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Shockley Talks Georgia-Clemson

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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D.J. Shockley knows the series and the stage well.

This is a great rivalry, I'm glad they got it back. I'm sure everybody on both sides is going to be excited to watch this one.
~D.J. Shockley

Anticipation is at an all-time high for the upcoming Georgia-Clemson matchup, a contest many are hyping as the regular season game of the year. Even in week one, this is a showdown that will help determine a college football national champion. Expect the highlights to match the hype. Both the Bulldogs and Tigers will likely bring top three poll positions to Charlotte. This start to the season will have the look and feel of a game played much later in the year. 

Consecutive national title winners in 1980 and 1981, Georgia's last championship and Clemson's first came with wins over one another. Three of the last five games between Georgia and Clemson have been decided by three points or less. Of the last 19 meetings, 13 of them have been decided by one score, a tie included. Nine straight September games, six consecutive of which have been touchdown-or-less margins, have come down to a one-point score deferential, advantage Georgia.

This rivalry between two schools separated by just 70 or so miles has long had championship implications. The winner here immediately stands out as a frontrunner and favorite both regionally and nationally. 

"I remember knowing a lot of guys from that side on Clemson. They recruit the same players, they are in each other's backyards all of the time. This game means a lot," explained former All-SEC Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley, now a college football analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network. "There are a lot of bragging rights in between. I still go back and forth with dudes I know now from Clemson. It's fun to be a part of this rivalry and it's something that really good for college football."

Though the limelight is clearly on Georgia and Clemson alike, there may be more pressure on the Bulldogs. Expectations are off the charts for Georgia, with many viewing this season-opener as an opportunity to make a statement at the start of a potentially banner year. The current team is the most heralded in terms of summer attention of the Kirby Smart era. As one of the national standards, the Tigers await as an upcoming barometer for the Bulldogs. College football will be watching to see how Georgia responds.

"This is one of those types of seasons and games that I think Georgia needs. You talk about coming into this season where everybody expects Georgia to be atop the SEC and be one of those teams to hopefully make the playoffs, it starts with Clemson," Shockley shared. "I think this is a very pivotal game for Georgia and they got to make sure they come out with a W because if not people are going to say well they still can be the same old Georgia team that can go through the SEC East, but still struggles when they play in the big game against Alabama and Clemson when they get in those championship situations."

Shockley knows the series and the stage well. His first college game came against Clemson, with Shockley ultimately leading the 8th ranked Bulldogs to a dramatic and memorable victory in Athens. It was a key win for Georgia, which would finish that season with a 13-1 record, an SEC Championship, a Sugar Bowl triumph and a number three final ranking in the polls. It was the start of a special career for Shockley, who would go on to first-team All-SEC and SEC Championship Game MVP honors in 2005 before being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.  

One of the great players in program history, Shockley promptly entered that high-profile opener as a redshirt freshman in 2002 and ran for a touchdown and threw for a score. His 24-yard pass to Terrence Edwards tied Georgia and Clemson at 28 early in the fourth quarter. As a former five-star quarterback recruit, Shockley's debut was an impressive one and an instrumental one alike as his big plays helped lead the Bulldogs victory.

"I'm not even going to lie, I'm going to keep it 100 with y'all, I was terrified when I walked into that game," he laughed. "As a freshman, walking in, and I saw how big those dudes were."

Touchdown number one of Shockley's famed career, a 9-yard run, gave Georgia a 21-7 lead over Clemson. More than just an important score that helped the Bulldogs win that evening, the play helped a young quarterback settle into the rhythm of the game in a big rivalry showcase. From there, Shockley made a major impact. He later made his mark in the record books.     

"The first actual touchdown that I run we had a simple combination to the right side and, for some reason, I looked over there, I didn't see any number of our guys, I just saw nothing but white jerseys. I thought 'well, the next best thing to do is use my legs' and I end up scoring," he recalled. "As the game went on, I kind of got into the groove.

One of Shockley's signature plays was his fourth quarter touchdown throw to Edwards. Clemson, with all of the momentum, had suddenly scored 21 unanswered points in the game and held a seven-point lead at the start of the final period. On a 3rd-and-3 just outside the redzone, Shockley made the perfect throw against a defense that was in an aggressive scheme. As a freshman, he showed the poise of a veteran and tied the game in the face of mounting pressure and a heavy rush. 

"The touchdown pass I threw to Terrence Edwards was interesting because coming into the game they knew I was a freshman, they knew I was young, so they brought an all-out blitz, they brought cover-zero and that's probably the best thing that could have happened for me because I knew exactly where I wanted to go versus cover-zero was to him on the slant," Shockley shared. "It was big."

That night, a triumph over Clemson was the start of a schedule where Georgia set a new school record for wins in a single season. Nearly two decades after that comeback in 2002 and more than 40 years after the Bulldogs defeated the Tigers 20-16 en route to a national championship in 1980, Georgia has another chance to turn a win over Clemson into program history.

Already, the upcoming week one pairing has college football's full attention. The nation will be watching. 

"It was awesome, man, I'll tell you, playing your first ever game under the lights in that atmosphere versus a really good opponent and having the production we did and being able to contribute to a win was huge. It's exciting, man," Shockley added. "This is a great rivalry, I'm glad they got it back. I'm sure everybody on both sides is going to be excited to watch this one."

The spotlight is now on Georgia and Clemson. It's there both teams have often been at their best.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports