Best Stories of 2018: The top 10

If you’re interested, here are our Guest Picks for best stories and a whole mess of honorable mentions.

So here we go, my top 10 stories of the year. I preface this by saying that, while it may not look like it, I actually read a lot less this year than I’d intended to, so there are probably plenty of excellent pieces that I missed. But these are the pieces that were both immensely good reads but also stuck with me long after I finished. Enjoy…

Alt Inclusion: This isn’t a formal story, so it doesn’t fit the criteria, but this list from McSweeney’s on what your favorite classic rock band says about you is a good reminder that the key to humor is specificity and it’s the funniest thing I read all year.

10. This is a story about a very old spider. It’s also a story about life and death how we all search for meaning. Avi Selk’s piece in the Washington Post on the death of what had been the world’s oldest living spider is something that unexpectedly sticks with you long after you’re done reading it.

9. One of the most fun reads of the year came from Huffington Post writer Jason Fagone, who details the mathematical brilliance of two retirees who gamed the lottery to the tune of millions.

8. One criticism I often have of reporting is that it fails to ask central questions any reasonable reporter should ask by simply assuming we either a.) don’t need to know, or b.) are already aware. It’s an odd thing, but it happens often, perhaps never more frustratingly than with the Larry Nassar case, where the specifics of his crimes and the cover-ups that followed were largely glossed over in favor of a narrative about girls finally coming forward. Instead, New York’s Kerry Howley tells it like it is — that women spent 30 years trying to bring down Nassar before anyone would believe them.

7. I loved this first-person story from Darius Miles in the Players Tribune so much, not because of its redemptive arc — which sort of felt a bit light by the end — but for the behind-the-scenes look at the life of the newly rich NBA teen star. I’ve said for a while, I’d love to host a podcast that’s just former players telling stories about back in the day. Darius would be a terrific guest.

6. Eli Saslow does such a wonderful job of finding depth and creating empathy for subjects we might otherwise view as the bad guy. This piece on Stoneman Douglas resource officer Scot Peterson is a perfect example of those talents.

5. I can’t quite explain why I loved this story from The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal on how straws get made so much other than to say it’s something incredibly simple that really tells a far greater story of American commerce. It’s wonderful.

4. Few people have done more to address the misuse of forensic “science” in the criminal justice system than Pamela Colloff, and while her most recent story on a woman convicted of murdering her child due to faulty blood pattern analysis is utterly heart wrenching, it was her two-part work on the Joe Bryan case that utterly knocked narrative investigative writing out of the park. More frustrating than the story, however, is the follow up. The courts have no interest in overturning Bryan’s conviction, despite the fact that the man who testified against him now says he was wrong.

3. I thought long and hard about putting this at No. 1: Brendan Borrell writes for The Verge in what could’ve easily been a simple crime story about rocks but instead provides an empathetic and ultimately incredibly sad insight into mental illness, right-wing politics, obsession and the need for self-worth. It’s a terrific example of a story about one person that’s actually about all of us.

2. There’s no writer who captures imagery — the way a place feels and smells and looks — better than David Grann. He’s just an astonishingly good feature writer. This story from The New Yorker on a British man’s quest to find himself on a perilous journey across Antarctica is so damn good, and so riveting from start to finish, that you’ll hardly notice it took you two hours to read.

Oh, and by the way, one of my all-time favorite stories — maybe the best I’ve ever read — is also by David Grann, if you’re looking for a bonus read.

1. There’s nothing I read this year that stuck with me quite like Holly Anderson’s lovely essay in Medium on baking her grandmother’s “haunted” cake recipe. Every word in this piece is perfect — sad and poignant and utterly hilarious — in other words, exactly what you’d expect from Holly. It’s just wonderful. I’m going to read it again now.

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Best stories of 2018: (Many) Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions: Because I can never narrow a list down to just 10.

I’m not good at promoting my own work, and I’m certainly not suggesting any of these belong among the other stories included, but since you’re here, have a look at some of the stories I enjoyed writing the most this year.

A few oral histories worth your time:

My former colleague Natalie Pierre wrote this essay on her Facebook page. It’s a tough read. It’s brutally honest. It’s a reminder of how much we don’t see in other people’s lives, and how often they don’t realize there are people who care about them.

