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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Settling Two Quarterback Debates

It’s just the most important position on the field, that’s all. And two national title contenders entered Saturday with much confusion under center, exhibiting the sort of unsettled unease not typically associated with teams with such lofty preseason goals. Well, perhaps it’s not entirely unexpected, not when given Steve Spurrier’s often spasmodic handling of his eggshell-walking quarterbacks: Connor Shaw started, Stephen Garcia finished, and that pair will continue to jostle each other throughout the season.

It’s clear that Garcia’s still the answer for the Gamecocks, even if Spurrier seemed to be favoring Shaw, a sophomore, over the last week of fall camp. Of course, Garcia’s continued dalliance with off-field violations made Spurrier’s decision to start Shaw over his senior incumbent starter an easy one, at least for one week.

But Garcia’s play over the second half of Saturday’s win over East Carolina should force Spurrier to reinstate the senior in the starting lineup. The Gamecocks entered halftime facing a 24-14 deficit, perhaps looking at a foul start to a year that really heats up this coming Saturday with a date against SEC East rival Georgia.

Here comes Garcia, and here come the Gamecocks. He led a scoring drive right off the opening kickoff of the second half, capping a 4-play, 34-yard U.S.C. drive with a three-year touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Ace Sanders — who had a nice day, scoring once in the air and later, in the fourth quarter, on a punt return.

The Garcia-led Gamecocks scored 28 points in the third quarter — one via a defensive score — and 14 points over the final 15 minutes, one via that Sanders punt return, to turn a tight halftime game into a 56-37 win, opening the year with a solid victory in advance of this week’s SEC opener. And the split between Garcia and Shaw was plainly evident, not just in terms of the offense’s success with each under center but also in each player’s statistical performance:

Garcia 7 of 15 for 110 yards, 1 touchdown; 5 carries for 56 yards, 2 touchdowns
Shaw 3 of 9 for 21 yards, 7 carries for 26 yards

Meanwhile, Alabama’s quarterback competition was decided in the Crimson Tide’s 48-7 win over Kent State. Even more so than U.S.C., Alabama’s competition was neck-and-neck between two young applicants; Spurrier was giving Shaw snaps because he trusted the sophomore, but also because he wanted to use Garcia’s backup role as motivation for his multiple-year starter.

A.J. McCarron had a leg up on Phillip Sims even prior to kickoff on Saturday, it’s safe to say. McCarron, a sophomore, was Greg McElroy’s backup last fall, for starters, and did a very nice job over garbage time — 30 of 48 for 396 yards and 3 scores without a single interception.

Those snaps, whether over mop-up time or no, surely came in handy against the Golden Flashes. While Sims played tentatively, to put it lightly, McCarron seemed well at ease, moving the first-team offense with a far more steady touch and displaying the sort of confidence that comes only with in-game snaps; remember that McCarron had that, at least in part, while Sims was taking the field for the first time.

It showed. Sims was all over the place; McCarron was comfortable. Not to say that the sophomore doesn’t have work to do, as he does, but he’s clearly the best fit for Alabama at this time. With Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy doing most of the heavy lifting, all the Tide needs is a steady hand — another McElroy, in short. McCarron’s that guy, it seems, after outplaying Sims during their in-game audition. The totals:

McCarron 14 of 23 for 226 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions
Sims 7 of 14 for 73 yards, 2 interceptions

The interceptions aren’t going to fly, and McCarron will see that expectations will be raised once — or if, though I imagine that’s a formality — he’s named the full-time starter. But for a team with national title goals, McCarron is clearly the right pick for Alabama, both today and for the foreseeable future.

Likewise for South Carolina, which has all the pieces in place to challenge for a B.C.S. berth. All the surrounding pieces, I should say, and all the Gamecocks truly need to make a run for double-digit wins is steadiness under center. Perhaps Garcia isn’t going to lead off the field; if Saturday was any indication, he’s the leader U.S.C. needs at quarterback between the white lines.

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  1. schedule nit says:

    Truth be told, NONE of these four quarterbacks actually looked good overall in these games. McCarron looked only significantly less terrible than Sims and most of his yards were off screens. Garcia’s receivers didn’t drop as many passes as Shaw’s did but he missed open receivers by ten yards several times.

    Word is Saban will go co-qb again v Penn State, and Connor Shaw will be back out there as soon as Garcia makes two mistakes in two posessions.

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