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Are the Tennessee Volunteers Now a Bigger Rival of the Georgia Bulldogs' Than the Clemson Tigers?

My belief that the Georgia Bulldogs and the Clemson Tigers have an ongoing rivalry that needs to be revived more regularly is well-documented, as is my ulterior motive for emphasizing the series. However, recent discussions concerning the prospects for SEC expansion and the possibility that Clemson might be invited to join the league have prompted frequent Dawg Sports commenter Mr. Sanchez to opine that the Tennessee Volunteers are a more significant recent Bulldog rival than the Country Gentlemen. As he explains, "outside of 80-82, Georgia/Tennessee has had as much if not more significance, championship implications, and coaching implications, over the last 20 years as Georgia/Clemson did in the previous 20."

This is an interesting and important question. Virtually all Georgia fans would agree that, although the sequence is open to debate, Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech are, both presently and historically, the Red and Black’s three biggest rivals. However, the issue of where Clemson and Tennessee fall on that continuum is a question sitting squarely at the epicenter of several converging faultlines, including generational divides between Bulldog fans of different ages, the relative significance of longstanding rivalries versus those that more recently have come to prominence, and the proper emphasis to be placed on SEC rivalries as opposed to non-conference series. It even involves which shade of orange we like the least.

Are my memories of the border battles of the 1980s still a viable basis for maintaining a rivalry, or am I merely clinging to the good old days? Is the SEC East series with the Volunteers an artificially-established rivalry or an annual grudge match that has become among the most heated series the Classic City Canines play? Is Clemson still a bigger rival than Tennessee, or am I getting too old for this?

In an effort to appeal to a Georgia fan base that increasingly skews younger, I am, for purposes of this discussion, switching to a wholesome-looking actress named Kristin from a younger generation.

Rather than carry on this conversation in a couple of comment threads, I asked Mr. Sanchez if he would like to discuss the question on the main page in point/counterpoint fashion. He agreed, and, after each of us has had the opportunity to state his case, a poll question will be put up affording all of you an opportunity to cast a vote. Naturally, your comments are not just welcome, but openly solicited.

Here is my case for why Clemson remains a bigger Georgia rival than Tennessee:

Many Bulldog historians trace the birth of Larry Munson’s unrepentant homerism to Georgia’s 1973 victory over the Volunteers. Herschel Walker’s first touchdown in the 1980 season opener in Knoxville is the stuff of legend. My first game in Sanford Stadium as a University of Georgia student was the 1988 clash with the Big Orange. I was there for the heartbreaker against Tennessee in 1992, the triumph over the Volunteers in 2000 (I was one of the ones in the stands chanting, "Get off the field!"), and pretty much every home game against the Big Orange in between, or since.

How, then, can I claim a pre-eminent place for the Clemson Tigers in the pantheon of Georgia rivals? I am able to make such an assertion because I know that, long before we stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose, an even more stirring last-second triumph over an orange-clad rival provoked arguably Munson’s greatest call from a game played between the hedges. Here is Larry becoming borderline-blasphemous in victory:

So we’ll try to kick one 100,000 miles. We’re holding it on our own 49 and a half, gonna try to kick it 60 yards plus a foot and a half. Butler kicked a long one, a long one. Oh, my God! Oh, my God! The stadium is worse than bonkers. . . . I can’t believe what he did! This is ungodly!

Larry Munson wasn’t the only loyal Bulldog who attached such significance to Kevin Butler’s historic kick. In response, Lewis Grizzard penned perhaps his most famous column:

I hugged perfect strangers and kissed a fat lady on the mouth. Grown men wept. Lightning flashed. Thunder rolled. Stars fell, and joy swept through, fetched by a hurricane of unleashed emotions. When Georgia beat Alabama 18-17 in 1965, it was a staggering victory. When we came back against Georgia Tech and won 29-28 in 1978, the Chapel bell rang all night. When we beat Florida 26-21 in the last seconds in 1980, we called it a miracle. And when we beat Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl that same year for the national championship, a woman pulled up her skirt and showed the world the Bulldog she had sewn on her underbritches. But Saturday may have been even better than any of those.

Saturday in Athens was a religious experience. I give this to you, son. Read it and re-read it, and keep it next to your heart.

