CLEMSON, S.C. — The college football season exploded into full bloom Saturday night in Death Valley.
No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson gave everybody the show they eagerly anticipated, starting from the moment Tigers coach Dabo Swinney came sprinting down the hill ahead of his players with the Bulldogs barking in uncomfortably close proximity, until it ended it with Swinney in the center of an orange sea of euphoria.
The atmosphere at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium was what college football is all about. ESPN’s travelling roadshow College GameDay had whipped the flock into a frenzy for 12 hours before kickoff. The forecast was for offensive fireworks, and the two teams did not disappoint the overflow crowd of 83,830 and the national TV audience.
Final count: 1,012 combined yards; 73 total points; 1 major victory for the Atlantic Coast Conference against the vaunted Southeastern Conference.
"It's only unthinkable if you don't think it," Swinney said.
Clemson struck first with a Tajh Boyd engineered nine-play drive capped by the first of five touchdowns he had a hand in on the night.
Georgia answered with a one-play 75-yard Todd Gurley burst that defied the angular dynamics of the vain chase by Clemson’s defensive back.
Clemson responded with its own one-play 77-yard strike from Boyd to Sammy Watkins, who outran half of Athens to the end zone.
Georgia’s Aaron Murray orchestrated his own replay with an 11-play drive to tie it up, followed by a 97-yard march to take the Bulldogs first lead.
Now that’s what everyone came to see – stars doing what stars do. It was perfect theater with the teams ultimately combining for the most points in the 63-game series that dates back to 1897.
In a matchup like this, however, it typically comes down to who makes the fewest mistakes. The Bulldogs will be the ones kicking themselves for their intermittent foolishness – missed blocks, debilitating penalties, turnovers and botched snaps. Frankly, it’s amazing Clemson didn’t win by more than the 38-35 final margin considering Georgia’s self-inflicted woes in the form of holds, chop blocks, sacks and turnovers.
The tide shifted in the second quarter when Murray lost his blind side and with it his grasp on another big game. Georgia’s offensive line started looking nothing like the experienced unit that was supposed to keep the Bulldogs piling up the yards and points.
Murray started getting hit hard, coughing up a fumble on the second sack in consecutive series that set up a Clemson 16-yard drive to tie it at 21.
After a Watkins muffed punt gave the Bulldogs a big opportunity to reclaim the lead before the half, Murray somehow didn’t see the 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end Corey Crawford he threw directly to for a momentum blunting interception.
Suddenly, every defensive lineman in South Carolina looked like Jadeveon Clowney bearing down on the quarterback, and Murray seemed scared of all of them. (Clowney must have been smiling somewhere in Columbia at the thought of next week’s feast.)
Georgia’s offense – which piled up 267 yards in its first four possessions – accounted for negative-8 yards on its next six after taking its only lead. And with every second the Tigers gained more and more confidence on both sides of the ball.
Boyd hit Zac Brooks for a 31-yard touchdown on its first possession of the second half and the Tigers were the alpha dogs of the moment. But the Bulldogs regained their footing and fight to tie the tennis match again at 28-all on a bruising Gurley 12-yard run.
Georgia had one more chance to retake the lead after its defense forced Clemson to settle for a field goal. But after driving to first-and-goal at the Tigers 5, Georgia stalled and then botched the snap without ever letting Patrick Beless get a foot on a 20-yard field-goal attempt.
Clemson eventually went up by 10 and Georgia mostly kept killing itself with penalties. After a brief sweat in desperation time, the Tigers walked away with their biggest victory in three decades as the trigger to a potentially epic season.
"(It proved) that that we can play against anybody," said Clemson's offensive tackle Brandon Thomas. "That’s how we feel as a team."
Georgia has a week to regroup and get ready for an even more critical SEC game against South Carolina.
"I don't think we have anyone in there ready to jump off a bridge," head coach Mark Richt said.
Regardless of your allegiances, this was what college football needs more of instead of the exhibitions that typically start seasons. These are the kind of non-conference showdowns that may become in too short supply in the evolving landscape. As the major players continue to debate possible nine-game conference schedules, the likelihood of ever seeing Georgia vs. Clemson again might become remote. The 10-year lapse in the regional rivalry since they last met in 2003 is the longest in the 116-year history of the series.
Next year’s opener in Athens might be the last you’ll see.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Richt said. “I think it will have to do with what we do as a league. If we go to nine conference games, it will be a lot less likely. If we stay at eight games, it will be a lot more likely.”
Let’s hope we get more Saturday night’s like this one.