Posted by NP Sports Media on Friday, June 8, 2018

  • This story from my pal Kyle Bonagura on the final ride of the Night Runner, a Utah State super fan, is just gorgeous. That the Night Runner died just days after its publication only lends it more meaning. I’d also encourage you to check out this Tweet thread from Kyle after Steve Wiley’s passing.
  • I was one of many journalists taken by this essay from Kevin Alexander at Thrillist about a burger spot he declared the best in America that soon shut down following the hype. Turns out, there was a lot more at play here than initially reported, but that doesn’t alter the deeper context of how our what we report and write about can leave a lasting impact on the subjects — even when we’re writing something positive.

As a general rule, I hate celebrity profiles. For one, most celebrities are vapid and overexposed. But the bigger issue is most celebrity profiles are carefully choreographed bullshit that spends way too much time describing the meals everyone ate during the interview. Still, a few good ones get written every year.

  • Example No. 1: Johnny Depp is a complete train wreck, and Stephen Rodrick’s story in Rolling Stone captures the tragic downfall and utter loneliness of its subject.
  • Example No. 2: Media profiling media annoys me (see the 15 or so profiles of Stephen A. this year) but I genuinely enjoyed this piece on Dan LeBatard and Stugotz, who are both great, written by the equally great Mike Schur for Slate.
  • Eli Saslow’s story on the cop who failed to act at Stoneman Douglas makes my top 10, but this look at how fake news is created and then consumed — a piece that showcases the “laugh and point” liberals as arguably more heartless and destructive than the ill-informed and fearful consumers of fake news — is worth a read, too. Continue reading Best stories of 2018: (Many) Honorable Mentions

Best Stories of 2018: Guest Picks

This year, I reached out to a handful of other writers to get their picks for the best stories of 2018, too. Some of them were kind enough to reply. Here are some of their selections.

Greg Lacour, senior editor of Charlotte Magazine

The New York Times look at how Climate Change was almost fixed, only we couldn’t get out of our own way. Why Greg loved it: “There’s no explanation necessary.” Agreed. It’s a must read because it’s arguably the most important story of the year.

Brandan Bures, my former colleague covering Florida State, now a terrific culture writer based in Austin.

The New Yorker’s story on the “rent a family” industry in Japan.

From Brandon: Few pieces of journalism better contend with the length humans now go to maintain false appearances. It hints at powerful questions lingering as we become ever more tech-dependent: Is the reality we present the world more meaningful than the one we know actually exists? And: Is it immoral to perpetuate false realities if it ultimately makes those around you happier? Yes, I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have asked themselves these questions, too.

And one of my favorites, too: The story of a weed heist gone wrong — very, very wrong — is a terrific bit of drama-filled momentum.

From Brandon: Here’s my hard and fast rule about true crime stories: If the opening paragraph includes a handcuffed, blinded, muted man, who’d just been castrated by criminals, bleeding out in a desert on a cold, dark night, I’m gonna read the whole piece. Like this piece, the best true crime presents an indelible image we simultaneously don’t understand and need to understand, then walks us back to explain how our characters reached this horrific place. Nate Berg nailed exactly that with this story. I wish it was 7,000 words longer.

Tommy Tomlinson, the brilliant columnist who’s worked at the Charlotte Observer and for ESPN the Magazine, and has a new book coming in 2019 that I cannot wait to read, and which you can preorder now!

From Tommy: The first story that came to mind was one that I fully expect to see as a movie in the next two years — the story about the guy who rigged the McDonald’s monopoly game.

To be honest, I don’t even remember if this story is well-written or not — what I remember is that I went HOLY SHIT every third paragraph. I was casting the movie before I was halfway through. He could have written 100,000 more words and I would’ve still wanted more.

FYI, the author did a Longform podcast where I learned something I had no idea about — there’s a guy who finds these kinds of stories and recruits writers to do them so they can be pitched to Hollywood.

Ryan McGee, the brilliant writer for ESPN, who also has a new book out with Dale Earnhardt Jr., that you may also want to consider purchasing.

From Ryan: This story from Wired, a ridiculously researched and well-written tale that took me into a world – actually multiple worlds – I knew zero about. An addict of the dark side of the gaming world whose life comes completely unraveled.