And when people want to know how you wound up with the name "Kevin" let them read it, and then they will know.

The significance of the 2001 win in Knoxville cannot be gainsaid, but who in Bulldog Nation is writing open letters to their unborn sons explaining whey they were named "Verron"?

Historically, there is no comparing Georgia’s rivalries with Clemson and Tennessee. The only opponent the Red and Black encountered every autumn during the 20-year stretch from 1897 to 1916 was Clemson, and, assuming the Bulldogs do not meet the Tigers in a bowl game at the end of the 2010 season, the current break between series meetings will mark the first time in the history of either neighboring institution that Georgia and Clemson have gone more than seven seasons without squaring off on the gridiron. The tiger-head insignia accompanied by the motto "Eat ‘Em Up Clemson," which the Fort Hill Felines adopted when John Heisman arrived from the Plains in 1900, may have inspired Georgia’s use of an emblem depicting a bulldog tearing a piece of cloth and the words "Eat ‘em Georgia" during the 1901 season, nearly two decades before the nickname "Bulldogs" came into vogue in Athens.

Compare that to the sporadic heritage of the Classic City Canines’ rivalry with the Volunteers. Although Georgia and Tennessee first met in 1899, the two teams have played one another fewer than 40 times. In the first 35 seasons following the founding of the Southeastern Conference, representatives from Athens and Knoxville butted heads on the football field just twice. Occasional two-year home-and-home exchanges of games were the norm for the ten series meetings after 1925 but before 1992.

Since the Tennessee series cannot compare with the Bulldogs’ rivalry with the Tigers over the long haul, the only argument that the Big Orange have supplanted the Country Gentlemen must focus on the last two decades. Have the Vols been a better or more important rival in the eighteen seasons from 1992 to 2009 than Clemson was in the eighteen seasons from 1974 to 1991?

In the last eighteen years, Georgia has gone 6-12 against Tennessee, and five of those series meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less, including games settled by margins of 34-31 in 1992, 30-27 in 1995, 26-24 in 2001, 18-13 in 2002, and 19-14 in 2004. In the eighteen years immediately preceding the 1992 expansion of the Southeastern Conference, the Bulldogs went 8-7-1 against the Tigers, with ten of those sixteen rivalry showdowns being resolved by seven or fewer points. Among those clashes were such classics as 1974 (28-24), 1977 (7-6), 1979 (12-7), 1980 (20-16), 1982 (13-7), 1983 (16-16), 1984 (26-23), 1985 (20-13), 1986 (31-28), and 1987 (21-20). Clearly, Georgia-Clemson was more competitive and exciting in one recent eighteen-year stretch than Georgia-Tennessee has been in the eighteen years since.

Moreover, while each of the last five confrontations between the Bulldogs and the Volunteers have been settled by double-digit margins, the Classic City Canines and the Fort Hill Felines have followed up their eleven-year run of thrillers from 1977 to 1987 by carding a couple of close ones in their last three showdowns, with the ‘Dawgs winning by two in Death Valley in 1995 and by three in Sanford Stadium in 2002.

In addition to providing more exciting games, the rivalry with Clemson has been more consequential than the SEC East series with Tennessee, too. The seasons from 1980 to 1982, in which the winner of the Georgia-Clemson game went on to play for the national championship at the end of the season, were more critical in that rivalry than any three-year period in the Georgia-Tennessee rivalry, but it is a mistake to think meaningful games between the border foes ended after their season-opening showdown under the lights in Sanford Stadium on Labor Day night in Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy-winning season.

The final Associated Press poll had both Georgia and Clemson ranked in the top eleven in 1983. The 1984 series meeting between the Bulldogs and the Tigers pitted the nation’s No. 2 and No. 20 teams on the day of the game. The 1987 game saw the eighth- and eighteenth-ranked teams in the land take the field against one another. Those three games were settled by a total of four points. The matchups between No. 9 Tennessee and No. 13 Georgia in 1997, No. 4 Tennessee and No. 7 Georgia in 1998, No. 6 Tennessee and No. 10 Georgia in 1999, No. 19 Georgia and No. 21 Tennessee in 2000, No. 8 Georgia and No. 13 Tennessee in 2003, No. 5 Georgia and No. 7 Tennessee in 2005, and No. 10 Georgia and No. 13 Tennessee in 2006 were not comparable classics, to put it delicately; each of those seven series meetings was settled by at least eleven points, and five were decided by margins of seventeen or more.

