College football does bizarre things to people. Case in point: Duke becoming America's lovable underdog.
By December, most of the sports world is usually moving into full-on Duke hating mode, because in Durham late December means basketball season, not college football postseason. After all, the last two years are the only times Duke has played in a bowl game since 1994, and the list of its last five bowls dates all the way back to the 1961 Cotton Bowl.
So while 2013 was obviously the year of Florida State in the ACC, it was also the year of Duke. The Blue Devils, who haven't won a conference championship since Steve Spurrier did it before Florida State was even in the league (let alone Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville), shockingly rose to 10-2 in the regular season, capturing the Coastal Division title before getting romped by the Seminoles in the league championship game. They beat Miami by 18. They won at North Carolina and at Virginia Tech. They played in a weak division, sure, but everyone in a weak division would still beat Duke in most years throughout football history. Last year, Duke was the one to outlast everyone, to shrug off an 0-2 start in ACC play that included a 58-55 loss to Pitt, win six league games in a row to get to Charlotte and at least put a scare into Florida State for an hour or so before the Seminoles did what they had done to everyone else.
David Cutcliffe was named the ACC coach of the year, as well as the AFCA, Bobby Dodd, Maxwell and Walter Camp national coach of the year. It doesn't matter that Duke didn't beat a team that finished the season ranked. In a year with many deserving candidates for coach of the year (Jimbo Fisher, Art Briles, Gary Pinkel, Gus Malzahn, Mark Dantonio), nobody was going to argue against Cutcliffe. This was Duke football, and it was relevant.
Relevance in itself is a huge accomplishment, because on fall Saturdays, Duke might as well be Mercer; in a 180 from basketball, it is the Cinderella. On Saturdays, the academic reputation, the basketball team, the perceptions -- they don't matter. There is a clear difference between the haves and the have-notes, only this is a reversal of the usual paradigm. Just look at Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium, and the stadium of the other school Wade famously coached at. Duke is like Yale, or some of the other Ivy League schools, both in academic reputation and the fact that it's football superiority ended sometime in the first half of the 20th century as the age of the football factories began. Duke is not supposed to win.
And so it's hard to get past the perception that last year was a fluke. We have so many years of history to think it's the truth, to think that the small, private, acclaimed university that plays football on a track-encircled field that looks like it could fit a Texas high school team has no chance of long-term success. But aside from Duke's sudden leap from six wins to 10, there aren't many obvious signals of regression heading into this fall.
The Blue Devils were only plus-one in turnover margin, ranking eighth in the ACC, and while they played in five games decided by a touchdown or less, their record was a rather normal 3-2 in those games. They did get a boost from defensive (two) and special teams (four) touchdowns, a number that is unlikely to be repeated, but that's about it. For the most part, this was a technically sound, well-coached team that was efficient enough on offense, avoided getting sacked, called the right plays, was stellar in the return game and generally avoided beating itself. It did everything that a team like Duke has to do to be competitive, and it took advantage of a favorable road.
Even with the balance of power in the ACC firmly in the Atlantic, and the Coastal seemingly wide-open, it's only natural to assume that Duke will fall back to earth a bit, and that Virginia Tech will return to its place atop the pecking order, or Miami will start being Miami again, or North Carolina will finally tap its unrealized potential, or maybe even Georgia Tech will get its option going again or Pitt will take advantage of its impressive collection of skill talent. There's every reason for Duke to fall back to the middle of the pack, or worse. But there's also every reason for Duke to repeat.
Most of the ingredients return. While losing offensive coordinator Kurt Roper -- Cutcliffe's longtime No. 2 -- to Florida certainly hurts, new coordinator Scottie Montgomery already had a sizeable role last year as Cutcliffe's associate head coach, after getting some NFL experience as receivers coach in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, Duke returns its leading playmakers, including Jamison Crowder, one of the nation's best receivers and punt returners; DeVon Edwards, a versatile defensive back who was a breakout star on kick returns; and Braxton Deaver, an athletic tight end who caught 46 passes and can be used all around the formation. Losing situational quarterback Brandon Connette, who transferred to Fresno State, along with a couple experienced offensive lineman may limit Duke in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but the line remains solid, and starting QB Anthony Boone can run too.
There, is of course, the matter of overall talent and depth, something Duke can't possibly match most other power conference teams with. Cutcliffe's seven recruiting classes have all ranked between 55th and 70th nationally, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Still, it has a handful of star playmakers. It has an experienced quarterback, even if Boone is too inconsistent (while he threw for 427 yards in the bowl loss to Texas A&M, he went 7-of-25 with four picks in the win at Virginia Tech). It has a veteran, respected head coach. It is going to be well-coached, and it is going to win chess matches while using every inch of the field on offense, and it's going to take advantage of opponents' mistakes. Duke has less overall talent, but everyone else in the division has more obvious holes.
Most importantly, there's the schedule. Luck of the draw is always involved, and if Duke was in the Atlantic Division, it wouldn't have finished better than third last year, and it wouldn't this year either. But Duke faces a fortunate reality, again: Its nonconference schedule includes Elon, Troy, Kansas and Tulane. Its cross-division games are against Wake Forest and Syracuse, meaning it avoids Florida State and Clemson in the regular season for the second year in a row (not to mention newcomer Louisville, and new ACC scheduling cousin Notre Dame).
For Duke, this isn't about competing for a College Football Playoff spot, or even necessarily a top-25 ranking -- although finishing in the top 25 for the first time since 1961 was certainly a welcomed change. Duke is playing a different game than Florida State and Clemson, and most everyone else aside from Wake Forest in the ACC, and that this season appears to be the biggest guarantee of a bowl game for Duke in 50 years is victory enough, no matter what the schedule is.
If you ignore two significant things -- prestigious, exclusive university vs. former junior college; some actual football history vs. recent addition to FBS -- Duke is really trying to be the Boise State of the ACC: Find overlooked system fits, outsmart and out-scheme opponents, upset the balance of power and have fun doing it.
It won't translate into national championship contention, but simply being in the conference title hunt is enough of an accomplishment. And in 2014, everything points to Duke being in that discussion again.