Grace Raynor, Clemson beat writer at the Post & Courier

From Grace: I actually just read a really well done, and really important, piece in GQ yesterday that I’m sure you saw about the Fresno Bee. I’m not sure that it’s the best thing I’ve read all year since there has been such amazing journalism all around and it’s too hard to narrow down, but it was definitely one of the most important in terms of the war on the media.

Also I LOVED this Charles Barkley piece, and basically all of Scott Fowler’s Rae Carruth stuff.

Last but not least, I thought this piece on the culture at Barstool resonated (especially as a woman in the industry).

Seven Steps to a Better Playoff

So we have our playoff. Alabama vs. Oklahoma, Clemson vs. Notre Dame. Not too shabby. Like every season, we spend three months arguing and then (mostly) decide the end result was right.

And that’s all well and good, despite the objections of UCF, Georgia and Ohio State fans — all of whom have a valid point but all of whom also have to counter obvious arguments against their cause. More importantly, those arguments aren’t a flaw of the system. They’re a feature. TV, the sport — hell, all of us love debate. We embrace it, if you will. So fine.

But what if we could have a better functioning system, still have plenty of debate, and ensure that all deserving teams got a real shot at winning a championship?

Dabo Swinney is fond of noting that “winning a national title” is not one of his team goals, because it’s not something Clemson controls. That’s both true and insane.

But look around. Did UCF ever have a real shot to make the playoff? After Washington lost in Week 1, what were the odds any other Pac-12 team was getting in? Notre Dame ran the table and still has to answer for why it got in.

Moreover, we’ve spent endless hours arguing over the relative value of schedules and conferences. You know what has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of a team? Its schedule and its conference. Those are independent variables. Auburn being bad doesn’t change whether Alabama is good. The Patriots could’ve played UCF’s schedule and they’d still be the Patriots. Schedule strength may offer us a higher level of certainty as to a team’s quality, but it is not the underlying cause of that quality.

So what’s the fix? Well, we put together a plan that makes so much sense it’s bound to be ignored.

We went through some of the details in our Saturday night column HERE and on Twitter, but let’s lay it out all in one spot.

Step 1: Eliminate divisional play

Was anyone drooling over Clemson-Pitt? Ohio State-Northwestern? Those games were pointless and anticlimactic. But if every league followed the Big 12 model, we’d have had a Clemson-Syracuse rematch and another Ohio State-Michigan. Would that have watered down the regular season a bit? Maybe, but for the former, we certainly wouldn’t have known that in advance. And besides, the rematch didn’t make Oklahoma-Texas any less entertaining.

This also has the added side effect of eliminating arbitrary in-season matchups between divisional opponents with no history (do we need more Cuse-Wake?) and allows for more robust scheduling, so every team will play every other team on its home field at least once in a four-year span.

Two big problems solved.

Step 2: Eliminate FCS games

No one likes them except the accountants at the FCS schools. So let’s get rid of them and go back to an 11-game regular season. We can make up for this with added playoff revenue (more on that momentarily), and we can include a provision that a portion of FBS revenue will be distributed to FCS schools evenly to help make up some of their revenue gap.

Moreover, we can have FCS schools scheduled for every spring game. Let’s require every FBS team to schedule an FCS team for a spring game, and every team holds a photo/autograph session afterward. That puts butts in the seats for spring games, provides some actual drama (there’s bound to be a couple upsets), creates a new TV revenue stream during the offseason, and still allows FCS programs to earn some money.

Two more problems solved.

Step 3: Every Power 5 champ gets in the playoff

Right now we have five power leagues and Notre Dame for only four playoff slots and 65 teams with zero chance at the playoff. That creates a lot of meaningless football. So here’s the plan: All Power 5 league champs get into the playoff. Sure, that means a team like Washington gets in — but is that so bad? The Huskies are no pushover, and because we’ve eliminated divisions, there’s no chance a truly bad team makes it in. We essentially played an entire season in which the Pac-12 was an afterthought. That wouldn’t be true under an 8-team system. We’ve gone three straight years where the champion of the Big Ten has missed out. That seems absurd. Plus, we’ve watched a Saturday of title games that really had limited meaning. If every champ gets a guaranteed bid, Championship Saturday becomes a de facto play-in, and it’s must-see viewing.

There’s a side benefit to this, too. If teams know they can lose a non-conference game and still make the playoff by winning their league, they’re incentivized to schedule better. Currently, UCF couldn’t schedule Alabama if it wanted to. But when we eliminate this disincentive, the No. 1 priority becomes getting good games that pack the stands and draw eyeballs to their TVs (or phones or laptops, etc.).