Of course, the relative novelty of the division rivalry with the Volunteers does not render it inconsequential. Yearly confrontations between Florida and Tennessee largely are a creation of conference expansion, too, but the Gators and the Vols have developed a genuine rivalry in the seasons since 1992, because that contest routinely has carried added significance. The same cannot be said of the series between the Bulldogs and the Big Orange.

Every autumn from 1993 through 2001, the top two teams in the Eastern Division were Florida and Tennessee, with the winner of the head-to-head smackdown between the Gators and the Volunteers receiving the SEC championship game berth in eight of those nine campaigns. In the eight years since, by contrast, Georgia and Tennessee have finished in the top two of the SEC East standings just three times, with one of those coming in a three-way tie for first place in 2003. Only once in the last five years have the Bulldogs and the Big Orange been the top two teams in the division. Seldom has the Georgia-Tennessee game been a clash of titans duking it out for division supremacy.

One of the reasons this is so is that, even in spite of the four-year glory run between 2002 and 2005, the Bulldogs’ rivalry with the Big Orange as an annual affair has occurred during some of the worst seasons in Georgia’s modern gridiron history. In the eighteen seasons in which Tennessee has been a perennial fixture on the Athenians’ slate, the Red and Black have finished the fall with four or more losses nine times and with three or fewer losses nine times, including four seasons of five or more losses and only one season of fewer than two losses.

The heyday of the Georgia-Clemson rivalry, on the other hand, overlapped with the heyday of Bulldog football generally. During the eleven-year stretch from 1977 to 1987 in which the series with the Tigers was at its most heated, the Red and Black ended the season with more than four losses just twice yet wrapped up the autumn with fewer than two losses three times.

Viewed another way, the four best Georgia seasons in the years in which Tennessee has been an annual rival (2002-2005) saw the Bulldogs go 2-2 against Auburn, 1-3 against Florida, and 4-0 against Georgia Tech. The four best Georgia seasons in the years in which Clemson was an annual rival (1980-1983) saw the ‘Dawgs go 3-1 against Auburn, 4-0 against Florida, and 4-0 against Georgia Tech. When Georgia was really good at the height of the rivalry with Tennessee, Georgia consistently beat Georgia Tech; when Georgia was really good at the height of the rivalry with Clemson, Georgia consistently beat everybody.

Given all that experience has taught us, we have every reason to believe that, if the conference expanded, Tennessee became only an occasional rival from the other division, and Clemson became an annual SEC East rival, the result would be more exciting and meaningful games against an orange-clad division opponent other than the one we encounter in Jacksonville each Halloween.

Given the way in which the cross-pollination between the Georgia and Auburn programs has fueled the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, could it be that we are entering a new period of intensity in the Georgia-Tennessee feud now that Derek Dooley, the son of former Bulldog head coach Vince Dooley, is running the show in Knoxville? Possibly, but it is doubtful that family ties will enable the SEC East series to eclipse the rivalry running along I-85 between the Classic City and Lake Hartwell.

Such connections abound between the Bulldogs and the Tigers. Mark Richt's son, Jon, signed with Clemson as a quarterback; another recent Orange and Purple signal caller, Cullen Harper, was the son of former Georgia offensive lineman Jeff Harper. Tavarres King’s father, Anthony, was a tight end for the Tigers. The histories of the two schools are littered with such common threads, from Zippy and Chris Morocco to Tommy and Jimmy Ray to Ronnie and Steve Kitchens. There even have been players (Wynn Kopp and Jimmy Orr) who attended both schools, a head coach (Frank Dobson) who guided both programs, and a University of Georgia president (Patrick H. Mell) whose son (Patrick Hues Mell) served as president of what is now Clemson University.

Tempers may have cooled between the Bulldogs and the Tigers during the recent layoffs, but the absence from one another’s schedules has not made our hearts grow fonder. Allude to renewing the rivalry in the popular press or on a message board, and you will see how swiftly contempt can be rekindled. The passage of a few fallow years cannot snuff out the flame of a rivalry that produced such sentiments as these:

Georgia and Clemson have always fought fiercely on the field, but in recent years a bitter hatred has erupted between fans of the two schools, due to the colleges' proximity, mutual success of both football programs, and the hotly-contested recruitment of Herschel Walker.

