For Georgia it has been a nuisance, though in the minds of Clemson fans this game Saturday night in Death Valley is the renewal of a “rivalry,” as much as can be when one team has 41 victories and tied four of the 62 games.
It’s not unreasonable, really. The schools are 90 minutes apart, and the fans of each school hold the other in high contempt, with much of the acrimony rooted in the outcome of 11 feverishly contested games from 1977 to 1987 that they split down the middle, five wins apiece and one tie.
Even when they do not play, the rhetoric becomes vitriolic because both programs recruit many of the same players,. Two on this year’s Georgia team — sophomore running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall — were part of a classic recruiting tug of war that Clemson lost.
“I thought we had them both,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Historically, Clemson has plucked more than a few from under Georgia’s nose. One of the classics was when linebacker John Johnson of LaGrange, Ga., who committed to Georgia on a Monday in 1986, couldn’t be found to sign his national letter of intent two days later because he was being chaperoned by a couple of Clemson assistant coaches.
That incident fanned the flames of a series that reached its peak during that decade. The epochal game came the season after Georgia won its fifth national championship in 1980 led by an enigmatic freshman running back named Herschel Walker. After starting 4-1 in its second season under Danny Ford, Clemson went into a funk at midseason and lost four of its next five. A win against South Carolina salvaged the year and, perhaps, its coach.
Clemson wanted respect, but the Tigers weren’t in anybody’s preseason conversation the next year and did nothing to distinguish themselves in wins against Wofford and Tulane prior to the Georgia game. Yet Clemson’s 13-3 win would prove to be the launching point to a national championship and catapult the program to a decade of incomparable success.
Walker was the lynchpin of the offense during Georgia’s run to the national championship, and in 1982 won the Heisman Trophy, but in three games with Clemson he never scored a touchdown. So stifled was Walker and the Georgia run game in 1981, that Clemson forced the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone. Georgia committed nine turnovers, eight by quarterback Buck Belue. Clemson’s win snuffed a 15-game win streak, and it was Walker’s only regular-season loss in three seasons.
“Georgia wanted to go toe-to-toe and jaw-to-jaw, and I think our guys accepted it real well,” Ford said. “We just wanted to prove we could play with them.
The late Dan Foster, sports editor of The Greenville News, wrote: “For 14 games, Walker had slipped into a phone booth when he needed to, pulled off his glasses, taken off his jacket and come out in his Superman suit. And won. Saturday when he went into the phone booth, a Clemson posse closed in behind him. They nailed the door closed and cut the phone lines. And they cut the nation’s longest winning streak off at 15.”
In 1982, as in 1978 and 1991, Clemson’s only losses were to Georgia. The Bulldogs’ revenge came in the first night game at Sanford Stadium. With Athens native Homer Jordan again at quarterback, Clemson lost 13-3 as Georgia intercepted four passes.
Kickers won three of the next four with dramatic game-winning field goals. Georgia beat No. 2 Clemson 26-23 in 1984 on a 60-yard Kevin Butler field goal that Larry Munson, the play-by-play voice, estimated at “10,000 miles.”
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Munson wailed after the kick. “The stadium is worse than bonkers. I can’t believe what he did.”
Butler’s field goal proved to be inspirational for Clemson freshman David Treadwell, who remembered watching it from the sideline. Two seasons later, he kicked a 46-yarder on the last play to beat Georgia, 31-28, and in 1987 he nailed a 21-yarder with two seconds to play for a 21-20 victory. It was Treadwell’s fourth field goal of the day, and it gave Clemson its first back-to-back wins against Georgia since 1905 and 1906.