Clemson-Georgia: A Cold Rivalry Heats Up A Little Earlier

Brad Senkiw

Tuesday’s announcement that Clemson and Georgia are renewing their series on the field a few years earlier than expected is a pleasant surprise for the college football world.

This is one of the great rivalries in the game, even though they’ve only played four times in this millennium.

The two schools are separated by 75 miles. They recruit many of the same players.

Currently, both the Tigers and the Bulldogs are vying for trips to the College Football Playoff. Dabo Swinney has taken Clemson there four consecutive seasons. They’ve won it all twice in the last four years and have played in four title games since 2015.

Kirby Smart got Georgia to the CFP in 2017, when they lost to Alabama in overtime of the national championship game. The Bulldogs have played in three consecutive SEC title games.

Georgia coach Kirby SmartStephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson and Georgia will be back in the hunt in 2020. They’re annually recruiting top-10 classes, and top-5 the last couple of years.

There’s nothing to suggest they won’t be serious playoff contenders when they meet Sept. 4, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C.

The other important element that these two rivals share? History.

There was a time when this was an annual event, back when planning a schedule didn’t take nearly two decades in advance or thoughts of how to make a four-team playoff.

There was a time when teams scheduled each other because it simply made sense.

Clemson and Georgia first met in 1897. They’ve played 63 times since then. But the rivalry ran nearly continuously from 1962 until 1987, with no meetings taking place in 1966 or 1972.

That era saw a tremendous and historical stretch of games. The Bulldogs were Clemson’s only blemish in 1978 with a 12-0 loss, which kept the Tigers from having a shot at the national title.

Georgia also beat Clemson 20-16 in Athens during their 1980 national championship run.

In 1981, their meeting proved to be a playoff game of sorts as Clemson’s 13-3 victory essentially knocked Georgia out of the national title race and propelled the Tigers into an undefeated season and their first national championship after an Orange Bowl win over Nebraska. The Bulldogs finished sixth in that poll.

And then there were the field-goal games: Georgia’s Kevin Butler made two late ones, including a 60-yard game winner, in 1984. David Treadwell then went down in Clemson lore with game-winning field goals in 1986 and 1987.

After that, they played in 1990, 1991, 1994 and 1995. They took a break until a two-game series in 2003-04, but nothing was scheduled after that, and a 10-year lull began.

They finally renewed their rivalry in 2013 with an offensive thriller in Death Valley, followed by a contest in Athens the next season that was a Bulldog route. However, that spawned the careers of two freshmen who would go on to lead their teams to future playoffs: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Georgia running back Nick Chubb.

Fun, entertaining and memorable events happen when these two teams play. It was already scheduled to occur again in 2024 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, followed by home-and-home series in 2029-30 and 2032-32.

However, Clemson was in dire need of an upgrade of the 2021 non-conference slate. With Wyoming, UConn and S.C. State (along with annual rival South Carolina), it didn’t match what the Tigers have been trying to do schedule-wise during the better part of the Swinney era. They want to play meaningful Power-5 opponents, like they have with Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Auburn.

Dropping Wyoming for Georgia worked out perfectly. Just think, it could very well be the first career starts for two of the most highly-touted quarterbacks in the country: Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei's (2020 class) and Georgia commit Brock Vandagriff (2021 class). 

It’s not realistic to think these two can play every season again. Georgia plays Georgia Tech and the Tigers have to take on the Gamecocks. Plus, to make the CFP, you have to schedule tough but not too tough. Both teams realize that.

The 2021 showdown is the perfect way, though, to heat up a cold rivalry, get fans energized about playing each other again and set the stage for future scheduled meetings.

The two athletic departments deserve credit for making something happen that makes so much sense that it's actually a surprise to see it happen.