Three more problems solved.

Step 4: The Group of 5 gets an automatic invite

UCF has won 25 straight games. In the last half-century, only eight other teams have a longer streak. We can argue that the Knights have had an easy road to those 25 wins, but if it was so easy, why haven’t more teams done it? We can say we don’t THINK UCF would stand a chance against Clemson or Alabama, but how do we KNOW? It’s still guesswork. The point is, UCF deserves a shot.

OK, you say. UCF is fine. But what about the years when there’s not an elite Group of Five team. Fine, let’s say G5 has to be ranked in the top 20 to make it. That at least sets some parameters, but I’d still prefer to leave it open ended because, again, if a so-so team gets in, that’s a bigger advantage for the team that earned the No. 1 seed.

Another problem solved.

Step 5: Expand the playoff to eight

Obviously we’re now at six teams in the playoff, so we need to get bigger. Add two more wild cards and we have a perfect set-up. There’s still real drama to the rankings, the committee still has a job in selecting playoff teams, and the outcomes of conference championships have a huge trickle down effect on the wild card selection process. Debates, drama, and good teams getting in. That’s ideal.

OK, but just because it would result in two good wild cards this year, would that always be true?

Well, let’s find out.

Last year we’d have had Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, Ohio State and USC as conference champs, UCF as our Group of 5 and the wild card debate would’ve come down to Auburn, Alabama, Wisconsin, Washington or Penn State. That’s a great debate right there. Auburn would’ve had head-to-head over Alabama, but the Tide would’ve had the higher ranking. Do they both get in?

Go back to 2016: Alabama, Clemson, Penn State, Washington and Oklahoma are your conference champs, Western Michigan is your Group of 5 winner, and our wild card debate is Ohio State, Michigan, USC and Wisconsin. Again, not a bad group.

How about 2015: Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Ohio State are your champs, with Houston as your Group of 5. Your wild card debate is Iowa, Stanford, Notre Dame, Florida State. Again, it’s a great argument with no bad answers (except maybe Iowa).

More importantly, because home field advantage is so important, the wild cards don’t really water down the significance of any regular season games. They just translate into more games mattering.

Step 6: Play the first round on campus

As noted above, providing easier matchups and home-field advantage to higher ranked teams ensures real value in playing a tougher schedule, impressing the committee and winning games. It also means fans can take a short drive for a Saturday to see a playoff game rather than breaking the bank on flights and hotels. And part of the allure of college football in the first place is the on-campus environment — something we’re quickly losing as neutral site games become revenue sources. Something that benefits the fans? Well, that’s just crazy talk.

Step 7: Sign a new TV deal for the playoff

The straw man argument against an eight-team playoff is that it’s a slippery slope to 16 or 32 or 64 or 130. That’s dumb, but there is still a way around it. Let’s negotiate a 20-year deal for broadcast of the postseason. This is great for the networks who’ve been worried about spiraling costs. They can lock in expenses for the longterm and plan accordingly. It’s also a way to ensure we won’t have a serious push to expand the playoff again because the TV deal is already set. And the leagues will like it because it’s more money coming in, guaranteed. That extra revenue gets spread around to make up for the loss of the 12th game, but there’s plenty left over from an extra playoff game so that everyone is getting their beak wet (except the players, of course, but that’s another issue).

So what do we end up with here?

Eleven regular season games and no more awful Alabama-Chattanooga matchups.

Spring games that have some actual competition to them.

Championship Saturdays where every single game matters.

Debate over who gets into the playoff, but no whining over deserving teams that won their leagues being left out.

Incentive to schedule better out-of-conference games in the regular season.

Group of Five teams getting a chance at the biggest prize.

More regular-season games that have an impact on the playoff.

A playoff home game for four fan bases.

And most importantly, when Week 1 kicks off, all 130 teams can control their destiny.

Are there drawbacks? Probably, but those seem minor in comparison to the positive effects. And like the old “there are too many bowl games” discussion, I’m not quite sure why anyone thinks there should be LESS football. More games, better matchups, and a championship decided on the field. What’s not to like?

