You could make the case that the South Carolina-Missouri game on Saturday was unlikely to ever happen, and certainly that it was unlikely to have the stakes that it did. Five years ago, Steve Spurrier's program-building project at South Carolina seemed stuck in neutral, and the Big 12 was a stable football league. Then came along conference realignment, the rise of the Gamecocks and finally the surprise start to this season by Missouri. And so the Gamecocks and the Tigers squared off Saturday night with the future of the SEC East hanging at least partly in the balance.
Everyone with the possible exception of Missouri fans should be glad that all those hurdles were cleared and the unlikely game happened -- because it was a barnburner and one of the more entertaining games in an SEC East season already filled with drama and surprises. With a 17-point fourth quarter and a two-overtime victory, South Carolina kept itself alive in the division race, though Missouri still leads by a game. At the same time, the Tigers' national championship hopes came crashing down to earth, and they have to recover to win out over their next four SEC matchups.
The game itself was a story of missed opportunities for both teams. Mike Davis fumbled twice for South Carolina, once on a drive that seemed almost certain to produce the game-tying touchdown late in the second quarter. That led to a 96-yard pass from Maty Mauk to L'Damian Washington, which gave the Tigers a 14-point lead that seemed at the time to be insurmountable for South Carolina. The offense, being run by Dylan Thompson, was sputtering. The defense, while preventing Missouri from putting too many points on the board, was nonetheless struggling.
Then Connor Shaw came in with his team trailing 17-0 and less than 22 minutes left on the clock. And promptly had perhaps the greatest game in one of the greatest careers a South Carolina quarterback has ever put together. Too injured to start but not too injured to play, at least according to Steve Spurrier, Shaw went 20-of-29 for 209 yards and three touchdowns, orchestrating three scoring drives in the third and fourth quarters that took the Gamecocks from the brink of a shutout to a chance to win in overtime. All of a sudden, it was a game.
Missouri, for its part, refused to quit. While the Tigers were shutout in the fourth quarter, they came back to life in the first overtime. Marcus Murphy took the ball one yard for the go-ahead touchdown, as Jadeveon Clowney almost placidly watched him go by. (If the game was a microcosm of South Carolina's season, it was also a microcosm of Clowney's, with moments of brilliance and moments when he seemed to forget that he was in the middle of a high-stakes football game.)
The Gamecocks also had one final high-wire act in them. After a long pass to Bruce Ellington and a sack of Connor Shaw, South Carolina ended up with a fourth-and-goal from the 15-yard line. But Shaw hit Ellington again in the end zone to send the game to a second overtime.
South Carolina started out the second overtime with a field goal. Then it was Mizzou's turn. And some wise people saw this as the final part of the game, one way or the other. Missouri failed to score a touchdown, and the Tigers set up to try their own field goal. But the hold was bad, and this happened:
Suddenly, there is the smallest crack in the door for the other SEC East contenders. One of them will essentially be eliminated next weekend in Jacksonville, when Florida and Georgia play. Missouri will look to go undefeated over its last four games -- vs. Tennessee, at Kentucky, at Ole Miss and vs. Texas A&M -- to keep things from getting too interesting. South Carolina has home bouts against Mississippi State and Florida. And they might have to play those games without Mike Davis, who ended the game on the sidelines after a gruesome-looking injury.
About the only thing we can be sure of is that there is still something unpredictable left in the race for the SEC East. After all, Saturday's game probably never should have happened. Why would we expect the craziness to die down now?