This was supposed to be the year that everything came together. With Jadeveon Clowney raising the defensive star power to match the incredible skill position combination of running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery, it was pretty easy to claim that South Carolina had the most A-list talent and the best overall team in the SEC East. Not only could they assert themselves as a program with a second straight East title, but if they could get past Georgia in the second week of the season, they could potentially threaten to run the table.
Despite all the star power, this team was still clearly only going to go as far as the quarterback would allow it to go. That is true in any offense, but it is particularly true in Steve Spurrier's. At Florida, that was often because of the star power of the position. At South Carolina, it has been as much because of the limitations.
But even that didn't necessarily seem like a concern. Stephen Garcia had raised his game significantly in 2010. Garcia was a career 55-percent passer, but he upped that to 64 percent last season. His passer rating went from the 110s to 149, his yards-per-attempt average from 6.6 to 8.8. He took fewer sacks as well (his sack rate fell from 7.9 percent to 6.4). With Jeffery emerging as one of the nation's premier receivers -- few combined a high-volume target rate and a large per-catch average with such a steady catch rate in 2010 -- Garcia's job became easier, and after battling maturity issues (to say the least) throughout his first two seasons, he seemed to take a demonstrable step forward in this regard. There were fits and starts, sure, but there was also clear progress.
But then he had some girls in his hotel room before the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl. And then he showed up to a team meeting reeking of alcohol in April and got suspended for the fifth time as a Gamecock. He spent all summer attempting to work his way back into Steve Spurrier's good graces, and he evidently did so, but it evidently came with a price.
Garcia has been afforded so many opportunities to get his act together, partially because there haven't been any other good options. Connor Shaw, a former three-star signee from one of the most Southern-sounding towns in the country (Flowery Branch, Georgia), tickled Spurrier's fancy enough that he earned some playing time as a true freshman last year during blowouts and occasional "Oh God, Stephen's temporarily lost his mind" scenarios. Making mostly conservative passes, Shaw had a completion percentage of 70 percent but averaged only 6.8 yards per attempt and got sacked five times in 38 attempts. His passer rating was a solid 124.3, but Garcia clearly maintained an edge when he had his head on straight.
This year, presumably as part of Garcia's punishment, Shaw started the season opener versus East Carolina. He completed just three of nine passes for 21 yards, and in the second quarter Garcia subbed in with Carolina down 17-0. Garcia completed only seven of 15 passes for 110 yards, but South Carolina still outscored ECU, 56-20, the rest of the game. As recently as a month ago, Garcia was still clearly the better option.
Now, though? It is difficult to seriously make that claim. In the four games since East Carolina, Garcia has completed more than 53 percent of his passes in a game just once (18-for-25 for 204 yards versus Navy). His passing line in three SEC games: 36 for 78 (46.2%), 530 yards (6.8 per pass), three touchdowns, eight interceptions. He completed just nine of 23 passes in an upset loss at home to Auburn this past Saturday. His sack rate has fallen slightly, but his interception rate has jumped almost as aggressively as his completion rate has fallen.
Even with Marcus Lattimore raising his game significantly (his per-carry average has jumped from 4.8 to 5.5, and he is on pace for well over 1,700 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards), South Carolina's offense has been quite often listless.
The Gamecocks currently rank 69th in Off. Success Rate+ (an efficiency measure); the lowest they've ranked in that category over the last six years is 46th (2008). They were 12th a year ago. The passing game is the clear culprit. Alshon Jeffery's target rate (36 percent in 2010, 34 percent in 2011) and per-catch average (17.2 in 2010, 17.5 in 2011) have remained the same, but his catch rate has fallen from 67 percent to 49 percent, taking him from "all-world" to "all or nothing," a glorified Derek Moye. Meanwhile, in moving from No. 3 wide receiver to No. 2, Ace Sanders has seen his per-target average slip from 8.9 in 2010 to 7.8, thanks primarily to the fact that while his per-catch average has risen (12.3 in 2010, 13.8 in 2011), his catch rate, too, has plummeted (72 percent in 2010, 56 percent in 2011).
Are we sure Connor Shaw cannot top that? Steve Spurrier isn't -- yesterday he named Shaw the starting quarterback.
Spurrier is still Spurrier. The odds are good that, with seven regular season games remaining, we haven't seen the final quarterback change in Columbia. Hell, we might see another one by the second quarter on Saturday. Though with Kentucky's complete offensive ineptitude, Shaw will probably be given a bit more slack than he was against East Carolina; it probably isn't a coincidence that the move is being made this week.
But after years of offering tantalizing glimpses of potential, midway through his troubled senior season, Stephen Garcia's ceiling has been pretty clearly defined at this point. Maybe he sees the field again, and maybe he doesn't, but it has grown quite obvious that, barring a miraculous turnaround, Garcia's run as a South Carolina quarterback will not end in breakthrough success and glory. It might not even end with another East title.
(Note: targets-and-catches data can now be downloaded at Football Study Hall.)
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