DURHAM — There was a time, Conner Vernon can now admit, that he doubted Duke would ever make a bowl. After back-to-back 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011, including four losses by no more than seven points last year, that thought began to creep into his mind.
I did think for a second, Im not going to lie, that maybe that bowl game was impossible, said Vernon, the ACCs all-time leader in catches and receiving yards. But then after spring practice, seeing what we brought back, seeing the guys who stepped up, and going into the summer, just the attitude of the guys in the locker room, it was like, oh, this team could definitely make a bowl game. And then after the first game, from an overall standpoint, it was, this is probably the best team Im been around in my four years here. Obviously, our play showed it this year. I couldnt be happier.
Duke (6-6) accepted an invitation from the Charlotte-based Belk Bowl Sunday night, setting up a Dec. 27 matchup against Cincinnati (9-3), the co-Big East regular season champions. The game will be at 6:30 p.m. and nationally televised by ESPN. It will be Dukes first bowl appearance since the 1994 season.
Many of the players gathered in the football building Sunday night to watch the selection show, and thats when they officially knew they were headed to Charlotte.
It was a great feeling, Cornerback Ross Cockrell said. It just solidified it for us that we are going to this bowl game. Were doing something that hasnt been done in a long time, and were all part of this change in the Duke football culture.
Will Webb, the executive director of the Belk Bowl, had been tracking Duke throughout the season and was in Durham to watch the regular season finale against Miami. In addition to watching the Blue Devils comeback against the Hurricanes fall short in a 52-45 loss, Webb also spoke with Duke athletic director Kevin White.
We just said, were very interested if it all works, Webb said of his conversation with White, and he looked at me and said, were as interested, if not more interested than you are.
There are 29 players on Dukes roster from North Carolina, making it easier for friends and family to travel to the game. Cockrell, a first-team all-ACC selection at cornerback, said he has already heard from several friends and family members from his hometown of Waxhaw.
A lot of friends, old teachers, people like that have contacted me and talked to me, saying that they cant wait to go to the game and watch me play, Cockrell, who played at Charlotte Latin, said.
After Duke earned win No. 6 against North Carolina, the athletic department started preselling bowl tickets for Dukes possible destinations. The Belk Bowl was the overwhelming favorite, according to associate athletic director Jon Jackson (exact numbers werent available). After the official announcement, an anonymous donor gave the school 500 tickets that will be distributed for free in a student lottery Tuesday.
Obviously the more Duke fans, the better, Vernon said.
Duke will report to Charlotte on Dec. 22, and there are a variety of activities leading up the Dec. 27th game (a shopping spree at the Belk flagship store in SouthPark Mall and an outing to the Charlotte Motor Speedway are two events on the agenda). The Bearcats, who have been to six bowls in the past seven seasons, will have the edge in experience, but Cockrell isnt worried about potential distractions.
It will be a new experience for us, so well have to deal with that when we first get down there, he said. After we get over the initial excitement, well continue work hard and prepare for Cincinnati.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley