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Auburn Athletics photo by Todd Van Emst / Auburn football players warm up before their first preseason scrimmage on Aug. 22. The Tigers have not practiced since last Tuesday due to coronavirus concerns and have at least 16 players who are out this week.

From strictly a scheduling standpoint, there will be no truer Southeastern Conference football champion in the league's 88-year history than the 2020 winner.

Provided, of course, that the SEC season is not halted by the COVID-19  pandemic from its Sept. 26 starting date to its Dec. 19 finish line.

"I don't know how you would have an asterisk by a conference championship," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Saturday afternoon on a Zoom call. "This will probably be as real as we've ever had with 10 games and hopefully a championship game, so the only asterisk by that would be, 'This is the toughest team that ever was,' because they would have gone through 10 games in our league and have played a championship game.

"They would be the national champions in my opinion."

If only things were that simple.

Imagine Tennessee offensive linemen Brandon Kennedy, Wanya Morris, Trey Smith and Darnell Wright having to be quarantined the day before the Volunteers opened at South Carolina. Imagine Florida's aspirations of ending Georgia's three-game winning streak in Jacksonville being countered by Gators quarterbacks Kyle Trask and Emory Jones having to stay back in Gainesville. What if a slew of positive coronavirus tests wiped out the running backs room at Alabama or Auburn during Iron Bowl week?

"I think if it's game week, you've got to find a way to play with what you've got," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Sunday night. "We're learning as we go here. Every day and every week is a different challenge. We've talked about the teams that can be adaptable — it's just a learning process I think for everyone.

"For us, we're testing as much or more than anyone, so it's given us really good information."

Only Alabama won more SEC titles than Auburn last decade, but Malzahn's Tigers might be one of the league's worst teams if the season kicked off this Saturday. The Tigers have not practiced since last Tuesday due to coronavirus-related issues and will work out this week without at least 16 players.

Malzahn has a roster of 122 with walk-on players included, but two unspecified position groups were hit hard and resulted in the cancellation of last Wednesday's practice. He did reveal that the 16 sidelined players are the result of nine positive tests and seven contact-tracing concerns, with Malzahn adding that no particular gathering was the cause.

"Some of our guys were off campus with a roommate and a roommate's girlfriend, so it's really just learning to operate using COVID etiquette," Malzahn said. "Before our students came back, I thought we were in a super spot."

Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt scrapped last Friday's practice after an uptick in COVID-19 cases before resuming Saturday night, while Vanderbilt canceled practice the Friday before that. Even Smart admitted Saturday how fortunate his Bulldogs were just to hold a scrimmage.

Which brings that pesky asterisk back into the conversation.

"It's going to be tough with the number of practices we have and fighting COVID," Smart said. "If you told me how many guys had to miss games in the 10-game schedule because of exposure or some positives, that probably would put an asterisk on the conference championship, because having your starting quarterback out for a major game could play a factor."

Smart realizes college football fans living amid the Big Ten and Pac-12 footprints already have placed asterisks on this season from a national perspective given that those two conferences punted fall competition, but he doesn't believe SEC supporters would do that should the 10-game season, the league championship at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the four-team College Football Playoff take place as scheduled.

It's Malzahn, however, who may be living a reality now that others could experience come kickoff time and beyond.

"The challenge with having students back the last two weeks — obviously we haven't responded as well as we did before," Malzahn said. "We're going to have to adjust, and we're going to have to adapt. We're just taking it day by day and week by week, and we'll see what happens once the season gets here.

"This is a difficult year and a difficult day."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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