ATHENS, Ga. - Two players who played big roles for Georgia in Georgia-Clemson games of the last two decades say the rivalry should still be strong despite the longest gap between games in the series in 40 years.
Georgia and Clemson, who meet Saturday night in the season opener for both teams, have not played in seven years - the longest layoff in the series since 1955-62 - but Scott Woerner and Brian Smith say the renewed rivalry should be as intense as ever.
In 1995, Smith and Torin Kirtsey led the Bulldogs to a 19-17 win at Clemson in Ray Goff's last season as Georgia's head coach. Seven years is a long time in the life of a current college player - a 20-year-old junior was only 13 when that '95 game was played - but not so long to dull the emotions that are natural in a rivalry separated by only about an hour apart.
Smith, now an intern at Vanderbilt Hospital, can relate to the Georgia players who will experience their first taste of the rivalry when Clemson visits Sanford Stadium Saturday night. From 1962-87 the teams played every year, but by the time Smith - a native of Spartanburg, S.C. - played at Georgia in the mid-1990s, the rivalry had been reduced to home-and-home games in 1990-91 and 1994-95. Similarly, Georgia will play at Clemson to open next season but the teams will not play in 2004.
The rivalry tends to involve high school rivals and fan bases that overlap families and work relationships. That, plus a long history of close games, makes for instant intensity.
"The large majority of players on our team were in-state players, and they remembered the Kevin Butler and David Treadwell days, the rivalry days,'' Smith said. "While we had not played each other every year, it was a big deal, a very big game for us.''
Added Smith: "I wish (Georgia and Clemson) still played every year. It would be as big as the Georgia Tech game.''
In the 1995 game, Smith was pressed into his first starting assignment due to a broken knee suffered by Mike Bobo two weeks earlier. Smith completed 13 of 22 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown, and Kirtsey was the workhorse, rushing for 195 yards on 38 carries.
"It was exciting because a lot of the Georgia players had been recruited by Clemson, and a lot of the Clemson players had been recruited by Georgia,'' Smith said. "I'm sure that hasn't changed today.''
The glory years of the rivalry were from 1977-87, and especially in the early 1980s when the annual games played big roles in deciding national championships.
In 1980, Clemson more than doubled Georgia's total offense, but still the Bulldogs pulled out a 20-16 win while relying heavily on the heroics of Woerner, the standout cornerback and the team's all-time leader in punt returns. That helped give Georgia momentum for its national championship.
The following year in Clemson, the Tigers forced nine turnovers in a 13-3 win over Georgia - the Bulldogs' only loss of that regular season. Clemson finished 12-0 to win the 1981 national championship.
Clemson might have won another national title in 1978, but again Woerner was in the way. Clemson finished 11-1 and ranked sixth that year, thanks to a 12-0 loss in Athens.
In the memorable 1980 game, Woerner returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown and returned an interception 97 yards to set up a touchdown.
Recalled Woerner, now a seventh-grade science teacher in Rabun County: "Gosh, it was a big game, but every one of them were.''
Added Woerner: "Let's don't call it a rivalry as much as two football teams in a game where neither one would give up the entire game. It was a dogfight. For about eight years every one came down to the wire.''
Georgia fans cherish the 1980 win over Clemson, but Woerner takes as much pride in his interception that helped beat Clemson in 1978.
"We weren't supposed to beat them,'' Woerner said. "They were big-time. That was the only game they lost all year.''
From 1977-87, the teams split 11 games 5-5-1. Nine of the 11 games were decided by seven or fewer points, and four were decided on plays in the final 20 seconds.
It's no wonder so many fans on both sides of the rivalry have demanded the series be renewed. And it is easy to see why the game was scheduled so quickly when the addition of a 12th game to NCAA schedules made it possible for both teams.
For Georgia, the expansion of Southeastern Conference schedules to eight games, plus the complexities provided by playing Florida in Jacksonville each year, had made it impossible to keep Clemson on the schedule and still guarantee at least six home games each season.
But players who have participated in the game say that despite the seven-year gap between games, Georgia vs. Clemson always will be a big game.
"I don't think there would be any way possible the rivalry would fade away,'' Woerner said. "It will probably again have something to do with the national championship picture.''
Charles Odum is the beat writer for Dawg Post in Athens. He has over 20 years of experience covering Georgia football. He can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com
Total Access Pass for only $79.95! (or $7.95 per month)
PLUS...Free Recruiting Yearbook
Here's what you get with the DawgPost.com Total Access Pass:
Exclusive Insider Stories by DawgPost.com DawgPost.com Members-Only Message Boards Total Access to all Expert and Recruiting Conten Total Access to Scout Player/Roster Database Total Access to all TheInsiders.com Network Content FREE Football and Basketball Recruiting Yearbook (with annual purchase while supplies last)
Click Here to Subscribe