DURHAM -- Duke, despite its ACC Coastal Division Championship and its No. 20 national ranking, finds itself a monumental underdog going into Saturday’s ACC Championship game against No. 1 Florida State.
The Seminoles are a 30-point favorite and few commentators are giving the Blue Devils even a ghost of a chance against a team that hasn’t been challenged all season.
That’s all right with the Duke players.
“This is Duke – we’re always the underdog,” junior tailback Josh Snead said. “Even in games we know we should win, we’ve been the underdog. I love being the underdog. That’s one reason I came here to be on a team that started at the bottom and made it to the top.”
Several Blue Devils admitted that they were miffed to be picked last in the Coastal Division in preseason and junior tight end Braxton Deaver said he was a bit upset when he saw that a higher ranked Duke team was an underdog last weekend at North Carolina.
“I was kind of upset that we were underdogs to North Carolina,” Deaver said. “Obviously, we had beaten Miami and Virginia Tech. We were going into that game riding such a wave of confidence that I don’t understand … how can you look at our team and not give us the edge in that game?”
But Deaver acknowledges that Florida State deserves to be favored and he’s okay with that.
“We’ve been an underdog for years and years and years,” he said. “It’s nothing new to us.”
Senior guard David Harding expected to see FSU installed as a prohibitive favorite.
“Nobody has given us a chance all year,” he said. “It’s business as usual.”
REVERSING LAST YEAR’S OUTCOME
One reason that Florida State is such a heavy favorite is the performance of the Seminoles this season –12 wins and none closer than two touchdowns. FSU beat No. 3 Clemson 51-14, No. 7 Miami 41-14 and No. 25 Maryland 63-0. The ‘Noles closed out the season by thrashing old rival Florida, 37-7.
“They are the best team in the country for a reason,” junior quarterback Anthony Boone said.
Another reason for the skepticism about Duke’s chances has been Florida State’s domination of the series against Duke. FSU is 18-0 against the Blue Devils all-time and the closest game in the series was a 25-6 Seminole victory in 2007.
Duke was 6-2 and riding high last season when the Devils traveled to Tallahassee and suffered a 48-7 loss. FSU more than doubled Duke in total offense, gaining 560 yards to just 232 for the Devils.
“We gave up a lot of big plays in that game,” senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We can’t give up plays like that.”
Is there any reason to think Duke can do a better job limiting the Seminoles this year?
“As far as they go, they are still a very talented and very physical team,” Harding said.
“I think the difference lies on our side of the ball. We’ve become more talented. We’ve been able to narrow the gap from a speed and physicality perspective to where we have a better chance to win this game.”
The Blue Devils do have a road map for playing Florida State. One ACC team hung with the Seminoles for most of the game – Boston College lost “only” 48-34 in October as the Eagles rushed for 210 yards against the ‘Noles.
“Boston College commits to the run – that’s what they want to do,” Harding said. “We know as an offense that we’re going to have to run the ball effectively to win this game. You can bet that we’re watching that Boston College tape closely.”
“I thought Boston College didn’t make many mistakes,” the Duke coach said. “They played the way they’ve played this year. Their formula for winning was to be physical, take care of the football and they tried to compete in every area against Florida State’s offense.
“Hats off to their preparation, their plan. But we’re not BC – we’re nothing like them offensively. I did take long looks at how they approached the game.”
THE HOME FIELD EDGE
It’s very likely that Duke will enjoy a bit of a homefield edge Saturday – especially in the crowd.
“We’ve gone down there and struck gold,” Cutcliffe said about the Queen City. “They know who we are down there.”
With so many players from the area, it’s created a terrific ticket crunch for the Duke players. Each player has access to six tickets, plus whatever they can beg from their teammates.
But with so many players seeking extra tickets, there aren’t enough to go around.
“I can’t get enough tickets,” said Charlotte native Braxton Deaver. “I’ve had at least 50 people ask me and all I have are six, so I can’t accommodate everyone.”
Deaver bemoaned the inability to pick up tickets even from the players who hail from across the country.
“Families are coming from near and far for this one,” he said. “This isn’t just your run of the mill game. This is special.”
Harding, who came to Duke from Orlando, Fla., can confirm that observation.
