Without adding or subtracting a player, South Carolina's prospects for the 2011 season took a meaningful leap forward on Saturday.
The moment indefinitely suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia strolled across the Colonial Life Arena stage Saturday morning during graduation ceremonies and shook hands with USC President Dr. Harris Pastides, the needle on the Garcia-O-Meter jolted.
Don't underestimate the importance of this event. Clearly, graduating with his degree in sociology was one of the conditions Garcia was required to meet in order to return to the football team.
All of a sudden, USC's chances of repeating as SEC East champions brightened.
Afterwards, Garcia revealed another potentially important development - he was heading over to Williams-Brice Stadium to meet with head coach Steve Spurrier in his office it "and "talk with him a little bit."
Spurrier isn't one to waste time, so the fact he was willing to meet with Garcia on one of the biggest days of his life should be seen as a positive move. I doubt Spurrier would request Garcia to come to his office in the middle of his family celebration to admonish him.
Instead, I believe Spurrier was simply confirming where things stood before Garcia headed home to Tampa, Fla. with his family for some time off before he returns to Columbia for the start of summer school.
The key date to remember is May 30, the initial day of classes for the first session of summer school. Summer conditioning workouts under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald should begin around that time as well.
I still predict Garcia will be reinstated shortly before the start of summer classes.
Obviously, the point of no return is approaching rapidly. Garcia again confirmed Saturday he is "definitely" committed to returning to USC in 2011 and completing the "long journey", the key reason USC is showing little interest in former NC State QB Russell Wilson.
Of course, securing his degree was far from the only condition Garcia had to meet to return to the team in good standing. Since his latest incident involved alcohol, some type of counseling would be required along with community service. Zero tolerance? Yes.
Remember, this is likely Garcia's final ultimate last chance, so he'll be welcomed back with this stern warning from AD Eric Hyman, Pastides and Spurrier - no screwups. And if you mess up, you're gone and we'll move forward with Connor Shaw.
Unquestionably, we'll find out how much Garcia has grown up and how badly he truly wants to come back to the team. Hopefully, the chance to lead USC into the SEC Championship game again and become the school's all-time leading passer provides sufficient motivation for Garcia to avoid straying of course.
If it doesn't, then I will understand USC's decision to cut bait. But Garcia will be given the chance to prove himself.
Spurrier has spoken about Garcia's options expanding with his degree in hand, but make no mistake - he wants Garcia back, potential headaches and all, because with Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery in the fold and an improving offensive line, USC has the potential to be an offensive juggernaut.
Combine that with a good defense returning seven starters and a moderately difficult schedule (thankfully, no Alabama and LSU) and most of the pieces are in place for a run to a second consecutive SEC East title.
But, because the quarterback is so vitally important, Garcia is the key. Never discount the importance of experience, especially in the SEC where it's very difficult to win consistently with young quarterbacks.
Just ask Georgia, which decided to bite the bullet and go with redshirt freshman Aaron Murray last year. Murray is very talented, but the learning curve is steep once the games begin. Murray will benefit from that experience, which automatically makes the Bulldogs a bigger threat in 2011.
Same thing with USC. Shaw has the potential to be a very good quarterback, but Garcia is better because he's been through the wars for three seasons.
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