SEC mailbag: Protecting AJ McCarron

It’s that time of week again when we dive into the SEC mailbag and see what’s shaking:

Stacy in Tuscaloosa, Ala., writes: I’m worried that LSU will attempt to take AJ McCarron out of the game. Is the Alabama offensive line ready to provide that sort of all-around protection?

Chris Low: Rest assured that LSU’s defense is well aware that McCarron suffered a back contusion last week in the Mississippi State game. Now, nobody’s saying that the Tigers will set out to intentionally hurt McCarron, but you can bet they’ll come after him, try to rattle him and get some good shots in on him. That’s football. There were some shaky moments for the Alabama offensive line earlier in the season in terms of pass protection, and LSU will be the best defensive line Alabama has faced all season. For that matter, the Tigers are as good up front defensively as anybody in the country. But I’m not sure I’d pick another offensive line in college football to play behind than Alabama’s if I were a quarterback. It will be a great matchup in the trenches, and so much of it will boil down to Alabama being able to run the ball some against LSU’s defense and not being in third-and-long a bunch. The other thing Alabama has done really well this season is throw the ball on first down, and I expect the Tide to go that route some Saturday night as well.

Marilyn in San Antonio, Texas, writes: Do you think Kevin Sumlin is being underrated when he’s not even mentioned in the Coach of the Year talks?

Chris Low: I’d say you’re onto something there, Marilyn. When you consider that Sumlin’s in his first season at Texas A&M, coupled with the fact that the Aggies are in their first season in the SEC, he’s done an exceptional job. The Aggies are two close losses away to top-10 teams from being unbeaten right now. If they can finish strong and win nine games or more in the regular season, it’s going to be a close race for SEC Coach of the Year honors. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze may be Sumlin’s stiffest competition, but Florida’s Will Muschamp, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin could also be strong candidates depending on what happens the final month of the season.

Jason at Langley Air Force Base writes: Does Marcus Lattimore ever play another down for the Gamecocks?

Chris Low: Boy, I sure hope so. He’s meant so much to South Carolina and so much to college football. We need more kids like Lattimore out there front and center as the face of college football. He clearly has a daunting road ahead of him, and I’m not sure it’s realistic for him to be back by the start of next season. But he’s one determined young man. He fought his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee last year, and I know he’ll attack this injury in the same fashion. The odds are probably against him when you consider that he’s had serious injuries to both knees, but others have made it back. Willis McGahee is still playing in the NFL after suffering a terrible knee injury in college.

Jimmy in Knoxville, Tenn., writes: Why don’t you think Derek Dooley will be gone at the end of the year? He made a bad hire in Sal Sunseri. Neyland Stadium was half full of Alabama fans at the game, and we’re behind Vandy in recruiting?

Chris Low: It’s hard to argue any of your points. The Sunseri hire certainly looks questionable at this point, but even more questionable was the decision to switch to a 3-4 defense in such a pivotal season when it takes more than a year for any defense to make that transition. Season ticket sales weren’t the best coming into this season, and I wouldn’t think they’d be a lot better next year if Dooley is back. It’s also going to be difficult for Dooley to recruit if prospects think he’s not going to be around past next season. All this said, I think Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart is not convinced that the wisest move for the program would be to fire Dooley after just three seasons. I’m sure Hart has been in contact with all the big money people at Tennessee as well as the chancellor and is waiting to see how this season plays out. I do believe that if the Vols lose one of their final four games that Hart will make a move. But it could go either way if they win out and finish 7-5. Much of it will depend on who the Vols think they can get and who’s realistically interested in coming to Tennessee. A lot of variables will be at play. The other thing to consider is that if Hart does bring Dooley back, it doesn’t make sense to bring him back as a lame-duck coach of sorts. Recruiting would be a nightmare. So you almost think that Hart would need to give Dooley some type of extension if he does indeed retain him. It will be an interesting November on Rocky Top.

Kim in Baton Rouge, La., writes: When was the last time two teams played three consecutive times and both were ranked in the top 5? Was it LSU-Ole Miss in 1959-60?

Chris Low: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time two teams played three consecutive times and were both ranked in the top 5 came in 1998-2000 when Florida and Florida State clashed in their annual rivalry. In 1998, Florida was No. 4 and Florida State No. 5. In 1999, Florida State was No. 1 and Florida No. 3. And in 2000, Florida State was No. 3 and Florida No. 4. As for LSU and Ole Miss, they played twice in 1959, and both teams were ranked in the top 3. There wasn’t a third meeting where both teams were ranked in the top 5. The regular-season affair in 1959 featured Billy Cannon's legendary punt return for a touchdown on Halloween night, sending No. 1 LSU to a 7-3 victory over No. 3 Ole Miss. They met again in the Sugar Bowl, and No. 2 Ole Miss beat No. 3 LSU 21-0. The year before in 1958, No. 1 LSU beat No. 6 Ole Miss 14-0. The other series that comes close was Florida-Tennessee back in the 1990s. In three of their four meetings from 1996-99, both teams were ranked in the top 5. The 1998 game was the only one where they weren’t both top 10 teams, although Florida was No. 2 and Tennessee No. 6.

Marcus in Jacksonville, Fla., writes: In a strange way, I think Florida might be more likely to get to the BCS National Championship Game having lost to Georgia. I think there is a better chance of the undefeated teams (minus Alabama) losing a game than there would be for Florida to beat Alabama in the SEC championship game. If Alabama beats LSU and Georgia, that’s already two of the top 6 teams gone. Florida would be ahead of the rest (minus Alabama) if they all had one loss. Then again, that’s assuming Florida wins out. I guess we’ll find out.

Chris Low: In your scenario, the Gators would have a chance. It helps that their loss to Georgia was a close one, too. Obviously, what you’re saying is that it would be an all-SEC matchup for the second straight year in the BCS National Championship Game, and you know how that would go over with the rest of the country. I know it’s not supposed to be this way, but I wonder if you’d see some funky voting in the final human polls. The computers have liked the Gators all season, so that helps. The other thing they would need is for Florida State to keep winning big and come into their regular-season finale ranked in the top 5. That would be a second top 5 team as well as a top 10 team that Florida would have beaten this season, and I think at that point, the Gators would have a real case. What's more, their only loss would have been to a top 10 team. Again, Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame would all have to lose. I have a hard time seeing all three of them losing.

Ross in Norfolk, Va., writes: Johnny Manziel needs to average 264 yards over the next five games to break Cam Newton’s SEC record for total offense in a season. If he does, do you see him getting an invite to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist?

Chris Low: First of all, what a treat it’s been watching Manziel play. He’s fearless and impossible to get a hold of when he starts scrambling. He’s also getting better as a passer. But, yes, if he breaks Newton’s record for total offense, I think he has an excellent chance to be among the top four or five finalists in the Heisman race. One thing that would help him immensely is for the Aggies to win at least nine games and for him to play well against Alabama next week in Tuscaloosa. He hasn’t been as good against the two best defenses he’s faced this season (Florida and LSU), but his numbers still speak for themselves.