Dr. Strangepicks or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust UVA Football

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This week, ESPN asked its writers to each submit a “way too early” post-spring practice top 25. This is a tough task, of course, because while predicting outcomes is already a fool’s errand, it’s also impossible to tell what the premise actually is.

Should it be the top 25 teams on paper today? If so, that’s largely just a reflection of recruiting rankings and last year’s win totals, which doesn’t seem like much fun.

Should it be a guess at who’ll be ranked when the 2019 season ends? That’d have a big impact on a team like Texas A&M, which I think is pretty talented but has a brutal schedule that all but guarantees five losses.

Or perhaps it’s just a mix of teams that look good today with teams we think will be good later, shuffled up just enough to be interesting. That was my approach, which is how I got to this nugget:

No. 20 – Virginia Cavaliers.

Now you might rightfully note here that Virginia has not been ranked in the top 20 since 2007, hasn’t opened the season there since 2004 and hasn’t finished a season there since 1998. These would all be good and factual and probably smart things to consider.

But it’s April, which is no time for being reasonable. Let’s get weird.

So, why do I think Virginia is going to be good this year?

Well, start with this: The Hoos won 8 games last year. Eight. Did you realize that? I’m sure I did, but I’d forgotten because Virginia just doesn’t seem like the type of team that wins eight games in a season without some sort of seismic event occurring that forces you to take notice. But here we are.

What that also means is, Bronco Mendenhall’s approach is working. He’s gone from 2 wins to six to eight. That’s pretty damn impressive for a program that was a wasteland when he arrived. Virginia has more wins in its last two seasons than it had in its previous four combined. Those back-to-back bowl appearances mark the first time the school’s done that since 2005. Here’s a quick list of programs that don’t have 14 wins over the past two years: Florida State, Tennessee, Nebraska, Louisville, Mississippi, UCLA, Georgia Tech, and Texas Tech (whose coach is now an NFL head coach).

Then look at the 2019 schedule. The only huge red flag is the Sept. 28 trip to Notre Dame, but the rest looks manageable. Sure, there’s the annual black hole that is Virginia Tech, but that’s gotta end some time, right? (Right? Hello? Anyone?) And no, we’re not writing off Miami. That’ll be a tough game. But if the Hoos can win the opener at Pittsburgh, there’s a decent chance they’ll be 4-0 heading into that road trip to South Bend, and take just a cursory glance at the schedule and it’s not hard to envision an 8-3 team going into the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech.

But set aside all the guesswork and let’s look at some actual numbers.

Despite winning eight games last year, Virginia was just 1-4 on the road. You might expect most mediocre teams have blatant home/road splits, but this was actually unique. From 2013 through 2017, just 12 teams won zero or one road game but finished with seven or more total wins. Then last year – boom! – five teams did it. Odd.

Look at the list from 2013-17 though. Of those 12 teams, only three regressed in wins the following year. 2018 SMU went from seven to five wins, but that followed a coaching change and some huge departures of talent. 2014 LSU went from 10 wins to eight, but 10 wins is tough to repeat, so it’s not as if the bottom fell out. Plus, in the SEC, losses still count as wins, so there’s no point worrying about that. Then there’s the 2017 Tennessee Volunteers, who saw a five-win decrease in record, but that team was coming off a life championship, so there figured to be a hangover effect.

On the other hand, six of the 12 teams saw at least a two-win improvement the following year, with those tough seasons on the road portending big strides for programs like Penn State and Mississippi State. It makes sense, really. Winning on the road is hard and takes a little practice. Good teams will learn to do it eventually though.

Now let’s take a look at QB play. The mark of Virginia’s struggles for the past decade (and then some) has been at QB, where there’s been zero stability. From 2005 through 2016, 18 different QBs started a game, only Michael Rocco (2012) finished with a passer rating better than 130, and only once did the same QB start Week 1 in consecutive years.

But here’s an interesting comparison for you:

QB A: 66.7% completions, 158.4 passer rating, 8.01 yards/att, 17 TD, 4 TO

QB B: 63.6% completions, 153.5 passer rating, 8.16 yards/att, 19 TD, 3 TO

QB A, you may be surprised to learn, is Virginia’s Bryce Perkins, from Week 8 through the season’s end. And QB B is this year’s Heisman favorite, Trevor Lawrence, over that same span. And those numbers come in spite of the fact that Perkins had 68 fewer drop backs and was sacked eight more times.

Perkins returns this season with a year of experience under his belt, almost certainly a better O-line in front of him, and a schedule that features seven defenses ranked 93rd or worse in efficiency last year (and only Notre Dame and Miami ranked inside the top 30). Perkins could put up some huge numbers in 2019.

Then my favorite way to predict big movers before the season: Regression to the mean. This can be tricky and often used poorly (including by me) but here’s the basic premise: Are there key areas that are often luck driven in which a team looks like an outlier (in one direction or another)?

For UVA, there are some encouraging data here.

For one, Virginia was just 1-3 in games decided by a TD or less last season. That’s not so far outside of the norm to guarantee much progress, but imagine that luck flip-flopped and the Hoos went 3-1 instead. We’d be talking about a 10-3 season. That’d have your attention, right? Essentially, we’d be talking about Virginia the same way we’re talking about Syracuse — an obvious top-20 team.

Another stat worth checking out is Inside 40 production. Did a team perform well overall but struggle to cash in or keep teams out of the end zone? Abnormally high or low rates of success inside the opponent 40, in the red zone or in goal-line situations aren’t often repeatable.

So how’d Virginia do?

112th in goal-to-go TD rate (14% below FBS average)
115th in RZ TD rate (17% below FBS average)

When you’re 1-3 in close games and you don’t cash in on prime TD chances, that’s an obvious area of focus. But what’s even more confounding for Virginia is that typically teams with mobile QBs — as Perkins is — flourish in the red zone. Moreover, UVA led the nation in third/fourth-and-short rushing conversion rate, but for some reason, struggled badly when it came to cashing in at the goal line. It doesn’t add up — which is why you might preduct turn around in 2019.

Now look at personnel, where Virginia returns the bulk of a tremendous secondary, has three rising sophomores who got starting experience on the D-line, and will face seven offenses that ranked 80th or worse in efficiency last season. Meanwhile, did you realize that UVA’s defense ranked 17th nationally last season in S&P+ success rate? It did.

Again, all of this is a little number crunching and a lot of guesswork, and there are still big questions about replacing Juan Thornhill, finding receivers and a tailback to step up, and an offensive line that needed a lot of work. But the lackluster schedule, the obvious areas where improvement should come, and the fact that Bronco Mendenhall can flat out coach all leads me to believe Virginia should probably be the favorite for the ACC Coastal and has a good shot to finish with its best team in a long time.

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.

View this collection on Medium.com

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.”