Duke has a rare opportunity this Saturday night when the Blue Devils take on Clemson in a game that will be nationally televised by ESPN2.
"November football at night ... I like that," Duke's David Cutcliffe said Tuesday. "November football at night means television. Television means meaningful football games. That's a very positive thing. It's a big challenge. Clemson is [the reigning] ACC championship team. But with those challenges are huge opportunities."
It's an opportunity for the Blue Devils to erase the bad impression they made in last Saturday's 48-7 loss at Florida State.
"We didn't play well," Cutcliffe said. "It was a game where every position on our team didn't play well - kicking, offense and defense. Yes, what people saw wasn't very impressive."
But he doesn't think that performance was a true measure of what his team really is.
"We're not discouraged," the Duke coach said. "We're not embarrassed by that fact. It's just a fact. Disappointed - you better believe we're disappointed we didn't play well on a big stage. This is another opportunity in a prime time television slot to play like we're capable of playing."
The Duke-Clemson game is also significant because the Blue Devils are still very much in contention for the ACC Coastal Division championship. Duke is one of three division teams with a 3-2 league mark (along with Miami and North Carolina), while a fourth team (Virginia Tech) is at 2-2. Even 2-3 Georgia Tech still has a chance to play in the ACC championship game in Charlotte.
"I'm glad it's a muddled mess that we're muddling in," Cutcliffe said when asked about the division race. "That's a good thing to be in November and playing meaningful games."
Duke, which finishes the regular season with games against Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami, is in contention for the first November since the 1994 team started 4-0 in the ACC. But even that successful squad was essentially eliminated for the ACC title race when the Devils lost to Florida State on the last Saturday in October.
This team is still talking about a title and November arrives.
"All year [our goal] has been to get to Charlotte," junior defensive end Justin Foxx said. "We always talk about getting to Charlotte and playing for the ACC championship. That's our goal. We haven't lost back-to-back games, and we're undefeated at home. We want to keep those two streaks alive.
Cutcliffe noted that Duke achieved one big goal with a victory over North Carolina - becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. But he insisted that wasn't his team's ultimate goal.
"This team is hungry," he said. "Anybody who thinks we hit the sixth win and it's all cool, has really not watched this team. They haven't seen what these seniors are about. It's not going to be easy, but nothing good is easy."
TEASING THE TIGERS
Duke has not had much success against the ACC's power teams over the last quarter century. Florida State, Virginia Tech, Miami and even North Carolina have been difficult opponents for the Blue Devils to cope with in recent years.
But Clemson is an exception - kind of.
The Blue Devils haven't exactly held their own against the Tigers, but in the last quarter century, Duke has achieved a number of significant victories over Clemson:
-- In 1989, Duke's last ACC championship team got into contention by upsetting No. 7 Clemson in Wade Stadium. The Devils had to overcome a 14-0 halftime deficit to pull out the 21-17 win. That's the last time Duke has beaten a top-10 team (something they would have to do to beat No. 10 Clemson this weekend).
-- In 1994, Duke's last bowl team upset Clemson 19-13 in Wade Stadium on the strength of a blocked punt by Ray Farmer.
-- In 1998, Fred Goldsmith secured his final win as Duke's head coach with a 28-23 victory over the Tigers in Durham. The win evened Duke's record at 4-4 before a three-game losing streak ruined a promising season.
-- In 2004, a 2-9 Duke team stunned Clemson, 16-13, when placekicker Matt Brooks hit a 53-yard field goal at the end of regulation to give the Devils a 16-13 win. That game was to prove Duke's last ACC win until Cutcliffe's first Blue Devil team beat Virginia in 2008.
It's worth nothing that all four of Duke's wins over the Tigers in the last quarter century came at Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke hasn't won in Death Valley since 1980 - Ben Bennett's freshman year.
PROTECTING THE HOME FIELD
It's a startling stat - Duke is 5-0 at home this season, averaging over 44 points a game ... and just 1-3 on the road, averaging just over 18 points a game.
"I can't explain that," junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "Last year, I think we were better on the road than at home."
Indeed, Duke was 2-5 on the road a year ago and just 1-6 at home. There was little overall difference in Cutcliffe's first four seasons when his Blue Devil teams were 8-17 at home and 7-18 on the road.
That's something he's been working hard to change.
"It's something we've talked about and talked about and talked about," he said. "When we came in here in 2008, it was shocking to me that we had not won in Wallace Wade since September of 2005. That was a shocking fact. I knew things were tough. We have tried to make that one of our foremost goals each season."
Justin Foxx said it was a point of emphasis this season.
"We want to protect our home turf," he said. "We call it Pride Rock - like from the Lion King. We're very confident at home. We want to protect our home field."
