In the spirit of the summer doldrums, I bring you a post only the truly football-starved could conceive: a truly meaningless mental exercise in what would have happened had Connor Shaw not fumbled on the season-opening drive against ECU. Just to refresh your memory, here's what actually happened on the drive: After Bruce Ellington made a nice 35-yard return on the kickoff, Shaw and Marcus Lattimore led the offense steadily down the field, despite a couple of would-love-to-forget drops by Jason Barnes. After getting into the red zone, Shaw scrambled for a long gain on first down, only to lose a fumble after a taking a hard hit around the ten-yard line. I would argue that this was a highly important play in terms of the overall trajectory of the 2011 season. Here's what would have happened had Shaw not fumbled:
On the next play, Lattimore runs the ball into the end zone from ten yards out. The offense had been on edge but still efficient on the first drive, but after the TD, it gained a bit of confidence. In this reality, the other first-half turnovers (Lattimore's fumble, etc.) that helped ECU take an early lead in this game never occur, and Carolina steadily takes control of the game as Shaw leads the passing game to a strong showing. Stephen Garcia, as expected, plays the second quarter, and he doesn't play badly, helping Carolina put more points on the board. However, he is throwing the ball less accurately than Shaw, and Spurrier goes with Shaw in the third quarter. Shaw continues to play well, with he and Alshon Jeffery hooking up for over 100 yards on the evening. Garcia plays out the fourth quarter, after the game has been long decided. Carolina wins 73-17 on the strength of Shaw's arm and a big-play defense. The fans accept Shaw as the starter after Spurrier praises his performance and states that it was exactly what he expected based on practice.
Shaw is tabbed to start the Georgia game. He again plays well, leading Carolina to a commanding lead at the half. After falling behind, Georgia is extremely pass-happy, and Aaron Murray makes some of the same mistakes he made in the actual game. However, Spurrier doesn't feel compelled to run the fake punt to Ingram, as the offense is taking care of business. Carolina has a comfortable lead into the fourth quarter, but late in the game, Shaw, unchastened by the fumble against ECU, isn't sliding as often when he scrambles, and he hurts his shoulder after taking a hard hit from Jarvis Jones. Garcia comes in to run out the clock, with Carolina winning 48-33. Jeffery catches for over 150 yards in the game.
Shaw is declared out for four weeks with his shoulder injury, and Garcia is declared the starter for the Navy game. Garcia, not having experienced the emotional roller coaster of the actual ECU game, plays a bit more evenly. He's not great, but his accuracy isn't quite as off, and he isn't quite as careless with the ball. As such, while Carolina struggles early on with Navy's triple-option, the Carolina offense controls the game by virtue of Garcia's game-managing performance and Lattimore's 200+ yards. Carolina wins 38-14. Spurrier praises Garcia's work. Jeffery again plays well and is neck and neck with Justin Blackmon in conversations about the nation's best receiver. More of the same happens in the Vanderbilt game, with a more even-keel Garcia managing the offense up and down the field and the Carolina defense dominating. In fact, with the offense doing a better job of controlling time of possession, the defense has a record-setting day, holding the Vandy offense to less than 75 yards of offense. Carolina wins 35-3.
Going into the Auburn game, Carolina is in the top five and is favored by two touchdowns. Under the weight of expectations and news of his grandfather's passing, Garcia struggles in this game, but not as much as he did in the actual game. He commits a couple of ill-advised turnovers in the red zone, but his accuracy isn't quite as off, and the Carolina offense moves the ball well for most of the afternoon. Auburn is unable to control time of possession like it did in the actual game, and, ahead 17-7 in the fourth quarter, Carolina mounts a long drive, mostly on Lattimore's legs, against the tired Auburn defense to put the game away. Carolina wins 24-7. Carolina earns another easy win against Kentucky the following week and is in the thick of the national championship conversation. Garcia, still involved with the football team, doesn't drink in this reality and stays on the team. Jeffery is still catching for tons of yards each week.
