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LSU wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. (6) goes up for a pass which he caught as Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown (6) defends during the Peach Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019 in Atlanta.

To finally reach the moon, astronaut Alan Shepard had to overcome a debilitating inner ear problem that grounded him for years and a string of potentially mission-ending computer glitches as Apollo 14’s lunar lander Antares groped down toward its landing zone.

But made it he did, and at last Shepard was able to stand on the moon’s surface and gaze about at what Buzz Aldrin called, during Apollo 11, “magnificent desolation.”

“It’s been a long way,” Shepard said, “but we’re here.”

Shepard’s words are a proper metaphor for this college football season.

It’s been a long way but we’re here, on the doorstep of a new, reconfigured 10-game Southeastern Conference campaign.

How to complete the mission is another matter entirely.

To get to the end, to be the team lifting the SEC championship trophy in December in Atlanta or the College Football Playoff trophy in January in Miami, it will take the requisite skill and smarts.

This pandemic year, it will also take something else. Assuming there are championship trophies to be handed out, the teams lifting them may not just be the best. They may have to be the luckiest.

The SEC has the usual roster of national-title worthy teams. Alabama, which was shocked to find itself at home with the onion dip watching the CFP party last season instead of participating, is the favorite. But Georgia starts again in the top five, Florida is a trendy choice and reigning champion LSU (more on the Tigers later) and Texas A&M can’t be discounted, either.

But it’s not just enough to be bristling with talent as those teams are. Timing could be just as important, and we’re not just talking about Terrace Marshall running a post route to take in a Myles Brennan pass at a precise point on the field.

Considerable cautions abound but as we have seen, the coronavirus is like water, finding its way inside college football programs through the tiniest crack. There should be no question LSU has done its level best to take all the precautions it can. But as coach Ed Orgeron revealed last week, most of the Tigers have contracted COVID-19 by now. A small, undetermined batch of them still had the virus this week, though by Orgeron’s telling not a number that was going to threaten LSU’s season opener against Mississippi State.

Still, more outbreaks can be sure to pop up during this season like brushfires. And that is what promises to add an unnerving element of unpredictability to the season.

What if a whole position group or much of it, like LSU’s offensive linemen early this summer, get the virus and have to be quarantined? Or several starters scattered across the depth chart? Maybe a game will have to be postponed or scratched like the nearly two dozen we have seen already. Or the determination may be to play on without several key players in a big game like LSU has against Florida or Alabama or Auburn.

The same could be true for the opposition. What if the Crimson Tide comes to Baton Rouge in November with most of its running backs ruled out? How big a thumb might that set on the scales of an otherwise championship-caliber season?

LSU is going to need a little luck on its side if the Tigers are to contend for titles again. Another 15-0 season is out the window because no one is playing that long a schedule plus postseason games. But the Tigers lost so much to the draft and players opting out, is anything but a rebuilding year too much to ask?

In terms of talent CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who will be in Tiger Stadium Saturday, says LSU is still LSU.

“The names on the back of the jerseys, are ones we’re not familiar with,” Danielson said. “But if you look at the bodies of the players, not much has changed at LSU. They have always had — like Ohio State or Alabama, maybe in the old days USC — as many NFL bodies on the practice field as anyone.”

Shoot for the moon, the late LSU coach Bill Arnsparger often said, and you’ll at least land among the stars. That’s a good starting point for the 2020 Tigers, who like the rest of us have no idea how this pandemic-riddled season will allow them to finish.

If anything, though, these Tigers already have an identity, a central theme to drive them. And it is to lock away memories of last year’s perfect season and not let them be a distraction in this one.

“Last year is last year,” said linebacker Damone Clark, who with running back Chris Curry was honored with wearing the No. 18 jersey this season. “We’ll talk about this year one step at a time.”

“One step at a time” is usually a sportswriter’s least-favorite cliché. But this year, it couldn’t be more appropriate.

It’s been a long way, but we’re here. The SEC schedule is set to begin. For the teams that get through it with all or even most of their games played will stand as significant achievement, trophies or no trophies to add to the case.


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Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com