Two proud programs with national title aspirations will have the attention of the college football world on the season-opening weekend.
Georgia and Clemson, universities about an hour-and-a-half drive apart, renew a dormant rivalry with a monster matchup that harkens back to the programs’ previous glory days.
Tonight’s showdown in Death Valley — calibrate your smartphones to the expected kickoff time of 8:22 p.m. — showcases a fifth-ranked Georgia team that nearly played for the national title last season against an eighth-ranked Clemson team that would love to crash the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year BCS title party.
“A lot of the younger Georgia fans wouldn’t realize what a rival game that this is,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said, “but it certainly has a lot of rich history to it. Looking forward to adding to it.”
It’s the first time Georgia has opened the season with a matchup of top-10 teams.
A Labor Day showdown against Clemson in 1982 in Athens was as close as it got previously.
On that night, No. 6 Georgia prevailed over No. 11 Clemson, 13-7, in Sanford Stadium.
“That was a real big rivalry, a real intense rivalry back in those days,” said Homer Jordan, the starting quarterback for Clemson from 1980-82 who still lives in his hometown of Athens, where he played and later coached at Cedar Shoals. “It was physical. When that game came around, it had the same excitement and buildup as they do right now.”
Georgia and Clemson haven’t played since 2003 but played annually from 1973 to 1987.
“There’s just a lot of history and tradition between these two schools,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That in itself creates a lot of excitement and buzz, especially because we used to play every year and haven’t played in a long time now.”
They split 11 games between 1977-87 — going 5-5-1 — in games that were decided by a total of 12 points.
Georgia won 20-16 in 1980 after Scott Woerner had a 67-yard punt return touchdown and a 98-yard interception return.
In 1984, Georgia needed the heroics of Kevin Butler’s 60-yard field goal to walk away 26-23 winners in Athens.
“You obviously remember the big field goal that Butler had … watching it in awe that day,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “You always remembered a hard-fought game, two teams playing for 60 minutes. It reminded me of an SEC football game.”
Georgia has won five in a row against the Tigers in a series that began in 1897 and leads the all-time series 41-17-4, but the old border rivals are playing for just the third time since 1995.
“Historically it’s always been a great rival for Clemson moreso than Georgia,” said former Georgia football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley. “We had some other big games where the championship was riding on it, there were more natural rivals like Auburn, like Florida, like Georgia Tech. Besides the state rival, Clemson and South Carolina’s biggest rival was Georgia. So even when we were better and were winning consistently from them, we always had real struggles because they really both pointed to that game.”
The SEC’s move to a seven-game conference schedule in 1988 left Georgia to play a rotation every two years with Clemson and South Carolina until the Gamecocks joined the SEC, leaving Georgia unable to play Clemson on a regular basis, Dooley said.
Georgia and Clemson get the national television spotlight tonight on ABC in primetime, but of course in this day and age, there are other games at the same time all over on TV.
Dooley remembers the 1982 Labor Day game as being “the only game on television.” The game matched the past two national champions. Georgia won in 1980 and Clemson in 1981.
“It’s not one I like to talk about because I didn’t play well that game,” Jordan said laughing remembering
his four interceptions in that game
but preferring to talk about the 1981 game, a 13-3 win over a No. 4 Georgia team.
Clemson is bringing back Jordan and kicker David Treadwell, who made game-winning field goals against Georgia in 1986 and 1987, as honorary captains tonight.
“That’s just recognition of this game, how special this game is, the tradition,” Swinney said. “Those are two pretty historic figures in this game.”
Adding to the pregame build-up, Clemson will induct former Tigers coach Danny Ford in its Ring of Honor. Ford went 4-4-1 against Dooley, but Dooley was 15-6-1 overall against the Tigers.
Clemson, which has won one ACC title since 1992, has its highest preseason ranking since 1988 despite returning just 10 scholarship seniors. Georgia is the highest ranked team the Tigers have faced in an opener since a fourth-ranked Oklahoma team in 1963.
Points are not expected to be at a premium with two explosive offenses. And both defenses have some questions marks.
Georgia lost eight starters off its 12-2 team of last season.
“I feel like our defense is going to hold its own,” tight end Jay Rome said. “I feel like we have a really good defense. I feel like a lot of people are a little bit more afraid than they should for our defense. I think those guys are great players, athletic players, they’re learning what to do, they know what to do. We’ve got some older guys in key spots that are really bringing these guys up. No matter how people perceive our defense to be as an offense, it’s our goal to come out and score points.”
It’s the second matchup of top-10 teams in Memorial Stadium history.
“We have to handle our emotions,” Bobo said. “That’s a big part of playing this game.”
“Three teams that were listed in the preseason top 10 last year didn’t even finish ranked,” Swinney said. “You have to keep those things in the right perspective.”
A victory would be a big early season boost, but a loss won’t necessarily be a killer.
“The winner of this game, they’ve just kind of have got a good starting spot,” Swinney said. “The loser isn’t out of the race.”
Richt planned to speak to his players to fill them in on what the Clemson game means to Georgia through the years, but the current players are more interested in the here and now.
Clemson is just the first opponent that stands in their way for big goals this year.
“That’s not really a big thing that we discussed,” cornerback Damian Swann said. “We just discussed going in and executing the game plan.”