Week 13 ACC Picks with Jay Guillermo

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Well, we made it through 13 weeks of doing this. Huge thanks to all our guest pickers who chipped in with some fun analysis as the season went along. For our final installment, we got one of our all-time favorites, former Clemson center Jay Guillermo. Jay is getting married (to a lifelong Virginia Tech fan!) in the summer, getting ready for grad school, and still does a wicked Robbie Caldwell impression. We chatted about Clemson’s season, the rivalry with South Carolina, and who eats the most on the Tigers’ OL.

Q. As much as the defense has gotten attention, deservedly so, and Trevor and Travis have been hyped, I look at this team and think maybe the biggest difference is how physical the offensive line has been. Do you agee?

A. They really have. It’s a finishing mentality. Every offensive line wants it, but talk is cheap. They’ve really done a good job at finishing, staying on blocks, being able to pop guys out of there. If you watch, Travis does a fantastic job of being patient, and them staying on blocks is giving him lanes where he can cut. Having so many guys — a guy like Gage Cervenka. He’s been playing center since he moved from defensive tackle, and now he’s starting at guard while Sean’s hurt. Or a guy like Cade Stewart. Having that experience where you can trade guys in and out. Or Jackson Carman, when Mitch gets hurt at Boston College. All those guys really buying in to having a finishing mentality.

Q. What’s the meanest thing a South Carolina fan has ever said to you?

A. A lot of people talk about your mother. But it was always funny — I remember vividly in 2013, playing there for the first time, it’s not so much what anyone said, but I remember us coming into the stadium and just a sea of middle fingers. And I’ll never forget it, a kid is sitting on his dad’s shoulders, and the dad is giving us a one-finger salute. And his kid is on top his shoulders doing the same thing. He was maybe 4 years old. So the meanest thing? Getting flipped off by a 4-year-old is up there. You just have to smile and wave.

Q. Clemson’s been steamrolling everyone. Is this another steamroller game?

A. I have a lot of South Carolina friends, and I’ve told them I think it will be a little more competitive this year. It’ll probably be 52-14, 52-13. Clemson is playing at such a high level, and they’re such a complete football team. I really think it’s been too much for most teams this year. I actually think Will Muschamp is doing a good job, but I can’t see it being very close. Just as deep as Clemson is, and as thin as South Carolina is — they’ve got a few guys hurt. So the depth that Clemson has, they’ll wear them down.

Q. Looking ahead a bit, with the way Clemson and Alabama are playing, if we get that matchup again this year in the playoff, will it be the best Clemson-Bama game yet?

A. Obviously, I’m a little biased, but yeah, I think so. There’s a recurring theme with Alabama, and it’s the play of the quarterback. Jalen Hurts did what he needed to do there for them to be successful, but the way Tua is playing, it’s a different level. They’ve always got the defense. They keep getting better. But now they’re really putting it together with a really high producing offense. And at Clemson, this is one of the best defenses that’s ever been at Clemson, and it’s one of the most well rounded offenses — at least in a long time. You look, they’re in the top 10 in rushing, the way Trevor’s thrown the football, they’re protecting him. They’re the two most well rounded Clemson and Alabama teams that could see each other.

Q. Thanksgiving question: Who eats the most of the guys you played with?

A. It would probably be either Zach Giella or Gage Cervenka. Those two can eat pretty hearty amounts of food. So I know Caldwell will be on Gage, for sure. [*Caldwell voice*] Now boy, don’t you go eatin’ too much. You’re gonna be sloppy!

On to the picks…

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Jonah Williams on cooking, blocking

Worked on a fun piece for ESPN the Magazine on Alabama OL Jonah Williams and his fondness for cooking.

In addition to being the best left tackle in the country, Williams is likely also the best amateur chef, too. As one Alabama team chef said, “I’d have him in the kitchen with me if I could.”

You can read the story HERE.

My original draft, as I’m prone to doing, was close to twice as long, so much was cut. The joys of writing for the mag. But here’s one bit of advice from Williams that didn’t make the cut but is still worth sharing:

Desserts have never been Williams’ strong suit. He’s made a few cheesecakes and dabbled with some pies that taste fine, but they never quite pop. Ironically, his best dessert comes largely pre-made, and Williams insists it’s life-altering.

Get a tub of the yellow Nestle’s Toll House cookie dough. It’s meant to make two-dozen cookies, but that’s a novice’s approach. Bigger is always better.

