LSU Florida Football

LSU running back Chris Curry (18) gaines yardage against Florida during the second half Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla. 

One of the most inspirational sports stories of all time is that of Olympic marathon runner John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania.

In the 1968 Mexico City Games, Akhwari cramped up midway through the race due to the altitude. Later, jockeying for position with other runners, he fell and dislocated both his right knee and a shoulder. Still, Akhwari limped on. More than an hour after gold medalist Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia broke the tape, Akhwari rounded the track in the Estadio Olimpico and crossed the finish line.

What made Akhwari go on? Why didn’t he quit? His answer was simple, and noble.

“My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race,” Akhwari said. “They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

LSU’s 2019 football season was awash with glory, enough trophies and victories to make Alexander the Great believe he was a two-bit under achiever. But the 2020 season, has, other than the last week, been one long, difficult slog.

There is no glory awaiting this year’s team. No championships. There isn’t even a bowl game because the school self-imposed a bowl ban to try to appease NCAA compliance officials. Saturday’s finale against Ole Miss, a game rescheduled from Dec. 5 because of coronavirus issues, will be it. While it’s LSU’s latest regular-season game since 1907, it will be the Tigers’ first season to end without a bowl appearance since 1999.

But Saturday, the LSU Tigers take one last lap around the stadium. What is left of them, anyway. Like Akhwari after his mishaps, they are diminished compared to where they started. The Tigers took but 54 scholarship players with them to Florida for last Saturday’s epic upset and won’t have many more than that available this week. They are bent and battered, and in some corners have become a punch line compared to the virtual invincibility they displayed last season.

That’s to be expected. We Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser, as George C. Scott tells us in the opening few moments of “Patton,” and the chance to throw mud on a team or a champion on the way down from their remarkable heights is one of our favorite pastimes.

But the Tigers, most of them, will finish the race that they started. And, in a considerable surprise, they will have played all 10 games on the schedule. As was true for Akhwari, there is a nobility in that.

Sometimes it is your year. Sometimes all the tumblers click magically into place and the safe door swings wide to unbelievable good fortune. Such was LSU’s fate last season.

Other times, it seems as if fate is conspiring against you. That the football gods demand that the playing field be leveled — perhaps with a vengeance. The 2020 season was rough on everyone but especially LSU with all the opt outs and injuries and more opt outs and off-the-field issues.

Those issues will be waiting for the Tigers in the new year, along with the task that faces coach Ed Orgeron of re-recruiting as many veteran players as he can. For now, though, the rallying cry is to try to defeat the Rebels to finish this season with something to build on.

It is a rough road that leads to greatness, Plato wrote more than 2,000 years ago. If that is true, the Tigers may be on an on ramp back to the College Football Playoff (I feel sure Plato would also have supported a Group of Six team getting its chance this year) straight away. This season has been a rough road indeed that has led LSU to this point on its journey.

But for all their troubles, the Tigers do have an excellent opportunity to take some momentum with them into 2021. LSU’s 37-34 win at Florida was, point spread-wise, the Tigers’ biggest upset since beating Alabama in 1993 (LSU was a 23½ point underdog Saturday, a 25-point dog back then). They followed that with a class currently ranked No. 3 or No. 4 in the nation depending on which recruiting service you prefer with 19 signees. Coach O said LSU is looking to bring in five more players for the Feb. 3 signing date, a wink and a nod indication that four-star defensive end Saivion Jones from St. James is on the hook for the Tigers.

Finishing with a win will hardly be easy. Ole Miss (4-4) leads the Southeastern Conference in total offense with 563.0 yards per game and ranks third in scoring with 39.8 points per game. Though LSU beat Florida, the Tigers still surrendered 609 yards total offense.

Beating Ole Miss won’t be easy. It probably won’t look pretty. But if LSU can pull it off, or even if it can not, the Tigers can take pride in what it took to get here.

They will have no medals or rings or trophies to show for this season. But those aren’t the only measurements in sports.

They will finish the race. It is what they were sent out to do. And the LSU players who stayed, who hung in there all season for whatever personal reasons motivated them, will be able to look back one day and know they achieved something special in its own right.

Better late than never

This will be LSU’s fifth-latest regular-season game ever and latest overall since a win at Havana, Cuba, in 1907:

Date                 Result

Jan. 8, 1898      Cincinnati 26, LSU 0 (considered part of 1897 season)

Dec. 25, 1907    LSU 56, Havana 0

Dec. 21, 1894    LSU 30, Centenary 0

Dec. 20, 1897    LSU 28, Montgomery (Alabama) Athletic Club 6

Dec. 19, 2020  LSU vs. Ole Miss

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com