CLEMSON — The beauty of those three little words “Georgia at Clemson” trigger the most explicit of emotions this summer.
• Hope, for two football teams dreaming of embarking on a national championship quest.
• Motivation, to put on a show for a national television audience on opening night.
• Reflection, on a once-heated rivalry gone away for a few decades.
• Pride, as the rebuilding ACC battles the powerhouse SEC.
• Anticipation, toward an atmosphere rarely matched in American sports.
There’s a little bit of “Are we there yet?” thrown in as well. Fans not only of those two programs but of college football will feel like young kids in the back seat of a long car ride … in this case, the weeks-long wait to a prime time game serves as the metaphorical interstate.
Ten Saturday nights from now, college football’s eagerly-awaited season opener will kick off from Death Valley, when the Bulldogs and Tigers look to carry momentum from a rock-solid 2012 campaign into the new year.
Georgia was 5 yards away from knocking off Alabama in the SEC Championship game, and finished the 2012 season ranked fifth in the country.
Clemson has consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in more than two decades, and a Heisman contender returning in quarterback Tajh Boyd surrounded by offensive weapons galore.
“I think it’s exciting for both teams to go compete against the best of the best,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney told the ACC Network last week. “We feel we’re one of the better teams in the country, and certainly Georgia is as well. To open up on a stage like that against a quality opponent is very exciting.”
Swinney grew up in Birmingham, so he’s been familiar with the history of the Bulldogs and Tigers – which played 11 consecutive years from 1977-87. The result: Clemson 5, Georgia 5, with one tie.
“I grew up watching Clemson-Georgia. So many great moments,” Swinney said. “That’s all people talk about, is the tradition of that game.”
It’s not just about achieving bragging rights or starting out 1-0. It’s about jockeying for position in the race for a BCS championship berth, in the final year of just two golden tickets to the big game.
“Compared to 30 or 40 years ago, it’s just a different philosophy now,” said Loran Smith, a Georgia historian and former assistant football SID for the school. “It wasn’t all that long ago that winning the SEC was the biggest thing. Winning the national championship wasn’t talked about all that much years ago in a lot of places. At southern schools, winning the SEC was a big thing.”
The renewed series was signed in 2005, dates were revealed in May 2011 as season openers (Clemson visits Georgia to kick off 2014), and the Aug. 31 prime time assignment was announced in early March 2013.
Memorial Stadium and Sanford Stadium rest just 80 miles away from each other, but an entire region has taken note of the game’s magnitude.
In an ESPN SportsNation poll last week, 11,658 votes were cast on the best opener involving an SEC team. The choices included Georgia-Clemson, LSU-TCU, Alabama-Virginia Tech, South Carolina-North Carolina and Vanderbilt-Ole Miss.
The Bulldogs and Tigers won in a landslide, with 51 percent of the vote. The next nearest competitor was LSU-TCU (15 percent) and the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide vs. the Hokies (14 percent), with each of those games at neutral sites – Arlington and Atlanta, respectively.
This might be why: Georgia beat Clemson 20-16 in 1980, and went on to win the national title. Clemson beat Georgia 13-3 the following year, and claimed its only college football championship.
“There is that potential,” suggested Charleston County Clemson Club president Heather Byrd, “for either one of these teams to do that again this year.”