DURHAM, N.C. - Duke couldn't have found a better place to play Alabama this fall.
The Sept. 18 matchup between the Blue Devils and the defending national champions will be in a stadium that honors the past of the two programs. The presence of the game in Durham will also emphasize Duke's commitment to the future.
Throw in the showcase of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Alabama's likely No. 1 ranking and an ABC television audience and it's clear that Duke-Alabama 2010 ought to rank with Duke-Pitt in 1938 and the 1942 Rose Bowl as one of the most significant games ever played in historic Wallace Wade Stadium.
"The first thing that comes to my mind about the Alabama game is the Coach Wade connection," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "The history of the two programs - I like that."
It's worth noting that not only is there a bronze bust of coach Wallace Wade outside the stadium named after him in Durham, but there's also a statue of Wade outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. One of the streets that runs alongside the stadium is called Wallace Wade Drive.
Wade took over the Alabama football program in 1923 and over the next eight years turned that unknown program into a powerhouse. He won three national championships and took the Tide to three Rose Bowls (back when the Rose Bowl was unchallenged as the premier postseason game in college football). Wade shocked the football world when he jumped from Alabama to Duke in 1931 - taking over a Blue Devil program that was as unheralded at that time as 'Bama had been before his arrival.
"I went back and looked - Duke football was basically a joke and then Wallace Wade took hold of it and changed it for decades," Cutcliffe said.
Indeed, Wade's 16-year tenure produced two Rose Bowls, 110 wins (and just 36 losses), six conference championships and three top 10 and seven top 20 national finishes (he would have had two or three more ranked teams, but the poll didn't start until 1936).
"I like the fact that Wallace Wade basically preceded Coach (Bear) Bryant - and recruited Coach Bryant," Cutcliffe said. "Coach Bryant played in a Wallace Wade influenced program. I think he learned a lot of basic principles and philosophy from Coach Wade."
It's perhaps just a coincidence that the current Duke coach is an Alabama graduate. More than that, he grew up in Birmingham as a 'Bama fan.
"Alabama football was always important to me," he said. "I like the history and tradition of football and I think it's great that Duke and Alabama get together in Wallace Wade Stadium."
Cutcliffe had a lot to do with making that happen. When the two schools originally signed a two-game contract over a decade ago, the plan was for Duke to play Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2006, then for Duke's "home" rematch to be played in Charlotte or Atlanta or maybe even Birmingham - a neutral site game that would have produced a lot of extra revenue.
That's something that Duke has done quite often in the last two decades, trading big-time home games for big pay days on the road. For instance, in the 1990s, when Florida State was an annual superpower, the Blue Devils sold home games with the Seminoles to Orlando and Jacksonville, two Florida sites that were packed with FSU fans.
Cutcliffe fought to prevent that from happening with the Alabama game.
"I think if we were going to change the culture of our program, there was no way I was interested in playing that game anywhere but Wallace Wade Stadium," he said. "There are long-term goals and ambitions that are far greater ... and I wish that had been seen earlier. You don't rob Paul to play Peter. I'm very appreciative of (athletics director) Kevin White and his stick-to-it-iveness in that regard. This was in the best interest of Duke football long term to play the game here."
With all the focus on the past and the future, the present should not be overlooked either.
"We have the defending national champion here," Cutcliffe pointed out. "It's just the pure football part of it. I have had great rival relationship with (Alabama coach) Nick Saban, a great respect for what he's done. He was at LSU when I was the head coach at Ole Miss. Boy, we had tremendous games."
It's likely that Alabama will be ranked No. 1 when it visits Duke. The Tide appears to be a clearcut No. 1 pick in most preseason polls, a ranking they'll have to hold by winning their first two games (both at home) versus San Jose State and Penn State. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils will have two games to play before the big showdown - Elon at home and at Wake Forest.
