A quick glance of Georgia’s opponents in this season’s media guide and one may notice the Bulldogs notably entered the year with a 1-0 all-time series record against each of their first three foes. While the initial meeting with Appalachian State occurred only four years ago, the first Georgia-Notre Dame game—the 1981 Sugar Bowl—remains likely the greatest victory in school history.
From two series “firsts” most Bulldog enthusiasts are fully aware of, to Georgia’s initial game with this week’s opponent, Samford, which remains rather obscure.
Entering the 1943 season, back when a Frosted Orange from the Varsity cost a nickel (compared to between $2.39 and $3.19 today), there were essentially three types of college football programs. Because of the personnel demand of World War II, first, there was the depleted, like Georgia, which featured primarily 17-year-olds too young to be drafted and a handful of 4-Fs, or players who could not meet the military’s physical standards. Secondly, there were the programs so depleted they decided to drop football altogether for a season or two, like eight of the 12 members of the SEC.
Finally, there was the opposite of depleted, like Georgia Tech, which featured former college football standouts and even professional players courtesy of a thriving on-campus Navy V-12 program. Similarly, the University of Georgia supported a Navy Pre-Flight School; however, the on-campus program assembled its own football team—the Georgia Pre-Flight Skycrackers—which had achieved a 7-1-1 record in 1942 with a 29-year-old Paul “Bear” Bryant as its top assistant coach.
Yet, there was also the unknowntype, the unique Howard football team—not the Howard Bison located in Washington, D.C., which upset UNLV as a 45-point underdog just two weeks ago, but Howard College in Birmingham, Ala., which would be renamed Samford University in the mid-1960s. Slated to play Georgia in Athens on Friday, October 29, 1943, Howard, like its host, consisted of 17-year-olds and 4-Fs, but reportedly the Seadogs also exhibited a “sprinkling” of Navy V-12s.
Seadogs? That’s right, the Howard football team had been nicknamed the “Bulldogs” since the program’s inception. But, when the school became part of the Navy V-12 program, the Bulldogs suddenly were renamed “Seadogs.”
The question concerning the Seadogs was if their sprinkling of V-12 players consisted of former collegiate standouts and professionals, or more so Navy officer candidates with little to no football playing experience. Georgia, which surprisingly jumped out to a 3-1 start and No. 20 national ranking by mid-October, had faced Daniel Field, which was part of the Navy V-12 program, for its fifth game. The Bulldogs believed the Flyers would be a group of inexperienced players. Instead, it was said Daniel Field “trotted out a flock of ex-pros and collegians” and stunned Georgia, 18-7.
No one seemed to know for sure what was in store when playing Howard, as the Seadogs had appeared in just one game in the previous 23 months. To complicate matters for Georgia, it was without its best defender, injured end Gene Benton; plus, the Bulldogs’ top halfback, Charles “Rabbit” Smith, was questionable. Considering the unknown entity his banged-up Bulldogs were about to encounter, just three days prior to the game, head coach Wally Butts scrimmaged his squad, which forced another Georgia standout out of action for the looming affair. Finally, in front of a sparse Sanford Stadium crowd of 3,500 spectators, the “depleted” and “unknown” kicked off at 8:30 at night.
In the end, the contest which seemed to be rather unpredictable (a newspaper forecasted Georgia should win “comfortably,” whereas another claimed the game was a “toss-up”) would result in a significantly lopsided affair.
The Bulldogs were led by a one-two punch at tailback, teenagers Johnny Cook and Billy Rutland, both of whom stood at around 5-foot-8 and only 155-160 pounds. Cook, who entered the game leading the nation in passing out of Georgia’s single-wing formation, connected with halfback Edgar Bratton early for a 32-yard touchdown. He later returned a punt 45 yards for a score and added two short touchdown runs. For the game, Cook passed for 96 yards, rushed for 53, returned three punts for 77 yards, attempted the Bulldogs’ lone punt—a 35-yarder—while being responsible for four of Georgia’s six touchdowns. Rutland totaled 27 yards on one completion, 19 yards on a punt return, corralled the Bulldogs’ lone interception of Howard, while rushing for 37 yards including a 1-yard plunge for a touchdown. Having emptied its bench, Georgia’s final touchdown came on a 19-yard pass from Pierce Robertson, a reserve halfback, to Billy McConnell, a seldom-used quarterback.
The Bulldogs’ commanding offense limited the Seadogs to only 38 offensive plays, in which they totaled just 99 yards. In addition, the Georgia defense allowed only five first downs, forced three turnovers and eight punts, all while pitching a shutout in a 39-0 victory.
Today, 75 years later, it’s unclear the exact personnel fielded by Howard-turned-Samford when Georgia initially faced the school. Who exactly comprised the Bulldogs-turned-Seadogs-turned-Bulldogs’ “sprinkling” of V-12 players on that Friday night in 1943?
Even immediately following the game, the normally outspoken Coach Butts seemed confused and nearly at a loss for words when asked about the unknown entity his Georgia team had just routed, simply stating, “These navy teams always are tough.”