“I’ve had people coming out of the woodwork looking for tickets,” he said. “I had an uncle that was in South Africa on Saturday and was able to keep track of the score of the [UNC] game over the Internet. He e-mailed me as soon as the game was over, asking for tickets because he’s coming back on Saturday morning.
“A lot of my Dad’s family lives in Charlotte. I have four in my immediate family – and one aunt – who have come to every game in the past two years, so I have to give them tickets first.”
Harding said a handful of extra tickets have popped up.
“It’s a feeding frenzy in the locker room whenever anybody says in the locker room ‘I have a ticket”. Everybody jumps on them.”
DECIDING THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
While Duke has no chance to reach the national title game, the Blue Devils will be a factor in the national race – an upset of Florida State would knock the ‘Noles out of the title game.
As it now stands, FSU and Ohio State are in line to play for the championship, although many SEC partisans argue that because of the strength of their league, the winner of Saturday’s Auburn-Missouri game (between two one-loss teams) should get a shot at the title ahead of the unbeaten Buckeyes.
David Cutcliffe is a voter on the coaches’ poll, which is a part of the BCS formula. That means he has a voice in the debate.
“I was born and raised in SEC country,” he said. “Some may not like what I’m saying. But the thing you have to stand by – Ohio State has won like 24 straight games. You’re kidding me? Is that an argument? I’m an SEC guy, but there’s no logic in that. You win and that’s it.”
Of course, Cutcliffe points out that there is still football to be played out.
“I remember at the start of November, everybody freaking out about having too many undefeated teams – ‘What in the world are we going to do?” It happens every year.
“I’m one of the fans of what we’ve been doing – the BCS. I think it’s the best system I’ve ever seen.”
The SEC/Ohio State would be rendered moot if Michigan State upsets the Buckeyes in the SEC title game … or if Duke upsets Florida State in the ACC title game.
In the long term, Duke’s trip to Charlotte is likely to pay big dividends for the school’s recruiting. But in the short term, it’s created a recruiting headache for Coach Cutcliffe and his staff.
This coming weekend was supposed to be a major recruiting weekend for the Blue Devils. A number of prospects were scheduled to visit Durham. But with the staff and team in Charlotte, the recruiting weekend has to be rescheduled.
“We can’t invite them to Charlotte, but we will reschedule the weekend,” Cutcliffe said. “Kent [McLeod, the director of football operations] is busy. Kent was the most nervous person around last week, so you can only imagine flights, motel rooms, catering, meals. We’ve got a big meal that was planned out at my home, so my wife is involved in all of that change.
“But you know what, everybody is smiling right through every bit of that.”
This Duke football has already achieved a lot – the first 10-win season in school history; it will be the first team in school history to play in back-to-back bowls; it is the first Duke team in 24 years to win a championship.
But heading to Charlotte for Saturday’s ACC Championship Game, Duke still has some historic goals that it can achieve:
-- The school’s first 11-win season. That would tie for the most wins in the season by a FBS team from North Carolina.
-- The school’s first outright ACC championship since 1962. The Devils shared the 1989 ACC title with Virginia (and also won a share of the 1965 ACC title on the field).
-- The first victory over a No. 1 ranked team. The Devils are 0-11 against the nation’s top-ranked team, last losing to No. 1 Alabama in 2010.
-- The first time Duke has ever beaten three ranked teams in a season. The Devils have already beaten No. 19 Virginia Tech and No. 24 Miami. It’s already the first time since 1960 that Duke has beaten two ranked opponents.
Just a few other notes:
-- Duke is 1-1 all-time in Charlotte. The Devils beat Davidson 18-6 there in 1923 and lost 48-34 to Cincinnati in last year’s Belk Bowl.
-- Duke is 3-7-1 in the month of December. The school’s last December win was a 37-13 rout of Notre Dame on Dec. 2, 1961.
-- Duke is 2-9 against the reigning Heisman winner. The two wins came in 1955, when Duke went to Ohio State and beat Howard Cassidy’s Buckeyes and 1960, when Duke knocked off Joe Bellini’s Navy team in Durham.
That one depends on FSU’s Jameis Winston winning the Heisman this year.