"Obviously, the week before we've got a conference game," Cutcliffe said. "The conference games are a whole lot more important to us than any non-conference game we'll ever play. I think there is a perspective the players will have. We open up with a good Elon team - (an FCS) playoff team and I think everybody realizes that gap has closed."
Still, it's hard not to project just how big the Alabama visit will be. To provide a little historical perspective:
--- It will be just the fourth time that the defending national champion has played in Durham. Duke beat 1937 champion Pitt in the famous 7-0 snow game in 1938; lost 7-0 to '51 champ Tennessee in 1952; and lost 17-6 to 1990 co-champ Georgia Tech in 1991.
Duke is 2-9 overall against the defending national champion. In addition to the 1938 Pitt win, the Blue Devils knocked off 1954 champion Ohio State 20-14 in Columbus in 1955. Other losses include 1945 and 1946 to Army (which won the titles in 1944-45), the 1958 Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma (which won the 1956 title); the 1975 season-opening loss to 1974 champion Southern Cal; a loss to '81 champ Clemson in 1982; and losses to Florida State in 1994 and 2000 in the years after their two titles.
--- Assuming Alabama holds onto its preseason ranking, it will be just the third time the No. 1 ranked team has played in Durham. Duke lost both previous games - 10-0 to No. 1 Pitt in 1937 and 45-7 to Florida State in the 1993 opener.
Overall, Duke is 0-10 against teams ranked No. 1.
--- It will be the first time a reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Alabama running back Mark Ingram, has played in Durham.
Amazingly, Duke has faced the reigning Heisman winner twice before. In 1946, Duke faced Army fullback Doc Blanchard, the 1945 winner (his teammate Glenn Davis would win in 1946) in New York City. And in 1964, Duke faced Navy quarterback Roger Staubach in Annapolis a year after he won it as a junior in 1963.
Duke did face Staubach - in Durham - in his Heisman Trophy winning year of 1963. In fact, four players played at Duke in their Heisman winning years: Navy's Joe Bellino in 1960, Staubach in '63, Pitt's Tony Dorsett in 1976 and FSU's Charlie Ward in 1994. South Carolina's George Rogers, who would win the 1980 Heisman, played at Duke as a sophomore in 1978.
Duke won two of those games, beating Bellino's Midshipmen 19-10 and knocking off future Heisman winner Rogers and the Gamecocks 16-12.
--- It remains to be seen whether or not Alabama can repeat as national champions, but playing in Durham is a good omen. The Blue Devils have faced five previous teams at home that were en route to winning the title. It's not surprising that Duke is 0-5 in those games: 10-0 loss to No. 1 Pitt in 1937; 44-31 loss to No. 2 (at the time of the game) Pitt in 1976; 38-10 loss to No. 6 Clemson in 1981; 56-17 to No. 15 Miami in 1983; 45-7 loss to No. 1 FSU in 1993.
Cutcliffe is confident that Wallace Wade will be packed for the game - and that it won't be because invading Alabama fans have taken over the stadium. He expects the Alabama visit to showcase what he's building at Duke.
"We need a big game in here - a really big game," he said. "We've had some good crowds and some exciting atmospheres since we've been here. This gives us a chance to play on ABC national television. That's pretty cool."
Cutcliffe is confident that his team will show up and battle the mighty Tide. He's more concerned about how a young team with no experience in big games handles the weeks before and after the Alabama visit.
"I don't think we'll have time to think about Alabama until the game week," he said. "I think probably a little bit more of the challenge is afterwards - regardless of the result. Getting our focus back and realizing that's our third game and we've got nine regular season contests left. As a coach, that's how you think about it."
But it's a nice problem to have. In Cutcliffe's third season at Duke, he's brought a big-time national team into town to play a big-time game.
It will be played in the facility named after the coach who laid the groundwork for Alabama's greatness and gave Duke its Golden Age. It seems fitting the Blue Devils should once again try to exploit the Alabama connection to regain their stature in the football world.