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Now, though, Spurrier has a tough call to make: Shaw is again available, but his senior signal-caller is playing well, even if perhaps not as well as Shaw played against ECU and Georgia. Spurrier decides not to mess up a good thing and goes with Garcia against Mississippi St., although he says he might play Shaw for a series or two. This game goes more or less like it did in our reality. The loss of Kyle Nunn begins to make itself felt, and Garcia struggles to find time to throw the ball. He makes some mistakes, but nothing egregious, and the game is tight throughout the afternoon. Shaw plays a couple of series, but he also has trouble. Spurrier again goes to the wildcat to try to get something going, and Lattimore is again hurt. Garcia and Jeffery, though, hook up on a late TD to take the lead, and D.J. Swearinger seals the win with an interception.
With the Tennessee game coming up, Spurrier is unsure how to deal with the loss of Lattimore and the struggling passing game. He decides that he needs to give Shaw more snaps in this game because Shaw has run the ball better due to his ability to run the spread-option. This game goes more or less like it did in our reality, only Garcia plays occasionally in short-yardage situations, running for a couple of first downs. Brandon Wilds again shocks the SEC with 100+ yards. Carolina wins 14-3.
The perception is now that the team is not a national-title caliber outfit due to the floundering offense, but we are undefeated and ranked fourth in the nation, behind LSU, Oklahoma St., and Stanford. That gives the Arkansas game even higher stakes than it actually had. Unfortunately, Carolina still isn't up to the task; the offense is somewhat more efficient due to Garcia's ability to run the ball in the short-yardage package, but it isn't enough to outscore Arkansas. Carolina again loses and falls out of the top five. However, the Gamecocks lead Georgia in the Eastern Division standings and still have a lot to play for.
At this point, many are calling for Spurrier to give Garcia the starting role against Florida. However, Spurrier, still believing that Shaw's more accurate arm and ability to run the ball in the read-option set him apart from Garcia, goes with Shaw again. The wisdom of this choice is confirmed when Shaw leads Carolina to a solid victory over Florida, very similar to what happened in our reality. The only difference is that Garcia runs for a TD on the goal line. Carolina wins and clinches the East. The Citadel game goes like it did in our reality. It should be noted that Jeffery has struggled in these games due to the lack of a consistent passing game, but his stock hasn't fallen as far as it did in reality, as he had played so well in the early season and it was easier for commentators to see that his struggles owed to problems with the offensive line.
Carolina goes into the Clemson game ranked fifth, the highest it's ever been ranked in the rivalry game. Carolina again dominates the game. The main difference is that after Holloman's game-clinching interception, it's Garcia, who comes in to mop things up in garbage time, who throws the TD pass to Jeffery. As such, Garcia gets to kick sand in Clemmy's face one more time in his last game at Williams-Brice. The crowd loves it. That said, it's clear by this point that Shaw is going to play out the season as the starter.
Now it's time for the SEC Championship Game against LSU. Carolina, having again regained the nation's confidence, goes into this game with a chance at the national title if it can beat the Bayou Bengals. Carolina and Shaw give a valiant effort in this game, and, due to a stronger defense and a clock-eating ground game, they don't take quite the pounding that Georgia did in actuality. However, LSU is simply too much for the Gamecocks, and we lose 33-17.
Carolina heads into bowl season 11-2 and ranked in the top ten, but with LSU and 'Bama taking the SEC's two bowl slots, Carolina is still headed to the Capitol One Bowl, albeit with less drama about who will end up in which bowl than we experienced last year. As you can tell by now, I really don't think that what happened in the ECU game would have made much of a difference in how things go late in the season, and Carolina again wins this game 30-13, with the only difference being that Garcia is still on the team to enjoy the victory. Another broader difference is that Jeffery, with more yardage earlier in the season, tops 1000 yards. He doesn't make the All-American team due to reduced late-season numbers, but the difference is enough for him to maintain his high draft status, and he is taken late in the first round by San Francisco.
So, this sound convincing? Or, more likely, completely insane? Anyone else think the play where Shaw fumbled was a momentous play? In any event, please be aware that everything written here is completely imaginary and largely meaningless. I know some people get a bit emotional about the QB competition we observed early last year, and I'm not trying to step on any toes there. Just a bit of summer fun.