ATHENS — Georgia star receiver A.J. Green was suspended by the NCAA for four games on Wednesday for selling a bowl jersey for $1,000 to someone who qualifies as an agent.
Green sold his jersey from last season's Independence Bowl. The junior, who sat out the season-opening 55-7 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette, must miss three more games before regaining his eligibility, according to the ruling from the NCAA.
No. 22 Georgia (1-0) is heading into a key Southeastern Conference game against No. 24 South Carolina on Saturday without Green, who's also banished from SEC games against No. 14 Arkansas and Mississippi State. He will be eligible to return for an Oct. 2 contest at Colorado.
"Every team in America would love to have A.J. Green out there. But he's not out there. We have to deal with it," tight end Aron White said after practice. "We're still Georgia. We're still going to come to play. One guy doesn't make or break this team."
Still, the harshness of the penalty appeared to catch the Bulldogs off guard. The school plans to appeal, but the case is unlikely to be heard until next week at the earliest.
"It's pretty shocking," said receiver Tavarres King, one of the players who'll have to pick up the slack. "Everybody really thought he was going to be back."
Green was caught up in a wide-ranging NCAA probe of the relationship between agents and players from several SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference schools.
Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus was declared ineligible for two games for accepting nearly $2,000 in improper benefits during two trips to Miami.
South Carolina is awaiting its own NCAA ruling on the eligibility of two players: starting offensive tackle Jarriel King and first-team cornerback Chris Culliver, who sat out the Gamecocks' opening game.
Green issued an apology to Georgia coaches, his teammates and fans "for the mistake in judgment" in a statement released by the school.
"I very much regret all that has taken place and the distraction that's been caused," Green said. "I've learned a valuable lesson and hope others can learn from my mistake. I can only focus my attention now on practicing and looking ahead to getting back with my teammates as quickly as possible."
The 6-foot-4 Green is rated as one of the top receivers in the nation. He is projected as a possible top-five pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Last season, the junior had 53 catches for 808 yards and six touchdowns despite missing all or part of five games due to injuries.
The NCAA ruling is a blow to Georgia's hopes in the SEC's Eastern Division. Coach Mark Richt said he was "disappointed with the outcome" but stressed to his team that they played well last year when Green was out.
"Right now, what's most important for me is to focus on this game. That's what I'm going to do. We have a big game this weekend," Richt said. "We are going to play whoever is eligible to play."
Green took part in Wednesday's practice but won't be able to travel with the team to road games. Richt said he'll try to get the receiver as much work as possible during the suspension so he'll be ready to play when it's over.
For now, "he's hurt, he's sad, he's sorry for what happened," the coach said.
With its own eligibility issues to worry about, the South Carolina Gamecocks downplayed the absence of Green for Saturday's game.
"What I know from experience is it doesn't matter who we line up against," said punter-kicker Spencer Lanning, one of the Gamecocks' captains. "We're not going to take it any easier if he's not out there."
The Bulldogs had been working on a game plan that assumed Green would be eligible to play. Now, it will fall to players such as King and Kris Durham to take a leading role.
Last week, Durham led Georgia with five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
"Durham is basically in the game in a lot of situations when A.J. probably would've been in the game," Richt said.
King didn't play against Louisiana-Lafayette, serving a one-game suspension imposed by the school after he was charged with underaged possession of alcohol this summer.
Also returning this week is the Bulldogs' leading rusher from a year ago, Washaun Ealey, who was suspended for one game for leaving the scene of minor car accident and driving on a suspended license.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray completed 19 passes to 10 different receivers in the opening game. Now, he'll have to get by without Green in three more contests.
"It would definitely be nice to have him out there," Murray said before the suspension was announced. "But the rest of the guys have worked unbelievably hard and they're ready to step up no matter what."
The ruling comes after much speculation that Green was involved in the NCAA's probe into improper benefits given by agents to athletes at several schools, including North Carolina. The Tar Heels were without 13 players for their season-opening loss to LSU.
Part of the probe was a party at Miami Beach. Green insisted he didn't attend, but Wednesday's announcement showed the NCAA was looking at other benefits received by the player.
The school said Green has repaid the $1,000 to a charity. The players said they'll stand behind him.
"A.J. a pretty standup guy," White said. "I wasn't expecting him to get into trouble. But people make mistakes. To me, it's not the end of the world. He's still a great guy, still a great player."