COLUMBIA — It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, this aura of Gamecock Nation confidence in the quarterback. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should have such an approval rating.

If Stephen Garcia’s colorful Columbia tenure worked out as head coach Steve Spurrier and his staff originally budgeted, Garcia would have started every game last season.

Connor Shaw’s debut as a starter would have come five weeks ago at Vanderbilt.

First test against a ranked foe? Saturday night against No. 5 Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium.

But Garcia was kicked off the team a year ago this week and Shaw is as valuable as any player on a star-laden South Carolina team.

Instead of suspect, Shaw and Co. are ranked No. 6 and favored going into the Southeastern Conference showdown with Georgia.

“Connor has played a bunch now,” Spurrier said of the junior from Flowery Branch, Ga. “This is his first action against Georgia; I don’t think he got in at the end of those games the last couple years. He is ready to go. He is looking forward to it. He is a quarterback that likes the big games, the full stadium. So is Marcus (Lattimore) and so forth.”

Shaw enjoys big games because he already has defeated Florida, Clemson and Nebraska. Sure don’t want to curse the guy, but Shaw is 12-1 as a starter since last October (12-2 overall as he started the 2011 opener against East Carolina).

‘We love Connor’

Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson are better pro prospects among SEC quarterbacks. But Bray and Murray didn’t win bowl games last season and Wilson doesn’t have Shaw’s running skills.

Only Murray and Alabama’s AJ McCarron have a better pass efficiency rating among SEC quarterbacks. Only Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has rushed for more yards than Shaw, 366 yards to 203.

Nothing wrong with McCarron, but the top-ranked Crimson Tide doesn’t lean on him the way South Carolina relies on Shaw to farm hay from mud.

The leadership was on display in the second half at Kentucky last week after the Mild Cats seized a 17-7 halftime lead. lead.

“Every now and then I’ll say, ‘Could you have fired that one in there?’ ” Spurrier said. “(But) it looks a little sticky, so he took off and ran for 10 yards. He did that the other night against Kentucky a couple times. It sort of takes over the game, keeps drives going and so forth. It is extremely valuable to have a quarterback who can run.”

Teammates are appreciative.

“Connor is a gamer,” center T.J. Johnson said. “He’s just one of those quarterbacks that we love to have behind us. He’s the kind of guy that you want to fight for. That makes a big difference for offensive linemen. We want to block for a guy like that. We love Connor. We love everything he does for us, and we want to fight for that extra inch for him.”

Romo and Cutler

Cornerback Akeem Auguste has seen Shaw improve practice to practice.

“He’s just real confident,” Auguste said. “Two years ago, a year ago, he kind of had to look over his shoulder just in case he made a mistake. Or Garcia had to look over his shoulder because Connor was behind him. But now, when you’re the man and you know you’re the man and everybody is behind you, you’ve got a different role to take on the team, and he’s taking that role right now. So I’m just proud of him.”

At 6-1, Shaw doesn’t look the part of a blue chip NFL prospect. That’s fine, as long as you don’t make the kind of blunders pro quarterbacks make under duress.

“Watching that (Bears- Cowboys) game (Monday) night with all the interceptions and the quarterback being hit and fumbling, I was thinking ‘Our guy doesn’t do that,’ ” Spurrier said. “Hopefully our guy doesn’t do those kinds of things. That’s why we want someone like Connor, not for the brilliant plays, but for the lack of those real bad plays that really hurt you. The ability to just take care of the ball is pretty good.”

Amazing, Connor Shaw getting kudos in a comparison to Tony Romo and Jay Cutler. From Steve Spurrier, the ultimate quarterback critic.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

Shaw should still be struggling with on-the-job training.

“GameDay” should be headed elsewhere.

Georgia should be favored.

Sometimes, the best-laid plans don’t work out for the best.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff.