Fan excitement building for Georgia-Clemson showdown

The Sept. 4 game between Georgia and Clemson in Charlotte will be televised nationally in prime time on ABC. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia

The Georgia-Clemson rivalry, once one of college football’s most heated, may have cooled off a bit since the two programs stopped playing every year in the late 1980s, but the most recent games in the series have been blockbusters.

Not surprisingly, the next meeting between the two schools, set for Sept. 4 in Charlotte — just 104 days from now — promises to be nothing less.

And, events of the past couple of weeks have stoked fan anticipation even more.

The Georgia-Clemson game could wind up being a match between two teams ranked in the Top 5 nationally. (Getty Images)
Getty Images, Dawgnation

First, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper lifted pandemic restrictions in his state, allowing a full-capacity crowd of 75,000 as Georgia and Clemson face off in the neutral-site Duke’s Mayo Classic (formerly the Belk College Kickoff) at the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium. (When Clemson played in the Charlotte stadium last November, in the ACC Championship game against Notre Dame, a crowd of only 28,000 was allowed.)

It’s likely to be the hottest ticket of the season for Dawgs fans. UGA and Clemson each will receive 27,000 tickets for the game. Georgia Bulldog Club season ticket holders have until May 28 to request single home, away and neutral site games, including the clash with Clemson.

(Interestingly, this won’t be Georgia and Clemson’s first neutral-site game. The two schools played in Augusta in 1907-1913, and in Anderson, S.C., in 1916. Georgia holds a 6-1-1 record in those games played in neither school’s stadium.)

On top of the excitement about a full house for the game in Charlotte, ABC-ESPN announced this past week that the game will be televised nationally on ABC in prime time, with a 7:30 p.m. start, following the 3:30 p.m. Chick-fil-A Kickoff game matching Alabama and Miami in Atlanta. Yes, JT Daniels and the Dawgs get the prime-time slot, not the Tide.

Quarterback JT Daniels will be in the national spotlight, with Clemson being the biggest game of his career so far. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
Curtis Compton, Dawgnation

With most college football observers expecting that both Georgia and Clemson will be ranked in the preseason Top 5, the first game of the season for both Kirby Smart’s Dawgs and Dabo Swinney’s Tigers is generating early game-of-the-year buzz, and it could wind up as the Dawgs’ most heralded season opener ever.

The hype and fan excitement take me back to 1982, when the two programs met in another nationally televised game, on Labor Day night in Sanford Stadium. That game matched the national champions of the two previous college football seasons (Georgia in 1980 and Clemson in 1981) and marked Georgia’s first night game in Athens in many years, under newly installed lights.

That was back in the days when Georgia and Clemson played annually, and, for fans of both schools, the rivalry was pretty much unequaled — yes, even topping at times the yearly grudge match between the Dawgs and Gators in Jacksonville.

The Bulldogs came into the 1982 game ranked No. 7 nationally and the Tigers were either No. 9 or No. 11, depending on which poll was cited. Jim Nabors of Gomer Pyle fame was on hand to sing the national anthem, and there was additional drama courtesy of the Dawgs’ star tailback, Herschel Walker, who had an injured thumb and wasn’t even certain to play.

When Walker entered the game as a decoy in the second quarter, the Tigers’ focus on him allowed Tron Jackson to score on a 41-yard reverse, though the touchdown was wiped out by a penalty. But, the Georgia defense rose to the occasion, intercepting Athens native Homer Jordan four times, and blocking a punt that turned into a touchdown for the Dawgs. The difference, however, was the two field goals kicked by Kevin Butler. The Dawgs won 13-7.

The pandemic has subsided enough that Bank of America Stadium will be open to full capacity for the Georgia-Clemson game. (Carolina Panthers)
Carolina Panthers, Dawgnation

The two most recent meetings in the storied series also were pretty big deals.

In 2013, No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson battled back and forth at Death Valley in Clemson, with the score tied 21-21 at the half. The Tigers eked out a 38-35 win in a game that saw the Dawgs rack up 545 yards of offense, despite a dismal performance by the offensive line that affected QB Aaron Murray’s play. Despite playing hurt, Georgia tailback Todd Gurley had 154 yards on a dozen carries, including a 75-yard touchdown run.

A botched snap made it impossible for the Dawgs to tie the game up at 31, but that followed Georgia having first-and-goal just outside the 5-yard line, but not being able to punch the ball in with three running plays, due to both the poor blocking by the offensive line and some strangely conservative playcalling by then-offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.

A year later in Athens, the Bulldogs and Tigers again were tied 21-21 at the half, with one of Clemson’s scores being a beautiful TD pass thrown by freshman QB Deshaun Watson, making his Tigers debut in support of starter Cole Stoudt.

However, Georgia pulled away in the second half on a day that saw then-Heisman Trophy favorite Gurley score four touchdowns and set a school record with 293 all-purpose yards, leading the No. 12 Dawgs to a 45-21 victory over No. 16 Clemson. The game, which also marked the debuts of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, featured Gurley running for 198 yards on 15 carries, and also scoring on a 100-yard-plus kickoff return that was a thing of beauty.

Immediately after that game, I wrote: “Todd Gurley is one of those special players we need to savor while we have the tremendous pleasure of watching him.”

Unfortunately, we had limited chances to have that pleasure during the 2014 season, with Gurley being suspended four games for doing exactly what a new Georgia law allows as of this July 1: profiting off his name, image and likeness. And, when he returned for the Auburn game, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the fourth quarter.

The most recent meeting between Georgia and Clemson, in 2014 in Athens, was a showcase for Todd Gurley. (Getty Images)
Getty Images, Dawgnation

There were a lot of fun moments for Dawgs fans in that 2014 game against Clemson, most of them courtesy of Gurley, named Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Tigers. My personal favorite came with 7:44 on the clock in the fourth quarter. As Georgia prepared to take the field at its own 49 after a Clemson punt, my stadium neighbor Mike asked me if I knew how many yards Gurley had so far. I told him I thought 147. Replied Mike: “We might see 51 more right here.” And then Gurley proceeded to top off his record-setting night by doing just that for another touchdown!

Gurley was all over the place. At one point, he could be seen in the middle of the defensive huddle, urging his teammates on. And, at another point, as the Tigers approached a key play, you could see Gurley up on the bench urging on the crowd.

That night also was highlighted by a special on-field commemoration of the 30th anniversary of another celebrated Georgia-Clemson game, the 1984 meeting, in which Kevin Butler kicked a field goal with 11 seconds remaining to give the Dawgs a 26-23 upset win over the Tigers, then the nation’s No. 2 ranked team. Butler kicked it “100,000 miles,” Larry Munson said (actually, it was 60 yards) to break the Tigers’ hearts. Sanford Stadium, as Munson screamed, was “worse than bonkers.”

And, then there was the 1991 game. On Ray Goff’s best day as Georgia’s head coach, the Dawgs upset the No. 6-ranked (and eventual ACC champion) Tigers on national television, thanks to the efforts of freshman quarterback Eric Zeier, who replaced starter Greg Talley.

It’s worth noting that the Tigers are an early 3-point Vegas favorite this year, but there’s something about meetings between Georgia and Clemson that tends to produce special memories — and upsets — that Georgia fans will talk about for decades.

I won’t be at all surprised if the Sept. 4 game in Charlotte continues that grand tradition.

Let me hear from you!

I’ll dip into the Junkyard Mail next week, so feel free to ask any questions you’d like me to tackle, and share your views on the upcoming football season, or any other UGA sports, by emailing me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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