Georgia football 2021 clash with Clemson: ‘going to feel like a College Playoff Game’
ATHENS — Dabo Swinney was sensing a moment last spring, his Clemson Tigers having officially moved on from their historic 15-0 national championship season with a spring game that suggested there wouldn’t be much dropoff in 2019.
“We should play Georgia every year if it was up to me,” Swinney said, a couple hours after presenting national championship rings for the second time in three years. “We’re 80 miles (apart), and they need a game, we need a game.”
The teams’ 2021 schedules at the time didn’t appear to reflect that.
But Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich and Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity would soon realize Swinney’s instinct was right.
“Dan and I have known each other for decades, and in conversation one day we were talking about strength of schedules, and Dan said that in ’21, they had some deficiencies,” McGarity told DawgNation.
“He said, ‘How does your schedule look?’ I said there were certain ways we could elevate our schedule as well, and everything lined up from that point.”
No doubt, McGarity had a pretty good idea Kirby Smart would be on board. Georgia has added future home-and-home series with Florida State, Ohio State, Texas, Clemson and Oklahoma in the past year at Smart’s urging.
Money can move mountains, and it can also move previously scheduled games. It was announced last Tuesday, after six months of inner-circle talks, that Swinney and Smart will get the 2021 showdown they wanted.
Georgia paid a $1.8 million buyout to San Jose State to make it happen, and Clemson has bought off Wyoming for $1.1 million.
The Bulldogs open the 2020 season against Virginia on Monday, Sept. 7, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Georgia will likely be ranked in the Top 10. There’s an outside chance the Cavaliers could sneak into the preseason Top 25 on the heels of their 36-28 Orange Bowl loss to Florida.
But the Georgia-Virginia game does not carry the same national appeal or weight as a meeting of two perennial championship contenders like Georgia and Clemson.
The fact the Bulldogs are playing the 2021 game away from home, at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, is a break from the comfort zone former Georgia coaches Vince Dooley and Mark Richt preferred.
The game marks only the 10th time in the last 50 years Georgia will open the season against a ranked non-conference team.
More telling, it’s only the fourth time in the last 50 years UGA will play a road or neutral site season-opening game against a ranked Power 5 non-conference opponent.
The last time that happened was 2013, when the No. 5 Bulldogs traveled to No. 8 Clemson and were dealt a 38-35 defeat in a battle of the schools’ all-time leading passers.
Tajh Boyd (11,904 yards, 107 touchdowns) and Aaron Murray (13,166 yards, 121 touchdowns) dueled in a Death Valley classic. Future NFL stars Sammy Watkins and Todd Gurley highlighted much of the action.
Georgia is actually closer to Clemson as the crow flies (58 miles) than Georgia Tech (60 miles). Driving in a car, however, it’s a tad longer, with 79 miles of highways and backroads separating Athens from the proud South Carolina school.
A lid-lifting 2024 neutral site game was already in place between Georgia and Clemson, set for Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Aug. 31.
There are future home-and-home series scheduled, too. The Bulldogs and Tigers meet in 2029-2030, and 2032-2033.
But no one on either side of this on-again, off-again rivalry wanted to wait that long.
Georgia fans are thrilled with the annual intensity and championship expectations Smart has brought to the Bulldogs’ program.
Swinney is, quite simply, the best head coach in Clemson history. The former Alabama receiver can also make a case as the preeminent coach in college football today with his recent success over Nick Saban.
Swinney, like Smart, is a student of the game and embraces the history of Georgia-Clemson.
“For years and years and years, Clemson and Georgia played every year, and somewhere along the line that went away,” Swinney told DawgNation in an exclusive interview last April.
UGA and Clemson played every year from 1897-1916, and all but two seasons from 1962 to 1987. Upon SEC expansion in 1992, Georgia had home-and-home series’ with Clemson in 1990-1991, 1994-1995, 1998-1999 and 2002-2003.
