I don't know if Connor Shaw is the best QB the Gamecocks have ever had. He's the winningest by a large margin, and it goes without saying that he's in the conversation, but there are other Carolina signal callers (Todd Ellis, Steve Taneyhill, even Blake Mitchell) who could have won a lot more games if they had played on teams with the kind of overall talent Shaw has suited up alongside.
Regardless, Shaw is my favorite Gamecock ever. It's not just that Shaw has presided over the Era of Good Feelings in Carolina football history. That's part of it; it's hard not to like a guy who has led the team to so many great victories when you're the fan of a program that hasn't had as many of those over the years as you'd have liked. Whereas we tend to associate prior QBs with a handful of great wins at best, Connor has been notching several a year since he took over the starting job permanently in the middle of the 2011 season. It's also the way he's won, though. How can you not root for a guy who works his tail off to improve each and every season? Who commands the respect of his teammates for his integrity and leadership qualities? Who plays through pain several times over the course of his career, including when he comes off the bench with a gimpy knee and flu-like symptoms to lead his team back from seventeen down in the fourth quarter over a top-five team on the road?
Let's take a look back at the many highlights of Shaw's career.
A lot of people forget that there was some mild chatter on the part of the Ball Coach prior to the 2010 season that Shaw might be good enough as a true freshman to challenge Stephen Garcia. Spurrier promised that both would play in the first game, and Shaw indeed got into the action late in the first half against Southern Miss., and he connected on a pretty TD strike to D.L. Moore in the fourth quarter. Shaw was later thrown into higher-stakes action on the road against Auburn when Spurrier pulled Garcia after Garcia had a couple of fumbles; Shaw proved capable of moving the ball in that game, but he threw two costly interceptions that ended Carolina's upset hopes. After Garcia played the game of his life the following game against Alabama, Garcia was entrenched as the starter for the rest of the season. My other major memory regarding Shaw that year was from the Chick-fil-A Bowl. I was in attendance, and I got some dirty looks from fans sitting beside me when I yelled that Spurrier needed to put Shaw in after Garcia threw an interception. Turned out that Shaw had come up with a stomach bug prior to that game, or we probably would have seen him.
In 2011, Shaw showed improvement in a solid spring while Garcia sat out due to suspensions. When fall rolled around, Spurrier quickly made it known that Shaw was a legitimate contender to start over Garcia. As you'll recall, this set off a lot of drama among Carolina fans, with many vocally supporting the embattled senior. Some thought Spurrier was crazy, while others thought there was no way he was serious. Serious he was, though, as he announced a plan to start Shaw but play Garcia in the second quarter against ECU. Largely due to factors out of his control, things didn't go well for Shaw against the Pirates, and Garcia led a comeback effort when he entered the game in the second quarter. Garcia would get the next few starts, but his increasingly erratic play caused Spurrier to pull him for Shaw for a couple of series late in the game against Vandy. Shaw was ineffective too, though, and when Auburn came to town the following week, Spurrier went with his senior. It was a costly decision, as Garcia turned in what might have been the worst performance of his career and cost Carolina the game against a mediocre Tigers squad. The loss would eventually cost us the SEC East. Forced to give Shaw another shot, Spurrier started his sophomore the following week against Kentucky. With many Carolina fans bizarrely enough still calling for Spurrier to give Garcia another chance, Shaw delivered an impressive performance against the 'Cats to solidify his position. Things got real the following week, though. First, Garcia was dismissed from the team due to violation of the terms of his previous suspension. Then, during a tight Mississippi St. game, Marcus Lattimore, expected to carry the Carolina offense while Spurrier broke Shaw in, went down with an ACL tear. With Alshon Jeffery's help, Shaw managed to help Carolina secure a win in that game, but our season outlook seemed bleak. Shaw, though, with the help of a dominant defense and a running game that surprisingly continued to produce with Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles toting the ball in Lattimore's stead, managed to lead Carolina to a positive finish. Carolina lost at Arkansas, with Georgia winning the SEC East, but the Gamecocks navigated the Orange Crush with wins over Tennessee, Florida, and Clemson to finish 10-2 with their first 6-2 finish in SEC play. A bowl win over Nebraska would give the Gamecocks their first 11-win season and top-ten finish. It was a good finish considering how dire the situation seemed when Lattimore was being carried off the field in Starkville.
