Connor Shaws window of opportunity widened as he took the field against Vanderbilt last season, his first taste of SEC football. He inherited a nightmare and a 21-3 lead. South Carolinas starter, Stephen Garcia, had just thrown his fourth interception of the game the previous series a cardinal sin under coach Steve Spurrier and was benched for what must have felt like the 74th time in his tumultuous career.
So in came the sophomore from Flowery Branch, Ga. Shaw kept his head down, made no mistakes and handed the ball off to Marcus Lattimore, the ultimate crutch for a first-time college quarterback. His final line: eight yards passing, 14 yards rushing.
South Carolina held the score at 21-3 for the win, and two games later Shaw was named the starter and posted an 8-1 record to close the season.
Connor, I think, is a better player than he was last year, and he was pretty good at the end of the year, Spurrier said in the weekly SEC coaches teleconference. As we all know, in the last four games his quarterback rating, I think, was the best in the country or something like that. Now we only threw 18 passes per game, so statistically he was very good.
The expectations are higher now.
South Carolinas aspirations to return to the SEC title game, which it missed out on last season despite winning 11 games and taking down division winner Georgia in Athens, hinges on Shaw and Lattimore. The defense has scary potential behind uber-athletic defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, but wins are going to be directly influenced by a backfield that started just two games together in 2011 due to Lattimores ACL injury against Mississippi State.
Shaw will not have the luxury of keeping his head down and managing games all season the schedule is too tough. And it starts with the Commodores, a team that came within a combined 19 points of some SEC big shots last season (Georgia, Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee) and believes it is in the midst of something special under fiery coach James Franklin.
Wed like to capitalize on this momentum right now, Franklin said of the opportunity to host the season opener. But on the same hand, Im careful with my team because we havent played in a lot of these types of games. Same last year with our bowl game, we havent played in these types of games a whole lot.
An opening road game against an invigorated opponent is never easy, especially a conference battle, so Shaws performance will need to resemble more of what he pulled off against Kentucky (311 yards, 4 touchdowns) and less of his struggles at Arkansas (128 yards, one interception).
He finished the season with 1,448 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions in a little more than eight games.
Lattimores health is the primary point of interest for the college football world Thursday night, as analysts and fans want to uncover just how healthy his left knee actually is. How confidently does he make his cuts? How does he explode through the hole? Will he be his same Heisman-contending, defense-obliterating self?
Theres a lot of guys that are fast or big or strong or quick or elusive, but theres not too many across the country that you can find that have the whole package of what youre looking for, Franklin said. I think Lattimores a rare guy, and from what Ive heard hes a great kid as well, unbelievable leader, great work ethic, the whole deal. Hes got all the different ingredients youre looking for, and theyre hard to find at this level or the next.
If the junior running back is 100 percent healthy, the Commodores are in some trouble.
Even last season, with the 19th-ranked total defense and Garcias interceptions and off-the-field distractions Its been a little more peaceful around here, Spurrier quipped in the teleconference the Gamecocks put up 21 points and cruised to victory. While no one will be expected to matchup with now-NFL wideout Alshon Jeffrey, the threat of South Carolinas backfield remains in plain sight.
The upstart Commodores host a dangerous team in Vanderbilt Stadium to christen the college football season Thursday night. This time, both the Commodores and Connor Shaw will be inserted directly into the spotlight.