“It’s a tough game because they are one of the best teams in the country, but it’s a great game for the fans, and we have to play people,” Swinney said. “I’d just as soon play them than have to go all the way somewhere else to get a game.”
Smart, as he often does, issued his reaction to the 2021 game via press release last week.
“This is another great opportunity to schedule a national non-conference game with a top level opponent,” Smart said.
“Playing a regular season game in Charlotte will give our fans the opportunity for a completely new experience in a great city and top level stadium. I know our coaches and players will be excited for the challenge to kick off the season in this kind of environment.”
Smart is calculated with each move, and while some fret adding Clemson could lead to over-scheduling, a look at UGA’s 2021 slate tells a different story.
UGA’s other non-conference games are against UAB, Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech. Auburn is the annual crossover opponent from the SEC West, and the rotating opponent is Arkansas, at Sanford Stadium.
Both Clemson and Georgia figure to be in somewhat of a reloading mode.
Tigers’ quarterback Trevor Lawrence is expected by many to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Star tailback Travis Etienne will be out of eligibility barring unforeseen circumstance.
The Bulldogs will have plenty of holes to fill, too. Graduate transfer QB Jamie Newman has just this one season in Athens. Several players off what appears to be the top returning defense in the nation will also have moved on.
Both Georgia and Clemson have recruited well enough to assume there will be more household names in place by the time the game is played.
Smart likes to say it’s about the players, and former Bulldogs’ Hutson Mason and Aaron Davis can attest to the zeal brought about by opening a season with Clemson.
“It does provide that extra spark in the offseason,” said Mason, who quarterbacked Georgia to a 45-21 win over the Tigers in the team’s most recent meeting, in 2014 in Athens.
It was the opening game for the then-No. 12 Bulldogs and No. 16 Clemson that season, too. Mason remembers the build-up on and off the field.
“I think it’s great for the fanbase, too, because you’ve got eight months to promote it and get things going,” said Mason, a sports host on Atlanta Sports X radio on 106.3 FM and 1230 AM.
“As players, I remember when we played those games there was a different vibe in the offseason, knowing you would be in primetime playing a great team,” said Mason, including a 2011 opener with Boise State. “You wanted to get off to a great start, as opposed to playing a San Jose State.
“There’s more motivation, you’re more excited, and you want to be clicking.”
Davis, now a research analyst for national real estate firm, agreed with his former Georgia football teammate.
“Guys haven’t played football for months, so you’re wanting to go against someone else who isn’t on your team, anyway,” said Davis, a former DB who still counts that 2014 win over Clemson as one of his favorites.
“But this does add a pressure element, because it will be nationally televised, and there will be higher stakes and more to play for,’ Davis said. “It’s going to feel like a College Playoff Game.”
Smart said last summer he wants Georgia football on the national stage.
“If you’re going to recruit the finest players in the country out of your own state, and across the country … I want to play the best teams,” Smart said.
“They come to college to play big games … they don’t want to play the little sisters of the poor. They want to play the best teams, so we want to go schedule the best teams.”
Georgia non-conference ranked openers
(last 50 years)
Sept. 3: (No. 18) Georgia 33, (No. 22) North Carolina 24 (Atlanta)
Aug. 30: (No. 12) Georgia 45, (No. 16) Clemson 21 (Athens)
Aug. 31: (No. 8) Clemson 38, (No. 5) Georgia 35 (Clemson)
Sept. 3: (No. 5) Boise State 34, (No. 19) Georgia 21 (Atlanta)
Sept. 5: (No. 9) Oklahoma State 24, (No. 13) Georgia 10 (Stillwater, OK)
Sept. 3: (No. 13) Georgia 48, (No. 18) Boise State 13 (Athens)
Sept. 3: (No. 15) Georgia 19, (No. 20) UCLA 8 (Athens)
Sept. 6: (No. 6) Georgia 13, (No. 11) Clemson 7 (Athens)
Sept. 11: (No. 16) Georgia 36, (No. 15) Cal 24 (Athens)