COLUMBIA -- It's probably a good thing for the upstart South Carolina Gamecocks that most of the attention going into Saturday's SEC championship game in Atlanta is on Cameron Newton, the likely Heisman Trophy winner.
It makes it easier for 2011 All-SEC quarterback Stephen Garcia to focus on the fine Sugar Bowl invitation details.
Auburn players probably remember Garcia, or maybe not. He spent the last two possessions of the Gamecocks' 35-27 loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium on the sideline, watching true freshman backup Connor Shaw throw two interceptions.
Head coach Steve Spurrier benched Garcia after his back-to-back fumbles were recovered by the Tigers.
South Carolina led 27-21 after three quarters.
Then those four turnovers in the fourth quarter of the fourth game of the season.
Ouch, quadruple ouch.
But No. 2 Auburn can expect a full dose of an improved Garcia at the Georgia Dome, and if the South Carolina quarterback is still healthy at the end of the game, the No. 18 Gamecocks will win.
Strangely, the benching of Garcia that steamy night of Sept. 25 might have cost South Carolina the game and jumpstarted its season at the same time.
The turning point
"No," Spurrier said Tuesday. "Actually, Connor went in there and went up and down the field. I just regretted the one call: We tried to fake the little screen and throw it to (Patrick DiMarco) down the middle, and he was covered like a blanket and Connor threw it anyway. So we shouldn't have called that."
That was the first interception, by big-play linebacker Josh Bynes at the Auburn 11, following a 49-yard drive.
Shaw was almost a hero. His final throw was in Alshon Jeffery's hands at the goal line when deflected into the hands of defensive back Demond Washington with 33 seconds remaining.
Garcia responded ideally to the scolding, bouncing back after a bye week with the best game of his career in South Carolina's 35-21 upset of then-No. 1 Alabama.
No more doghouse.
Hardly any talk of Shaw getting meaningful playing time.
"I think it was a major step in (Garcia) learning how to run with the ball," Spurrier said of the Auburn benching. "As all of you know, he's had that tendency to duck his head and he hasn't done it since. So maybe he said, 'If I duck my head right in there and fumble, I'm coming out of the game.' That's the only thing I think it taught Stephen, and that was for his own safety as well as for the benefit of our team."
Hard to argue with 9-3 and a first-ever SEC championship game appearance.
There have been some not-so-shiny moments against Kentucky and Arkansas. But Auburn will get a smoother, more confident redshirt junior foe at quarterback. Ask Alabama, Florida or Clemson. A wiser Garcia was able to carefully manage a 29-7 victory at Death Valley last week, an odd game in which the Tigers' Jamie Harper outrushed Marcus Lattimore.
Remaining healthy against hard-hitting Auburn is not easy. Clemson was on the way to victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 18 before Kyle Parker took a shot in the ribs in the second half of a 27-24 overtime loss. Alabama had no answer last week late in a 28-27 loss to Auburn in Tuscaloosa after Greg McElroy went out with a concussion.
While Garcia hasn't won enough of Spurrier's praise to get the green light to talk with the media before the game this week, fellow Gamecocks seem pleased.
"Stephen has been playing real good since the Auburn game," middle linebacker Josh Dickerson said. "He hasn't turned over the ball too many times. He's been making good throws and smart throws and just keeping the ball in our hands."
Spurrier famously shuffled quarterbacks during his glory years at Florida, even benching Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel. Things have a crazy way of spinning back around in the SEC.
Now here we are, Spurrier with a quarterback motivated by demotion on the verge of upsetting a sure Heisman winner and his favored team.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at email@example.com or 937-5593.
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