Auburn quarterback Jeff Burger was declared ineligible for the third time this season when the NCAA ruled yesterday that he and teammate Greg Thompson committed a violation by accepting a free plane ride to go hunting.
Auburn immediately filed an appeal to the NCAA on behalf of both players. Their eligibility could be restored as early as Saturday night when the sixth-ranked Tigers (6-0-1) host No. 10 Florida, but it is not known how quickly or favorably the NCAA will reply to the appeal, Auburn officials said.
The school was notified yesterday morning that fifth-year senior Burger, the leading passer in the Southeast Conference, and junior offensive tackle Thompson had broken the NCAA "special benefits" rule by accepting a ride on a private plane for a hunting trip in south Alabama on Oct. 11.
Auburn Coach Pat Dye suspended both players for last week's game against Mississippi State, and had hoped the NCAA would rule that the trip, organized by a family friend of Thompson, was not a violation.
"We're not overreacting to this situation," Dye said. "We were a little surprised the NCAA thought there might be a violation, but you have to know going in that there's always that possibility. We're going through the normal procedures and we're not overly alarmed because we haven't gotten the final decision."
Burger, the third-leading passer in the nation, was fortunate to play at all this season after two serious challenges to his eligibility. The school's Academic Honesty Board suspended him for two quarters this summer after he allegedly committed a technical plagiarism offense on a psychology term paper. But the suspension was lifted by vice president for academic affairs Warren Brandt, who said Burger had suffered penalties because of the intense media coverage of his case.
Shortly afterward, Auburn declared Burger ineligible when he was bailed out of jail by assistant coach Pat Sullivan following a fight in a restaurant parking lot. The NCAA restored his eligibility, ruling that Sullivan had signed a property bond and no money changed hands.
Dye said earlier this week he didn't think the trip on the small plane reportedly belonging to Covington County Commissioner Johnny Mack Weed, a friend of Thompson's, had violated any rules.
Dye did not learn about the trip and its implications until the following week, after both Burger and Thompson played in a come-from-behind victory over Georgia Tech. It is not known if Auburn will forfeit the victory should the players be ruled permanently ineligible.
"I don't see how they could punish him for that," Dye said at his weekly press conference. "Sometimes what I think and what they think aren't the same."
The Tigers are in the thick of the SEC title race and have four crucial conference games remaining, all against ranked teams in Florida -- No. 4 Florida State, No. 12 Georgia and No. 16 Alabama. Burger is a chief reason the Tigers are ranked in the top 10, making up for a weak backfield by completing 105 of 154 passes for 1,314 yards and 10 touchdowns. Thompson was also a starter until injuring his knee several weeks ago.
If Burger loses his appeal or it remains undecided, Auburn will start sophomore Reggie Slack, who replaced the senior in his first collegiate start ever last week and threw three touchdown passes.