SEC mailbag: Hotel coverage overblown?

Let the games begin. In six more days, South Carolina will kick off the season for SEC teams when it takes on Southern Miss in Williams-Brice Stadium. Yes, I’ll be in Columbia for the game. No, I won’t be staying at the Whitney Hotel. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s see what’s on your mind:

Travis in Charlotte, N.C., writes: I think most of the media coverage dealing with the South Carolina players and their living arrangements at the hotel has been unnecessary and overblown. The rates they were getting weren’t any different than you or I would receive. Anybody can negotiate a rate down at any hotel. As long as they pay what they owe, I don’t see much coming of it.

Chris Low: I think that’s what’s happening right now. The players are trying to come up with enough money to pay their balances down to zero. I wouldn’t call it a non-issue, though. The NCAA doesn’t typically quiz players about their living arrangements unless they think something is up. Even South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has conceded that a few players could end up missing some games, and any time the possibility exists for player suspensions, I wouldn’t call that overblown coverage or unnecessary coverage. Where the NCAA will hit South Carolina the hardest is if it deems these players received extra benefits by being allowed to stay at the hotel for reduced rates or being allowed to stay there for an extended period of time without paying anything. If that’s the case, making restitution is just part of the penalty. The NCAA also requires that the players in question must miss a portion of the season. How much of the season they’re required to miss depends on the amount of the extra benefits they received.

Nick in Eugene, Ore., writes: Hey, Chris. Hope everything is well in SEC country. Brush with 16-team greatness has us in the Pac-10 super stoked about our new commissioner and the future. Speaking of the near future, some friends and I will be making an epic trek to Knoxville for the Tennessee-Oregon showdown. Predictions aside, I would like to know what we HAVE to do while we're there, enjoying one of college football's best stadiums. Can't wait to see how the noise stacks up to the Autzen Zoo back home. Thanks for your time.

Chris Low: If you can find somebody who has a boat or has access to a boat, making your way to Neyland Stadium as part of the Vol Navy is a blast. It’s one of the best game-day traditions in all of college football. The Vol Walk is pretty neat, too, as the players and coaches walk from the dormitory to the stadium through a sea of orange-coated fans. Keep in mind that you might hear the Pride of the Southland Band play “Rocky Top” about three dozen times, and that’s before the game ever kicks off. Be sure you’re in the stadium in time to see the team run through the giant “T’ formed by the band. If you’re in town for a while, a trip to Gatlinburg is always fun. There’s nothing like the Smoky Mountains in the fall. If you’re looking for a great steak, Ye Old Steakhouse is your place. For ribs, Calhoun’s on the River is a great place. You can see the stadium from there. If you’re looking for a deli sandwich before the game, Gus’ Good Times Deli right there on campus is the spot. Lot of history in that place, including autographed photos from former Tennessee greats. A popular watering hole near campus is Toddy’s Back Door Tavern. It’s where Peyton Manning likes to hang out when he’s in town. Another popular hangout there on the Cumberland Avenue strip is Old College Inn, and it’s been there forever. And when you first walk into Neyland Stadium, don’t think your nose is playing tricks on you. I swear there’s a distinct aroma of Jack Daniels that’s hovered in those stands since the General was roaming the sidelines.

Alvino in Mobile, Ala., writes: I am so confused. I used to feel when a team wins more than eight games, it was a good season. But LSU went 9-4 last season, and I’ve noticed more people are down on them than congratulating them. But correct me if I’m wrong. Didn’t LSU finish second in the SEC West? Also, why is Jai Eugene not listed as a returning starter when he started nine of 12 games? Same with Drake Nevis. Sorry about all the questions, but seeing LSU ranked No. 21 just doesn’t add up.

Chris Low: For starters, LSU won eight regular-season games, and that’s never going to be celebrated as a good season now that teams are playing 12 games, especially at a place like LSU that won the national championship in 2007. Plus, the Tigers lost all the games that “count” last season -- to Alabama, to Florida, to Ole Miss and the bowl game to Penn State. And the way they lost that Ole Miss game left a sour taste in fans’ mouths with the clock debacle at the end of the game. Yes, LSU did finish second in the West with a 5-3 record, but the Tigers also didn’t beat a single team that finished the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. According to LSU’s media guide, Eugene started in two games last season. Nevis played in all 13 games, but didn’t start any.

Bill in Boca Raton, Fla., writes: Is there any news or do you have any idea as to what will be the status of Marcell Dareus come the start of the season for Alabama? How can the NCAA let a team linger like this? And should Alabama possibly sit him out the first game anyway just in case? It would be a shame to lose Dareus for any game, but what is the opinion of people as to what will be the outcome and when it will be known?

Chris Low: Alabama officials feel like they will know something one way or the other by the early part of next week. They wouldn’t risk playing him if they hadn’t heard back from the NCAA. At this point, the Crimson Tide are hoping for the best, but I’d say there’s a decent chance that Dareus will have to sit out a game or two based on past precedent. We’ll see where it all leads, and maybe Dareus will get off without having to miss any games. But Alabama should know something definitive before the season opener. Remember, it was the week of the Virginia Tech game last season before Alabama got word from the NCAA that Mark Ingram and Julio Jones were in the clear because of that fishing trip they took down in Mobile.

Jake in Birmingham, Ala., writes: Mr. Low, how do you think Georgia looks overall with the start of the season here in a little more than a week?

Chris Low: Great news on defense for the Bulldogs with the way Justin Anderson at nose and Darryl Gamble at outside linebacker have played this preseason. Obviously, redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray can’t turn it over, but he has plenty of weapons around him. The Bulldogs are a little beaten up right now in the offensive line, but their kicking game should be one of the best in the country. If Murray is steady and keeps his interceptions under 10, I think Georgia can win 10 games.