That's a lot easier to do when the home field gives the Devils as much help as it did for the North Carolina game. The stands were full that night and most of them were cheering for Duke - unlike other recent sellouts.
"It surprised me," junior defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. "I was down in my stance and that's the loudest it's been since the Alabama game ... and, of course, they were cheering for Alabama. It was a good atmosphere and it kind of got in my head."
Cockrell was hoping for a similar turnout this Saturday night.
"That's very important to us," he said. "I hope they're out there. But at the end of the day, there are 11 people on the field and they have to make plays."
AN UNSUNG HERO
He never gets the headlines, but for four seasons, Jackson Anderson has been one of Duke's most important players.
What does he do?
The 6-4, 260-pounder from Frisco, Texas, is Duke's long-snapper.
"Jackson Anderson is smart, he's talented and this is the first year he hasn't bugged me about playing offensive line, defensive line or tight end," Cutcliffe said. "He's tough and he would really love to play a position beside deep snapper."
Anderson said he was recruited to be a snapper and tight end.
"But when I got here, the need for a long snapper became such that they didn't want me to do anything else," he said.
Anderson snaps for punts, field goals and extra points.
"It's a role that goes unnoticed, unless you mess up," he said. "You've got to make sure that every time you have the ball in your hands, it's got to be great."
"Don't think for a moment that he hasn't played a big role in the maturation of Will Monday and Ross Martin," Cutcliffe said. "He's a great leader. I told the squad he's our assistant special teams coordinator to Coach [Ron] Middleton."
Anderson spends a good deal of time with the two young kickers. He is in awe of how well they've handled the spotlight. Monday is the top punter in the ACC, while Martin has been perfect on 33 extra point attempts and has hit 14 of 16 field goal attempts - the best percentage in the ACC.
"I think they have really met everybody's expectations and then some," Anderson said. "It has really been a joy for me. As a senior dealing with freshmen, you feel that you have to work with these guys and be tough on them to make sure they don't get carried away. But these guys don't act like they are freshmen. They can take care of their business and I don't have to worry about what they're doing."
After weeks of excellence, both young kickers struggled some at Florida State. Monday had his lowest punting average of the season, while Martin missed a short field goal, snapping a streak of 13 straight makes.
"I told them, you've got to fail to have a chance to be great," Cutcliffe said. "You've got a chance to be great when you fail and step back up to the plate and hit a home run."
Anderson is certain the Martin will shake off his miss.
"He's been great all season," he said. "We don't even worry about it. No kicker is going to be perfect. We haven't had to say anything. He's a tough kid. He'll bounce back."
And it helps that both kickers can count on getting a good snap time-after-time.
"[Anderson] is very skilled in what he does," Cutcliffe said. "He may be best snapper in the country. He's got a future there [in the NFL]."
THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
While Duke still has a chance to play for the ACC championship, the Blue Devils can already claim a couple of mythical titles.
The Blue Devils are 3-0 against in-state foes, beating N.C. Central, Wake Forest and North Carolina. N.C. State doesn't play Duke, but has already lost to UNC. And East Carolina lost to North Carolina.
That means that the Blue Devils can claim both the state championship and the Big Four championship for the 2012 season.
Last summer, N.C. State put up several billboards touting their in-state dominance in 2011. Cutcliffe isn't sure if Duke will follow suit.
"I haven't gotten that far," he said, quickly adding, "I'm proud of what we've done in in-state games."
He does think Duke's accomplishment should be celebrated.
"I'd like to win that every year," he said. "Those are good wins. Those are wins over quality teams. They are rival games. So, yeah, it is a big deal. It's mythical, because you don't play everybody."
A PAIR OF ACES
Clemson boasts the most talented pair of wide receivers in the ACC. Junior DeAndre Hopkins currently leads the ACC with 58 catches for 909 yards and 10 touchdowns. Sophomore Sammy Watkins has been slowed this year by a two-game suspension and by several injuries, but he is coming off a year when he caught 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 TDs.
"Hopkins has had the better year, but Watkins was the freshman sensation last year," Ross Cockrell said. "You pretty much pick your poison with them. They're both dynamic receivers. You can't really lock up one because the other will burn you."
Watkins appeared to snap out of his early season funk last week at Wake Forest, when he caught eight passes for a school-record 202 yards.
"They are really big, really fast and have great ball skills," Cutcliffe said. "You can't mimic those kind of guys in practice because of their size and speed. You have to prepare yourself for that shock. If you go to sleep for one snap ... you have to be mentally tough enough to play every play you're in the game."
Actually, as good as Hopkins and Watkins are, Duke's wide receiver duo of Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder have slight better numbers so far this season with 107 catches for 1,406 yards compared to the Clemson pair with 90 catches for 1,313 yards.