And that really started in the 1980s.
Georgia has dominated the series for most of its existence, but that wasn't true of the 1980s. Clemson held its own against Georgia during that decade, and that is what helped the Tigers program take the next step and become nationally relevant.
Clemson had a solid program before that decade, but something special happened in the 1980s, and you can point to the 1981 game with Georgia as the origin of that change. The Tigers won the game in 1979 by five points, while the Bulldogs won by four in 1980, and that only added to the excitement surrounding the 1981 game.
Georgia was coming off a national championship in 1980, and the Bulldogs showcased one of the best players in the country in Herschel Walker. Just a sophomore, he already was one of the best players in Georgia history and should have won the Heisman Trophy the year before as a freshman.
The 1981 game is my first strong memory of a Clemson contest. I had been going to games with my Dad since I was 5 and had missed only one home game (against Notre Dame in 1977), while even going to Sanford Stadium in Athens for a game. But this was different. I was 10, and I was just starting to understand the game. Being born in Georgia before moving to Anderson when I was 2 added a little tug to the heart, too.
Clemson was my team, and Anderson always will be my hometown even though I haven't lived there since 1999. But the state of Georgia always will hold a special place in my heart, as well. That's heavy stuff for a 10-year-old, but once the game started, it was clear where my allegiances resided, and it was clear which team was the better one early on.
It was a sloppy game, really, on both sides, as Clemson's defense dominated throughout. Walker got his yards, but he never got close to the end zone as the Tigers made a statement about what kind of season they would have, following up Georgia's national title with one of their own. The next year, the two teams met in the first game of the season on national television at night in Athens. The past two champions, facing off on national TV doesn't come along that often, and it was a big-time atmosphere at Sanford Stadium and yet another defensive struggle.
Georgia snapped Clemson's hopes of defending its title early with a 13-7 win, but the game was a showcase for both programs, and both lived up to the hype for that contest.
A weird tie the next year just added to the momentum of the rivalry. The Bulldogs made a field goal in the closing minute to tie the score, but there's nothing weird about that. But in the final seconds, Clemson tried a long field goal only to miss and allow Georgia the chance to try its own long field goal on the final play. Both kicks came up well short, of course, as they were way outside of reasonable hopes of making them, and it left the Death Valley crowd stunned with a tie at 16. It was a weird feeling that day walking out of the stadium; there were none of the usual reactions after a big-time game, just kind of muffled chatter about what just happened (thank goodness college football has gotten rid of ties).
The next year marked one of the toughest losses for the Tigers in some time. Listening on the radio made it worse as Kevin Butler ripped out Clemson fans' hearts with a 60-yard game-winning field goal. That was a difficult game, for sure, and the next year Georgia added a seven-point win to seemingly take back control of the series. But then David Treadwell came to the rescue, not once, but twice in two of the biggest Clemson wins ever.
The 1986 game in Athens was a back-and-forth game that, luckily, was televised, and it was worthy of that distinction. It was exciting throughout with big play after big play (who will ever forget Kenny Flowers streaking down the sideline early in that contest), but it looked like it was headed to another unsatisfying tie.
But a nice Terrence Flagler run got the Tigers going on their final drive, and a Rodney Williams keeper on an option run gave Tigers fans real hope. Still, the offense only reached the Bulldogs' 30, setting up Treadwell, who had missed his only field goal try of the day, for a long attempt.
He was pure on the kick, sending Clemson fans in the far end zone into a frenzy and setting off an unforgettable celebration on the field. Tigers fans of that era, for sure, can vividly remember Treadwell being picked up and kicking his legs and swinging his arms in elation, and I will never forget a young Terry Allen running out on the field jumping around the pile looking to get in on the celebration. It was a special kick, a special win and a special day for Clemson fans.
The next year, the setting was a little different. Clemson was favored to win, but it was never wise to doubt a Vince Dooley-coached team, and his Bulldogs had Clemson's fans nervous for most of that game. But that all changed with a late safety forced by James Lott and Gene Beasley that shook Death Valley and gave Clemson a chance to win the game with a field goal.
This time, Allen played a key role in the game-winning drive (who can forget Brent Musburger's description of Allen's huge third-down run – Allen steps away, Allen creates it, Allen for the corner – to get the Tigers in position for the win). But just as important was Williams' pitch under duress as he was being tackled in the backfield to get the ball to Allen.
Moments later, Treadwell came through again, this time from much closer range, to set off another celebration. But the look on Ford's face – of relief – said a lot about that game. Clemson had pulled one out and kept the wonderful run of games between two strong programs going. Think about it, 10 games decided by 38 total points (and only one by double digits) with three of them coming down to game-winning field goals. It was a dramatic run of games that might never be matched.
Sadly, the yearly meetings ended right there with Treadwell's boot into the West end zone stands. The two teams have met only six times since, and Georgia has won the past five, including a 30-0 win at Clemson in 2003.
But that doesn't change what this series means to fans on both sides. It's something to remember fondly, and there's a good chance Saturday's season opener will add to that legacy.
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.