DURHAM — When Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell told his cousin that he wanted to play in the ACC Championship game, he scoffed.
“But that’s the nature of the beast,” Cockrell said. “We are Duke football, and we have not traditionally been a strong football school.
“We understand the recent history of Duke, and we’re trying to chance that.”
Since the ACC Championship game was introduced in the 2005 season, the Blue Devils have managed to win more than one league game just twice: 2009 and this season. And, thanks to a set of circumstances no one outside the program would have predicted, Duke (6-4, 3-3 in the ACC) controls its destiny in the Coastal Division.
The Blue Devils’ path to the championship game in Charlotte is simple: It must beat Coastal leaders Georgia Tech and Miami in its final two games to play for the school’s first league title since 1989. Up first is a trip to Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-3). Whichever team loses Saturday is eliminated. A Duke win sets up a Nov. 24 home date with Miami for the Coastal crown.
“It’s weird the way the division is shaping out, but at the same time, we’re definitely excited that we can have a chance to even go to Charlotte still,” defensive lineman Sydney Sarmiento said. “We understand that it’s in our control, so it just kind of us getting to it and trying to do the best we can.”
Entering the season, Duke had the toughest ACC schedule based on last year’s winning percentages. The Blue Devils also had what looked like a tough opening game against Florida International, which received votes in the first AP poll. But the Panthers are 2-8, and several other teams on Duke’s schedule, including Wake Forest and Virginia, also fell short of preseason expectations.
Those who are not sold on the Blue Devils are quick to point out that Duke has only beaten one team with a winning record: North Carolina.
“You know, there’s a lot of parity in our league and I’m just glad we are a part of it,” coach David Cutcliffe said.
The Blue Devils has made significant strides under Cutcliffe to get to a position this year where they can compete with most teams in the league. The work toward that improvement began years ago. A look at the recent history of the Georgia Tech series shows that progress.
Cutcliffe and Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson arrived in 2008 (and Johnson actually turned down the Duke job). Since then, Georgia Tech is 4-0 against Duke, but games have been more competitive in the past two years, with the Yellow Jackets winning by 10 and seven points, respectively.
This year, Duke had an extra week to prepare for Georgia Tech’s option offense. More important, the Blue Devils had a week to get healthy, as defensive end Kenny Anunike, running back Juwan Thompson and offensive linemen Perry Simmons and Brain Moore have recovered from injuries. Their return puts Duke in a better position to take advantage of its rare opportunity to compete for the Coastal Division title.
“We’re in the 11th game, and in my mind, when you have these kinds of opportunities in a 12-team league that’s headed to a 14-team league, you best pay attention to them and take advantage of them,” Cutcliffe said. “They don’t come across your table all the time.”