In 2012, Shaw entered the season as the undisputed starter. Hopes were high that he would build on his strong finish in 2011 and become a more complete QB. He indeed had some impressive games, with a virtuosic performance against Mizzou standing out among other good ones against Georgia, Tennessee, and Michigan. However, it wasn't quite the season we had hoped for. First of all, Shaw found it difficult to stay healthy. He injured his shoulder in the first game against Vandy and had to miss some time over the next couple of games while Dylan Thompson established himself as a viable replacement. Shaw reentrenched himself as the starter during the middle of the season with his work against Mizzou and UGA. However, while you can't pin the losses wholly on him, his tentative, mistake-prone performances against LSU and Florida contributed to our inability to capitalize on what briefly seemed like a solid chance to vie for a national title following the UGA game. Shaw would struggle with a foot injury late in the season, leading to him sitting the Clemson game while Thompson put on a legendary performance in Death Valley. Shaw would split time with Thompson in the Outback Bowl, as both did their part to ensure a second-straight eleven-win and top-ten finish.
In 2013, Shaw put together a complete season. His 162.9 passing efficiency rating was good for tenth in the nation, placing him right up there with the country's elite QBs. To 2400+ yards passing he added 500+ on the ground as the trigger man in what was at times an almost unstoppable Carolina read-option rushing attack. Perhaps most impressive was an unbelievable 24-1 TD-INT ratio; luck may have played a role in that eye-opening statistic, but it at the same time represents a QB who evolved into a calculated risk-taker by taking more shots down field while retaining the judiciousness not to put the ball in danger. Shaw's only particularly bad game came in the costly loss at Tennessee, when he went 7/21 and showed his old tendency to fail to throw the ball to open receivers. Shaw also had a costly fumble in the season's other loss at UGA, although he otherwise played well in that game, the loss of which it would be perverse to blame on him. Otherwise, he had a great year. He was positively lethal against Vandy; had a measured, effective performance against Clemson; and was virtuosic against Wisconsin, statistically his best game. His stunning performance from off the bench against Mizzou, though, is the one that will probably live on in Carolina fans' memories the most vividly. Carolina won another eleven games in 2013 and notched its first-ever top-five season.
What's my favorite Connor Shaw performance? His last one is a good candidate. For a player who steadily improved from being a conservative, run-first QB early in his career to a more dynamic player who could beat you a variety of ways, Shaw's performance against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl was a fitting swan song. However, I'm going with his performance against Mizzou. Statistically, it wasn't his best because he didn't play for most of the game, but to play as well as he did through both injury and illness against a top-flight Mizzou defense is simply astounding. That performance will, without a doubt, long be remembered as one of the most momentous in Carolina history. I'm not sure if I've ever been more amazed after a Carolina win. Don't forget that Johnny Manziel, a QB we've compared Shaw to before, failed to go into Columbia, MO and do what Shaw did. That was no mean feat.
What's my favorite Shaw play? You might find this surprising, but his long throw to Ace Sanders to put the kabosh on Florida's comeback effort in 2011 is the first play that popped into my head when I thought about this question. As discussed at Alligator Army, it was a perfect throw and catch against tremendous Gators coverage, and while Carolina didn't capitalize with a touchdown, the play and ensuing FG entailed a big momentum shift after Florida had closed the lead to two on their previous drive. Why do I love this play? For one thing, I remember getting pretty emotional while watching this game, and particularly when this play happened. We were coming off a tough loss to Arkansas, and we needed this win to stay alive in the SEC East. It made me really happy to see Connor come through with this throw. We didn't win the division, but in hindsight, this was a major game in Shaw's career. He had struggled to get much offense going the previous few games, and he faced criticism regarding his ability to be a complete QB in Spurrier's system. Against the Gators, though, he came through with a very strong performance. We didn't put up a lot of points, but we were going against an elite Florida defense. Most of our yardage had come off a potent read-option attack with Shaw and Brandon Wilds, but when Shaw needed to make a big throw here, he did it. He continued to make big plays with his arm in the succeeding games against Clemson and Nebraska, giving himself more momentum heading into 2012. When I think back to this game against Florida, it was the game that made me confident that he could become a great QB. To his credit, he did, indeed, become that player.