Auburn’s Tre Mason would get my vote as the SEC’s best player this season.
But with 2013 officially in our rear-view mirror, and an entire body of work to evaluate (counting the bowls), South Carolina’s Connor Shaw would get my vote as the SEC’s most valuable player.
It’s impossible to look inside a player’s heart and know what’s there. We think we know sometimes. We draw conclusions based on the way that player performs, leads and shows emotion. We hear anecdotes from coaches and teammates.
But, really, we don’t know for sure.
With Shaw, his heart was right there front and center every time he stepped onto the field, and the only thing he ever cared about was South Carolina finishing the game with one more point than the other team.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever had a better winner than Connor. He’s something else,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “He played beautifully for us. We’re all going to miss him.”
In so many different ways.
The Gamecocks just put the wraps on their third straight top-10 finish in the final Associated Press poll, joining Alabama and Oregon as the only three teams in college football to do that.
As one member of South Carolina’s staff pointed out to me, it’s no coincidence that Shaw was the Gamecocks’ starting quarterback during their most productive run in school history, a run that included a No. 4 ranking in the final polls this season.
While it’s true South Carolina is still searching for its first SEC championship, look at the way the entire culture surrounding that program has transformed with No. 14 behind center. The Gamecocks were the only team in the country this season to beat three top-10 teams in the final Associated Press poll.
Obviously, Spurrier gets the most credit. He’s done what no one (outside of him) thought was possible at South Carolina.
But you don’t have this kind of sustained success in the SEC without a stone-cold baller at quarterback. Shaw was that and then some … in every facet.
He’s one of the most oblivious players I’ve ever covered when it comes to statistics, where he ranks and what he’s accomplished from a numbers standpoint.
Yet, his statistics this season speak for themselves. He threw 24 touchdown passes and only one interception. He accounted for 31 touchdowns, including six rushing and one receiving.
Shaw finished 10th nationally in pass efficiency and leaves South Carolina as the only player in school history to pass for 6,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards. He capped his career with a dazzling five-touchdown performance (three passing, one rushing and one receiving) in the 34-24 win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl.
“I’ve had a lot of good quarterbacks, but Connor would be right there with anybody,” said Spurrier, who coached Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel at Florida.
Even though he’s not a numbers guy, there are a few that Shaw will cherish. He was 27-5 as the Gamecocks’ starter. He led them to three straight bowl wins to finish his career, and he never lost to Clemson.
Ironically, it was the game he didn’t start this season that encapsulated everything he’s meant to the Gamecocks, a 27-24 double-overtime victory at Missouri. Shaw had sprained his knee the week before against Tennessee and wasn’t even supposed to play. He was also throwing up with flu-like symptoms before the game, but came off the bench in the third quarter to rally South Carolina from a 17-0 deficit with three touchdown passes.
Afterward, I’ll never forget South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney nodding with reverence toward Shaw as the senior quarterback limped wearily down the hill from the Gamecocks’ locker room.
“He’s the heart of this team,” Clowney said.
Shaw’s ability to play through pain and the way he gutted his way through so many injuries galvanized South Carolina’s team. Nobody wanted to let him down because of the sacrifices he made to be on that field come hell or high water.
Spurrier is adamant that Shaw will get a chance in the NFL, and while he may not be a prototypical NFL quarterback, he is a prototypical winner.
At any level of football, and in any profession, there’s always a place for those guys.