The Red and Black (1983)

[M]any Clemson fans, particularly ones who attended Clemson in the 70s and 80s, would rather see the Tigers take on the Bulldogs every year. . . . [R]ivalries like Clemson-Georgia are good for the landscape of sports.

The Tiger (2003)

No one really knows why the rivalry between Clemson and Georgia has reached the proportions it has. The schools are in different states and different conferences. . . . But in the last four years, when each school has won two games, the rivalry has grown big enough here that quarterback Homer Jordan can say, "It's getting bigger than the South Carolina game" and no one blinks an eye.

Ivan Maisel, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (1981)

Before the game, when he feared the worst, one University of Georgia athletic official said, "I think now the Georgia Tech game is the one we'd hate most to lose, but the Clemson game is the one we most want to win."

Dan Foster, Greenville News-Piedmont (1984)

The 1980 and 1981 national college football champions were produced not by Alabama or Louisiana or Tennessee, but sprouted from the red clay hills of Georgia and South Carolina, at schools barely 75 miles apart. Neither has a closer geographic rival. Neither has played more fiercely against an opponent in recent times. . . . This is the kind of game that makes all of it possible. And necessary.

Jeff Denberg, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (1982)

[T]he Georgia-Clemson series has been compared to war. In some respects rivalries such as this may be even more intense. If the definitive history of college football in the South is ever written, the Georgia-Clemson series will comprise a prominent chapter.

Tony Barnhart, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (1984)

Georgia and Tennessee are in close proximity, have a hotly-contested rivalry, and recruit against one another, but is The Red and Black writing about "bitter hatred" between the two schools? Do students on either side of the state line write of how the rivalry between the Bulldogs and the Volunteers is "good for the landscape of sports"?

Perhaps so, but has any Tennessee quarterback claimed that the battle with the Red and Black is "getting bigger than the Florida game"? Does any Bulldog fan contend that the clash with the Big Orange is the game "we most want to win"? Has any booster of either team ever argued that the Georgia-Tennessee rivalry is "necessary" or the fiercest fight on either squad’s schedule? It’s one thing to break the other fellow’s nose with a hobnailed boot; it’s quite another when "Mr. College Football" is declaring your rivalry "more intense" than war.

As usual where this sport is concerned, Barnhart knew whereof he spoke. It was Clemson, and not Tennessee, to which Bulldog linebacker John Brantley referred when he said: "This is one to see who the men are. It is the kind of game where women and children need to be sitting in the top level because bones are going to be cracking. It's going to be really intense." Such is the difference between a series noteworthy for including the last game to feature the red pants as a regular part of the Georgia road uniform in 1980 and a rivalry important enough for the scarlet britches to be broken out anew later in the decade.

You say the passage of time has dulled the edge of the Georgia-Clemson rivalry? Fine; wouldn’t the younger, less storied, and less intense Georgia-Tennessee rivalry fade even more quickly from our hearts and minds were the old order to be restored? I feel no visceral hatred for the Vols or their fans. Even when Big Orange boosters have overreacted to what I have written about their team, courtesy quickly has been restored. While I have come to respect the Tiger faithful, and although my interactions with Clemson fans have been quite pleasant, this is a series that gets the blood going in a way the annual battle with Tennessee cannot.

I do not wish to overstate the case, however. The Georgia-Tennessee game undeniably is a very important game. The Volunteers are the Bulldogs’ third-biggest annual SEC opponent, after the Auburn Tigers and the Florida Gators. Nevertheless, the Georgia-Tennessee series is a rivalry because the game matters, whereas the Georgia-Clemson game matters because it’s a rivalry.

If you won’t take my word for it, listen to a man who knows better than I do about Bulldog football rivalries. Vince Dooley, who obviously feels no qualms about walking the line between the Georgia and Tennessee camps, characterized the blood feud with Clemson as "a series as heated as we have, a game as intense as we play."

So it is even still, to an extent that the Tennessee game never has been and never will be.

Go ‘Dawgs!