, concern about and a focus on the fundamentals has been the foundation of practice.
Drinkwitz has pointed out the Tigers' issues with dropped passes have come on the road, and there are still questions about the offensive line's ability to pass protect and block with two starters out due to injury.
Luke Griffin will start at left guard with Xavier Delgado out with an injury, and Dylan Spencer, who played well against Florida and Kentucky, suspended for the first half because of the halftime fight in Gainesville.
Javon Foster will start at right tackle in place of the injured Larry Borom, but Drinkwitz said on his Thursday radio show both Delgado and Borom would travel with the team for today's game and could be available in an emergency capacity.
Missouri's defense will be tasked with slowing down Gamecocks running back Kevin Harris, who has 817 yards and 13 scores in seven games. Harris has surpassed 100 yards rushing four times this season, had 12 carries for 126 yards and two scores against LSU and 25 carries for 243 yards and five touchdowns against Mississippi. Harris ran touchdowns in from 44 and 46 yards against the Rebels, both of which came on first-and-10.
Three players to watch for the Tigers along the defensive front are Akial Byers, Jatorian Hansford and Drake Heismeyer. Byers, a senior defensive tackle, has been playing all four positions on the line this season as Missouri has had to shuffle players around due to injury, and has four tackles and a tackle for loss in four games. Hansford was ruled out for the season during fall camp after shoulder surgery but returned quicker than expected and is slated to start today, and Heismeyer, a true freshman and backup center, has moved to the defensive line this week and has been practicing against the Tigers' offensive tackles.