ATHENS — The NCAA ruled Wednesday that Georgia star running back Todd Gurley must sit out until Nov. 15 for accepting more than $3,000 for autographed memorabilia and other items over a two-year period.
The school applied for Gurley's reinstatement after he missed the last two games while the school investigated allegations of improper benefits.
But, in a decision sent to the school late Tuesday afternoon, the NCAA said that Gurley must serve a four-game suspension, or 30 percent of the season, for accepting cash from multiple individuals. He also must repay a portion of the money to a charity of his choice and perform 40 hours of community service in order to be reinstated for a huge Southeastern Conference home game against No. 4 Auburn in 2 1-2 weeks.
Georgia said it would appeal the ruling immediately, still hoping to get Gurley back for Saturday's Cocktail Party rivalry game against Florida on Saturday.
If the suspension is upheld, he would not be able to play against the Gators or a Nov. 8 game at Kentucky, effectively ending his Heisman Trophy hopes.
"In determining the appropriate reinstatement conditions, a 30 percent withholding condition is consistent with precedent in similar cases," the NCAA said in a statement.
The organization said tougher penalties were "strongly considered because the violations occurred over multiple years with multiple individuals and the student received extensive rules education about the prohibition of receiving payment for autographs. However, the university's due diligence in its investigation and the student's full disclosure of his involvement in the violations were factors in not imposing a more severe withholding condition."
Gurley was considered one of the leading Heisman contenders when he was indefinitely suspended just 48 hours before a game at Missouri. He has rushed for 773 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 8.2 yards per carry; ranks third on the team with 11 receptions; returned a kickoff for a 100-yard TD; and even completed Georgia's longest pass of the season, a 50-yarder.
The Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1 SEC) carried on just fine with Gurley on the sidelines. Freshman Nick Chubb starred in a 34-0 rout of Missouri and a 45-32 victory at Arkansas, combining for 68 carries, 345 yards and three touchdowns.
Now, it appears Chubb will have to carry the offensive load for at least two more games.
When the school applied for his reinstatement last week, Gurley released a statement acknowledging that he broke NCAA rules.
"I want to thank the university, coaches, teammates, and the Bulldog Nation for their patience and support," he said. "I take full responsibility for the mistakes I made, and I can't thank the university, my coaches, and teammates enough for supporting me throughout this process. I'm looking forward to getting back on the field with my teammates."
Georgia pushed for the NCAA to accept a two-game suspension.
Instead, the governing body opted for a harsher penalty in a case that has raised questions over rules barring college players from receiving money for their autograph or likeness. Florida State has been reviewing whether Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston received improper benefits from a large number of his autographs being sold online.
Unlike Georgia, the Seminoles have allowed Winston to continue playing during the investigation.
An NCAA committee that oversees the reinstatement process will take up Georgia's appeal this week. The panel can reduce or remove the sanctions imposed by the NCAA staff but cannot increase them.
Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason said Gurley's uncertain status over the past three weeks did not change the way the team went about its business.
Gurley has continued to practice with the Bulldogs during his suspension, with Chubb getting the bulk of the work with the first-teamers.
"We've grown accustomed to basically preparing for (Gurley) not being in there, even though he's getting a few reps in practice," Mason said before the NCAA decision was announced. "You've got to prepare with the guys you know you're going to battle with."
Even without Gurley, the Bulldogs turned in two of their most impressive performances, solidifying their status as the front-runner in the SEC East.
The defense, under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, came up with nine turnovers against Missouri and Arkansas. Mason has yet to throw for 200 yards in a game this season, but he's guided a largely mistake-free offense. And, of course, Chubb appears to fit right in with Georgia's long tradition of standout running backs.
"It seems like every year there's some kind of adversity, injuries or whatever it is," coach Mark Richt said. "You don't go through a whole four months with 18- to 22-year-old guys and have everything go rosy. Whether it's a loss or injuries of whatever it may be, you've got to find a way to overcome it."