Portion the dough into six equally sized spheres. Pop them in the oven on parchment paper for 13, maybe 14 minutes. That’s the recommended cook time for a properly portioned cookie, but for Williams’ behemoths, it perfectly crisps the outside while keeping the inside soft and gooey.

Williams made them for his 10-year-old brother the last time he was home. Now, the kid begs for them, and his parents have had to institute a once-per-week limit.

But it gets better. Williams uses the cookies to make ice-cream sandwiches. Find a nice, big bowl. Cookie bottom. Ice cream. Cookie top. Eat it with a spoon.

“It’s insane,” Williams says. “You’re eating the equivalent of eight cookies, but it’s insane.”

Week 12 ACC Picks with Tyler Palko

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Former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko lives in Kansas City with his wife and four children, but he doesn’t miss an opportunity to watch Pitt. We caught up with him to get his thoughts on the Panthers’ run toward a Coastal championship, what he thinks about Pat Narduzzi and his greatest memories at Pitt.

Q. Pitt is now the overwhelming favorite to win the Coastal. What have you thought as you’ve watched this team inch closer to that goal?

A: Any time you’re on the verge of anything, it means you haven’t accomplished it yet, but they control their own destiny. With that being said, this kind of reminds me when we won the Big East, and played in the Fiesta Bowl my sophomore year. We were right in the middle of the road, didn’t play great, then you went on a run and as a player when you go on a run the confidence level goes up. You feel like you’re gelling and as a coach, you kind of get the feeling that hey our guys get it. They’re starting to get our system. As a fan and a former player it’s really cool to see them go on a little bit of a run because they’re starting to come together. That’s really cool to watch the ultimate team sport, see them gelling at the right time. You hear that all the time going into the playoffs of anything you want to be peaking at the right time. So let’s hope that’s the case.

Q. Since you’ve been in a similar situation, how do players put disappointing losses behind them, like those against Penn State and UCF, and focus on the remainder of the season?

A: The reality is they got their butts whooped twice, and it stings, but as a player and especially in football, you can’t do anything about it. You have to get ready for next week. It was disappointing, but you operate on that 24 hour rule. You have 24 hours to pout and feel bad for yourself and you’ve got to get ready to play next week. Fortunately, those losses to Notre Dame, UCF and Penn State were nonconference, and in order to win the ACC, you’ve got to win ACC games, so I’m sure they learned a lot from it.

Q. What have you thought about the Pitt run game and the way Kenny Pickett has led the offense?

A: Any time as a quarterback you have a strong running game it helps you. Quarterbacks love to throw it, and running the ball is not the most sexy thing in the world to do, to turn around and hand it off, but when you’re in the system they have where they’re a pro-style offense and they’re going to run the ball and shorten the game, it helps play-action passes come up. It helps you as a quarterback get into the feel when you know you don’t have to go out and win the game all by yourself. It’s a really good feeling to know you have a run game there that can help you out, that can open some things up. When you can do that, as the quarterback you have a big smile on your face.

Q. What do you think about the way Pat Narduzzi has led this program?

A: I think coach will tell you this: They brought him in there to win and win championships. Up to this point, they’re trending in the right direction. I like coach’s attitude. He’s a Youngstown guy but that’s very similar to Pittsburgh. Pitt is a unique job. I know all schools say their school is unique but Pitt’s in a unique position because you’ve got to be able to recruit kids to a city campus and they have to fit that culture. I think coach has done a great job up to this point and I’m looking forward to seeing how we finish the year. I think he’s a good fit for Pitt. Eveything he stands for, toughness, hard work that blue-collar mentality you look back at when Pitt won, that’s the type of coaches they had, so I’m hoping this will be the year they can turn over that leaf and play for a championship.

Q. What is your greatest memory from your Pitt career?

A: There were a lot of them. We won some pretty big games, and obviously the Notre Dame game. There’s a lot of really good memories, winning the Big East, getting a chance to go to a BCS game. There’s a lot of fond memories of my college career and I look back on it with a lot of happiness and accomplishment. We left a couple things out there, but it was a great experience.

Q. What do you do now?

A: I run a leadership development consulting company so we go into privately held companies and help develop their next generation of leaders. It’s kind of like the strength coach for guys that are going to redshirt, so we work on leadership skills, how to handle conflict, and develop their communication and leadership skill so they’re able to take the next step in their career.

