And Then Clemson & UGA Went in Opposite Directions

August 4, 2020
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ATHENS - The score was 52-21 before a procedure penalty wiped Nick Chubb’s second touchdown from the scoreboard, and the Georgia Bulldogs took a knee.

The fourth quarter was bloody for Clemson - not that their fans were new to seeing this sort of beating of their team in big moments. Todd Gurley. Nick Chubb. Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo would not allow UGA QB Hutson Mason to attempt a pass in the fourth quarter, and still Clemson couldn’t stop them.

After No. 12 Georgia’s 45-21 blowout win over No. 16 Clemson the two programs looked like they were going in different directions. Boy were they - just not the way it appeared after that muggy, miserably hot night in Athens in 2014.

Clemson has gone on to win two national titles. Georgia has changed coaches and lost a national title. The two are set to meet again for the first time since that in the season opener next year in Charlotte.

(If this year ends)

The loss was another double-digit failure for Dabo Swinney’s program against SEC schools. He had suffered at least one double-digit loss against an SEC foe in each of his first five years as head coach. What made it worse was that Clemson was only playing one or two teams a year from the SEC.

They seemed outclassed, and often they were.

Still, Dabo and company picked up wins over ranked SEC teams - the win over LSU in the Peach Bowl was a major step forward for that program. Wins over Auburn during that time seemed impressive, too. But the win over No. 25 Auburn to start the 2012 was the first of nine that season for those Tigers.

Here-and-there wins weren’t enough to prevent Dabo‘s program from becoming a verb.

Clemsoning.

That term really pissed him off. I think it still pisses him off. Come to think if it, lots of things seem to trigger Dabo. You can google about Dabo’s statements in your free time as that’s not the point here.

Then again, Clemsoning became a thing because good Clemson teams were doing something good, ranked programs rarely did… consistently showing up flat in big games, or just randomly losing games where they were heavily favored.

2009 - Clemson (-12.5) loses at Maryland 24-21
2011 - Clemson (-6.5) loses at NC State 37-13
2011 - Clemson (-3) loses to West Virginia 70-33
2013 - Clemson (+4.5) loses to Florida State 51-14

I was on the field at that West Virginia game in Miami. It was embarrassing. Calling it a train wreck doesn’t do train wrecks justice. That’s the night when the trouble really started for Dabo in Clemson. It is also the night his program changed for good (Clemson fans say).

That loss aside, the program was in a far more embarrassing situation at home. South Carolina, with a football history that includes one conference title and no major bowl wins, was now dominating Clemson.


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For decades those in orange gave more than they got in their in-state rivalry. But now, with both teams actually ranked and relevant, South Carolina was owning Clemson. Carolina wasn’t just winning those games, but doing so by double digits. Saying Clemson fans were annoyed is probably wrong. They were humiliated year in and year out by a program they had humiliated for decades.

Things had gotten nasty for Swinney. Heading into the 2013 game, Clemson had never lost to the Chickens five years in a row. After a 31-17 loss in Columbia the roosters were crowing... and how.

And Clemson faithful did not like it - not one bit. After the 2011 loss to South Carolina - weeks before the beating from West Virginia - Dabo got rilled up and went off… He was indignant (something he’s become an expert at), and went all in trashing his rival.

“That's why Carolina's in Chapel Hill and USC's in California and the university in this state always has been, always will be Clemson.”

Not sure about that last part, but even that speech only sold for so long to those with paws. I know this intimately well because my wife has been planting taters for years. That is to say that she’s been an IPTAY contributor at Clemson for as long as I can remember. I mean it was a depressing five years in the Legge household.

The big joke for Carolina fans was to try to take pictures with Clemson fans and then hold up all five fingers showing how many wins in a row they had. That stunt didn’t go over well with the orange-clad group, either. Dabo wasn’t the football god we all know today.

It was 2014, and something had to change and quick.

Dabo needed Steve Spurrier to leave.
Dabo needed Florida State and the rest of the ACC to implode.
Dabo needed one of his, lets call them strange, losses during the year to not cost him like they seemingly always did before.

Dabo was going to have to hold on long enough for things to change, and, amazingly, they did.

Meanwhile, Georgia looked like it was on the way to another run at the SEC title that night, but in very Georgia form they would crash and burn in spectacular fashion. Todd Gurley moved to the front of the Heisman Trophy list after running for 198 yards, a 100-yard kickoff return and three touchdowns against the Tigers.

