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CFT Previews: Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl

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WHO: No. 21 Fresno State (11-2) vs. Arizona State (7-5)
WHAT: The 27th Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nevada
THE SKINNY: Two of the biggest head-turners West of the Mississippi converge in the desert as they take part in a super appealing bowl matchup between Mountain West champion Fresno State and Pac-12 South runners-up Arizona State.

The Sun Devils, who had an up-and-down first season under head coach (and master motivator) Herm Edwards, enter fresh off a wild Territorial Cup victory and sport one of the more explosive offenses in the Pac-12. Quarterback Manny Wilkins (2,896 yards, 19 TDs, 4 INTs) naturally leads the way with his ability to move around the pocket and launch bombs down the field but the veteran signal-caller will be without his top weapon in the passing game as star receiver N’Keal Harry is skipping the contest in favor of the NFL draft. Either way, it’s worth tuning in alone for seeing what dazzling tailback Eno Benjamin can do with the ball in his hands and the sophomore will be well motivated coming in considering he needs just 42 yards on the ground to set a school record for rushing yards in a season.

Defensively, ASU has looked far stouter than the numbers suggest (allowing over 400 yards per game coming in) but will need several players to step up on that side of the ball considering top linebacker Merlin Robertson will miss the game due to a personal issue. A win would mean plenty to the program considering the team hasn’t won eight games since 2014 and would naturally like to cap the first year under Edwards by notching one more win over a ranked opponent in 2018.

That won’t be easy by any stretch given how good the Bulldogs are. Head coach Jeff Tedford has done a marvelous job since taking over a previously 1-11 team and has since turned his alma mater into a powerhouse, capping things off this year with a win at Boise State to secure the MWC title in overtime. That puts the team right back in the Las Vegas Bowl where they are hoping for a much different trip than their last time in 2013, a disappointing loss to USC.

Optimism is running wild at Fresno State this time around though because their defense is among the best in the country, giving up just 13.7 points per game despite facing numerous high-powered offense. Linebacker Jeff Allison captains the unit and has already racked up 121 tackles this season — a number he won’t mind adding to while trying to contain Benjamin and company on the other side. The Bulldogs are no slouch on offense either, as their QB-WR combo of Marcus McMaryion (25 TDs, 3 INTs) and KeeSean Johnson (1,307 yards, 8 TDs) is as good as they come — even if they don’t get the press of others out West.

Perhaps even more enticing to the pair could be what’s at stake on Saturday afternoon as Fresno State has never won 12 games in a season before. They haven’t finished ranked in the final polls since 2004 either and knocking off Arizona State would certainly tick that box off as they look to beat two Pac-12 programs (UCLA being the other) in the same season as well. Despite the relatively close proximity of the two schools, this will also be the first time since 1941 that the Sun Devils and Bulldogs have met on the field and a little preview of a future series the two have on the docket beginning in 2023.

It goes without saying that both sides won’t lack for motivation coming into this one and looking to end the year off on a high note by leaving Sin City with a rare win. While ASU can put up some points, they’ll likely struggle to find much consistency against one of the most well-rounded teams in the country, leaving Tedford and company to finish off a season to remember just off the Strip.

THE PICK: Fresno State 28, Arizona State 17

Ohio State DL coach Larry Johnson denies facilitating player payment at Penn State

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The ongoing federal corruption case against College Basketball, Inc., took an unplanned-but-not-unexpected swerve into college football on Tuesday when a witness for the government said he facilitated payments for numerous college football players from 2000 through 2013.

Pittsburgh-based financial advisor Marty Blazer, who has already pleaded guilty to defrauding clients, is now testifying on behalf of the government during the New York-based trial, and said he paid players representing a handful of programs ranging from Alabama and Michigan to Northwestern and Pitt, funneling them funds ranging from three to five figures.

Blazer did not name names for any coaches on Tuesday, but he did name the name of a player — former Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin — which led anyone who follows college football to figure out his coach — former Penn State defensive line, and current Ohio State defensive line coach, Larry Johnson.

According to Blazer, Maybin was considering leaving school early to enter the 2009 draft when Johnson (without naming his name) arranged a meeting between himself, Blazer and Maybin’s father. There, Johnson got Blazer to give Maybin’s father $10,000, with the hope that the cash-in-hand would keep Aaron Maybin a Nittany Lion while ensuring the player would become a Blazer client when he eventually went pro.

Maybin, as we all know, entered the 2009 draft and was selected 11th overall. Blazer said Maybin’s father later returned the money.