Apologies to Syracuse folks. These picks cannot foretell anything good…

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Who’s been more dominant: Clemson or Bama?

A quick look at Clemson and Alabama shows just how good both teams have been. They’re both 10-0. Clemson’s average margin of victory is 33 points. Bama’s is 35. Both have faced a few decent teams and a few not-so-good ones. So, who’s been better?

One way to check is to use relative performance, which sounds more complex than it really is.

The premise is simple: How did a team perform relative to how other teams perform against the same competition. So, for example, Alabama averaged 7.17 yards per play vs. Ole Miss this year. Is that good? Well, Ole Miss’s defense is allowing 6.28 yards/play to all other FBS teams it’s played this year, so Alabama was 14.2 percent better than average against the Rebels.

We can do this for every team both Clemson and Alabama have played and come to some conclusions. To do this, we picked two basic stats: Points per drive and yards per play. We looked at those numbers for both offense and defense.

First, let’s compare the defenses.

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The blue lines above represent opponent performance against all other FBS teams, while the red lines represent performance vs. Clemson and Alabama, respectively.

Alabama’s defense has been a bit more up-and-down, but is peaking now, it would appear. Clemson’s defense was essentially average against Texas A&M, but has been excellent ever since.

Now a look at the offense.

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Clemson’s offense has been a bit erratic, with some huge games and some average ones, but not dramatically below average. The early QB issues help explain some of this, but it’s worth nothing that BC did a really nice job against the Tigers.

Alabama, on the other hand, was dominant offensively pretty much all season, but Mississippi State did do a nice job of containing the Tide. Is that because Tua is nursing an injury? Because Mississippi State’s defensive front is insanely good? TBD.

Anyway, on the whole, here’s how things shape up in order of percent change from opponent averages…

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Long story short, Clemson appears to have a legitimate edge on defense, and Alabama has a real edge — particularly in scoring — on offense.

Of course, the interesting part of this is, Trevor Lawrence figures to get better, and so does the Clemson offense. Meanwhile, Alabama’s defense has pitched back-to-back shutouts, albeit against bad offenses. So perhaps that Tide D is also making strides.

The long and short of it is, these are clearly dominant teams, and their relative dominance only serves to further illustrate that we should be getting a ridiculous playoff matchup in a few months.

Week 11 picks with Damien Woody

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College Game Day is coming to Chestnut Hill this week, which isn’t a sentence we planned on typing this season. It’s a huge game between No. 17 Boston College and No. 2 Clemson, and so we needed a huge guest picker for the week. Enter BC great Damien Woody.

Q. So, this game is getting plenty of attention, but does BC have a real chance at pulling the upset?

A. I think BC has a shot. Now, Clemson is uber talented. As far as pro prospects, they’ve got guys littered all across the field, particularly on defense. But they’ve got a true freshman quarterback, and you never know what you’re going to get from a guy who’s basically coming out of high school. The game’s in Boston. It’s going to be cold. A team from down south, playing in cold weather, you never know how they’ll react. Does BC have a shot? Yeah, absolutely. You’ve got A.J. Dillon, one of the best running backs in the nation. Anthony Brown is playing pretty well. Good offensive line. Defense is good. Yeah, I absolutely think BC has a shot to win the game.

Q. For all the justified attention on A.J. Dillon, that offensive line for BC has done a lot of the dirty work. What do you make of that group going up against this terrific Clemson defense?

A. Clemson is bringing like four first-round picks on the defensive line. But when I think about the BC offensive line, I think about last year, when there were a bunch of injuries and a lot of young guys had to play. There were growing pains. But now, some of those growing pains are paying dividends because those guys all have experience. This is strength on strength when you look at both of these teams. I’m looking forward to that matchup.

Q. Anthony Brown’s skill set is a lot like Kellen Mond at Texas A&M, and Mond had some success against Clemson. What’s Brown have to do in this game to have the same type of success?

A. No. 1, with any quarterback, you have to take care of the football. With a team as talented as Clemson, don’t give them anything cheap. No. 2, he has to utilize his legs. Get him on the edges. Play-action. Do things — don’t have him just sitting in the pocket because that’s where that defensive line can present some problems. Get him on the move and play-action off A.J. Dillon, you might be able to expose some things in the intermediate and deeper part of the field.