He seemed particularly motivated that day. His recruiting fight had come down to the Tigers and Dawgs. The year before he was forced to sit out a significant amount of time in the middle of the season-opening loss to Clemson with an injury. Maybe he was upset about that. Maybe he was motived for his final season at Georgia. Maybe Clemson pissed him off the year before. I don’t know.

But whatever his reason, Todd was not playing around that day. I heard him in the huddle before the game. He only said two words in the huddle. The second word was Clemson.

And so he did.

The shame of the 2014 season for UGA is that the romp over Clemson wasn’t even the best game the Dawgs played that year. Wins at ranked Missouri and over No. 9 Auburn were just as, if not more, impressive than the beating of Clemson.

Still, something was missing in the program, and I’m not referring to Jeremy Pruitt’s defense when it mattered. The thing Clemson possessed the entire time its coach was Dabo was aspirational dreaming.

South Carolina fans joked about Dabo being a cheerleader coach - calling him Coach Rah Rah. But the thing that seemingly made Dabo so over the top and silly was something folks at Clemson believe in.

He forced the powers that be to change their view of what the program could be - even while he was second fiddle in his state amd FSU was a power. Dabo hasn’t always been right, and he’s rarely been smooth, but he’s always been a fighter… even when he was losing.

Remember when he told everyone earlier this year: “I have zero doubt that we're going to be playing, and the stands are going to be packed.”

He’s always been a dreamer. I’ve often found that a little Dabo can go a long, long way. Crazy enough, that was what was missing at Georgia in 2014.

Vision. It wasn’t there at UGA back then (I can assure you that it is now).

The program and culture around UGA felt, at the time, like things were either too difficult to get around (Alabama; LSU; all the roadblocks of playing in the SEC), or that they deserved to be better because they were Georgia (and that’s has been a real problem in Athens at times).

There is no “deserve” in college sports. You either get into the dirt and make things happen with your hands, or you don’t and someone throws mud on you and laughs while they are doing it. And one thing is certain - no one is ever going to feel sorry for Georgia, LSU, Alabama or the Gators.

Dabo’s “Poor little Clemson” act would never work in Athens. It would be hard to pull off that schtick at places besides Clemson because, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, you have to drink the Kool-Aid there.

You have to believe in that place because by going there you are saying: “Hey, I’m not the big state school. We aren’t Alabama, Georgia, UNC, Tennessee or Florida. And we sure as hell are not South Carolina.”

Winning at UGA comes with an entirely different set of challenges. Expectations get out of control quick. And yet everyone’s inner Larry Munson can came oozing out with any love tap of adversity. Kirby Smart has a challenging job, and Mark Richt did, too.  

After the 2014 season, which saw Gurley get suspended (that would never happen at UGA now), the season was held together until it fell apart in Jacksonville like it had so many times before. The Dawgs thought they were going for a fourth-straight win in the Cocktail Party only to have a massive hangover by mid afternoon.

“This feels about right,” was the mood in the stands that October afternoon in 2014.

If the upset loss to the Gators wasn’t the beginning of the end for Mark and his program the Georgia Tech game later that fall was. The Jackets showed tremendous mental toughness and clawed back a win they didn’t seem to deserve, but certainly earned. It was one of the sweetest for that program in decades, and one of the wildest games I have ever witnessed.

A few weeks later Mike Bobo left for Colorado State. Richt made a horrible hire at offensive coordinator, which left the offense impotent. Pruitt’s defense was adequate - except when it needed to be in losses to Alabama (38-10), the Vols (38-31) and the Gators (27-3).

Georgia was broken, and something needed to change. Richt was fired the day after his 13th win in 15 years over Georgia Tech. It was awkwardly done, but it was time for change. At the same time, Clemson travelled to Miami to dominate Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl - another in the line of crushing losses for the Sooners over the years with everyone watching.

I went to that Orange Bowl, too. Needless to say it was markedly different than the railroading loss to West Virginia earlier in the decade. Dabo had held on long enough. The things he needed to fall in line did, and he’s not taken his foot off the gas since.

Carolina’s 2-4 start to 2015 was all Steve Spurrier needed to see. He was done - in the middle of the year!

In 2016, Clemson lost to Pitt as a 21-point favorite at home. It didn’t matter. Neither did the extremely curious loss as a 24-point favorite to a 4-8 Syracuse team in 2017.

By 2017, Florida State had a losing record in an ACC that had fallen apart. Jimbo Fisher checked out for A&M after at 38–22 loss to the Gators.

Things change. Blowout losses aren’t so bad… if you can hold on and get things right.

 
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