Johnson was reached by Yahoo Sports on Tuesday and vehemently denied the accusation.

“That is not accurate at all,” Johnson said. “That is absolutely false. I would never, ever ask anybody to do that. That is not me.”

“Why is it that something like that comes out and nobody says anything to me?” Johnson Sr. said. “This is the first call I’ve gotten. All of a sudden this Marty Blazer guy can just say whatever he wants? That is absolutely amazing. Wow.”

Johnson coached Penn State’s defensive line from 1996 through 2013 and has been at Ohio State since 2014. The 67-year-old is generally regarded as one of the best defensive line coaches in college football, and while it’s unclear if the NCAA would even take an interest in the case, Johnson obviously wants to make sure the testimony of an admitted fraudster does not ruin his reputation.

Clemson lands No. 1 overall player in Class of 2020

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Clemson has managed to dominate college football without really dominating the college football recruiting rankings. Since 2015, the Tigers’ classes have ranked, in order, No. 9, No. 11, No. 16, No. 7 and No. 10, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Those are good classes, to be sure, but not necessarily great ones; they’re the type of classes you’d expect to lead to a team competing for ACC championships and New Year’s Six bowls, not beating Alabama in the national championship game twice in three years.

Clearly, Clemson’s coaches have cornered the market on finding a few great players and a bunch of really good ones, then developing them to all play like great players. The question then becomes: What happens if Clemson starts recruiting a bunch of great players? What happens if, in addition to playing like Alabama, Clemson started recruiting like Alabama?

We’re about to find out.

The Tigers on Tuesday landed Bryan Breese, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound defensive tackle from Damascus, Md., who happens to be the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2020, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

“At the end of this little run I was really between Clemson, Georgia and Penn State and over that last visit everyone talks about you’ll feel it and I didn’t understand that till the last visit and I got the feeling and knew where I was supposed to be,” Bresee told 247Sports.

But Tuesday’s news wasn’t just about Breese. He became Clemson’s first 5-star commitment of this class, joining a group of 11 4-stars that vaults the Tigers over Alabama for the No. 1 spot in the 2020 team rankings, with three less players on board than the Crimson Tide. Beyond Breese, Clemson is also favored to land 5-star quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, 5-star defensive end Jordan Burch and 5-star Myles Murphy, all of whom rank in the top 10 nationally, plus 5-star linebacker Antoine Sampah, who ranks No. 31 in the country.

If all that comes to pass, Clemson could follow one of the best seasons ever with one of the best recruiting classes ever.

“This class could be by far one of the best classes ever,” Bresee said. “I think definitely one of the best classes for Clemson.”

Transfers from Rutgers, Coastal Carolina land at same FCS school

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The same FCS program has double-dipped in the NCAA transfer portal, FBS division, in bulking up the talent on its football roster.

Monday afternoon, Albany announced via social media that running back Alex James and fullback Max Anthony have officially signed with the program.  James, a redshirt junior, comes to Albany from Coastal Carolina, Anthony, a fifth-year senior, from Rutgers.

As both players come to the Great Danes from the FBS ranks, they will each be eligible to play immediately in 2019.

The past two seasons for the Chanticleers, James has rushed for 475 yards and seven touchdowns on 114 carries.  He also caught 16 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown.

Anthony had started six of the 27 games in which he played for the Scarlet Knights.

Witness in hoops trial claims he paid football players from Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, others

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A sweeping college hoops scandal that’s engulfed the sport has now touched its gridiron counterpart.

Marty Blazer, a Pittsburgh financial advisor-turned government informant after pleading guilty to securities fraud charges, took the witness stand Tuesday in the college basketball fraud trial and levied some potentially explosive allegations.  As part of his testimony, Blazer alleged that, between 2000-14, he paid football players from, among others, Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and Pitt.  The payments, some of which were in the thousands of dollars, were aimed at convincing the player to remain in college and not enter the NFL draft in the hopes that they would retain him as their financial adviser when they did turn pro.

The names of specific players were, for the most part, not mentioned by Blazer.

The most damning of the accusations made by Blazer seems to involve Penn State during the Joe Paterno era.  Specifically, Blazer alleges that he paid the father of then-Penn State player Aaron Maybin $10,000, with the payment being made at the behest of an unnamed Paterno assistant coach.

If accurate, the NCAA would consider such an arrangement a major infraction.  It’s unclear what, if any, action The Association will take on the football side of the accusations made under oath.

Requests for comment from each of the football programs mentioned in Blazer’s testimony have not yet been met with a response.