Q. What’s a game like this at BC mean in the big picture for the program? It’s been a long time since they’ve had a game with this much magnitude on the national stage.

A. I felt coming into the season, BC had potential to have a pretty good season. With A.J. Dillon missing the game against NC State, I believe that was pivotal in losing that game. But being 7-2, being ranked 17 in one poll and 14 in another, going against the No. 2 team at night, College Game Day, the fact that BC built new facilities — you see the momentum that BC has been building. I’m telling you, it’s going to be a lot of excitement, a lot of fun in Chestnut Hill, and if BC can pull this off somehow, boy, that’s exposure for a program in a part of the country not many people look at as playing big-time football.

Q. On the flip side, what’s your thoughts on Clemson and how they might stack up against Alabama in the long run?

A. Athlete for athlete, they match up. Dabo Swinney has done a tremendous job of building up that program and every year, those two teams are going at it for the national championship. So, there’s nothing different this year. I think the reason they brought in Trevor Lawrence and put him in the starting lineup was in preparation for Alabama. Now, hopefully BC will have something to say about that this weekend, but you have to give Clemson a lot of credit. They’ve recruited well, they’re very well coached, they’ve got a lot of athletes. They’re a strong football team.

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Week 10 ACC picks with Ahmad Hawkins

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Virginia could be on the cusp of a Coastal Division title, and that’s a big surprise to most ACC fans. One person who’s not as shocked by the Hoos’ run is Ahmad Hawkins, a UVA legend — he caught the game winner the last time the Cavaliers won in Blacksburg — and a current analyst for the team. We checked in to get some insight on this year’s Hoos.

Q. Virginia is 6-2 and most folks are pretty surprised. Could you see this coming?

A. You could see some of it coming, but the thing that’s surprised me the most is how we’ve adjusted our defensive scheme due to the injuries and the lack of pass rush. They used the bye week to form some new schemes to help alleviate the need to get to the passer as much and help the secondary perform better. We knew that was our strength.

Q. Bryce Perkins isn’t putting up numbers like Tua, but it seems like he’s really transformed the Virginia offense with his athleticism. What’s been the impact from your viewpoint?

A. Just having a quarterback that’s mobile. That’s something Coach Bronco has wanted from Day 1. They inherited Kurt Benkert, who was more of the classic pro-style quarterback, and he’s with the Atlanta Falcons now. He had a live arm, but he didn’t move like a Taysom Hill type. When they brought Bryce in, I knew he’d help overshadow some of the deficiencies we had on the offensive line and allow that group to actually gel and scheme for those inside zone-reads. And his ability to use his legs really occupies those linebackers and doesn’t let them get a beat on what we do offensively. He’s not going to wow anyone with his passing numbers, but the one thing in college football that’s so scary is having that dynamic quarterback that can run with the football.

Q. I love chatting with Bronco Mendenhall because he’s unlike any other coach out there. He’s thoughtful about so many things most coaches probably take for granted. What’s been your experience dealing with him?

A. Coach is very thoughtful. He’s very strategic even when you’re having a good time with him. One thing is, he wants to make sure the energy he puts out is genuine and positive and he understands that people hang on every word you say, and he doesn’t want to say anything out o character. He’s a lot of fun to be around, and I said when he got hired, he’s the type of coach you run through a wall for.

Q. I don’t feel like Virginia is playing the “Nobody believes in us” card so much as they just really believe in themselves. Fair assessment?

A. Oh yeah. It’s basically the “if you build it, they will come” mantra. They understand our fan base hasn’t viewed a consistent winner. So you can’t complain about fans if you’re not putting out a great product. Last year, we got to six wins, but the product wasn’t as attractive. Now, the product fits what you see with the record. We’re 6-2, but this team is also fun to watch. And the fans have been there, but we want to get them to come to the stadium, too.

Q. What does UVA have to do to beat Pitt on Friday?

A. It’s going to be tough physically because Pitt comes right at you. They’re going to hit you in the mouth, they’re going to pull guards. It’s power football. When they take a shot in the passing game, it’s off of play-action. So that’ll test our defensive front and our linebackers to be very disciplined and understand that all that weight lifting and conditioning you did is going to come in during this game. We’ve played some finesse teams, and now we’re going to see the run-it-down-your-throat team. It’s going to test our fortitude.

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