Duke has already turned the ACC Football World Order upside out and inside down.
Even in this new unrecognizable ACC, there’s still one mind-warp to consider before Saturday’s conference title game in Charlotte between the Blue Devils and No. 1 Florida State: N.C. State is the last ACC team to beat Florida State.
The Wolfpack’s 17-16 upset of the Seminoles last October in Raleigh defies explanation. There are sports miracles and then there are sports mysteries and that confounding result undoubtedly falls under the latter.
Back in June – long after FSU had wrapped up the ACC title, won the Orange Bowl and had a record 11 players taken in the NFL draft – and months after Tom O’Brien lost his job at N.C. State, I asked the former Wolfpack coach how his team managed to beat the Seminoles that night.
“What’s there to explain?” said O’Brien, in a classic and predictable O’Brien response. “We won the game. That’s football.”
Duke (10-2) might need one of those “that’s football” moments in Charlotte to knock off the Noles, a 29-point favorite. Since the loss to N.C. State in 2012, FSU has won 14 consecutive ACC games, including a 48-7 rout of Duke last October in Tallahassee, Fla.
And FSU is a better team this year than it was in 2012. Statistically, it has the most productive offense in ACC history (644 points in 12 games). The defense, under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, is better, too, producing more turnovers (31) and scoring more points (8 defensive touchdowns).
FSU won its first eight ACC games by almost 40 points per game (51.4 to 12.3). Only one team, Boston College in a 48-34 home loss in September, has even given the Noles a game. And as Duke coach David Cutcliffe pointed out earlier in the week, Duke and BC have very little in common.
But there are a few things that work in Duke’s favor Saturday night:
• No. 1: Confidence
O’Brien said the main reason his team beat FSU was it believed it could beat FSU. N.C. State had beaten the Noles in 2010, under similar circumstances.
Duke has no previous success against FSU, none as in 0-18 all-time, but it has been on its own incredible run of eight straight wins this season. Each win, going back to the second-half comeback at Virginia on Oct. 19, has given the Blue Devils more confidence.
“Confidence plays a lot into what you do on the football field,” Duke safety Jeremy Cash said. “Right now, we’re just riding a wave.”
• No. 2: New blood
Duke’s defense has been much improved this season, and not just because it avoided FSU and Clemson in ACC play.
Cash, who sat out last season under transfer rules, and linebacker Kelby Brown, who missed the entire season with a knee injury, have added toughness and playmaking sensibility in the middle of the field. Both Cash and Brown were named first-team All-ACC this week.
Neither played last season as Duke hemorrhaged points in November. The Devils gave up an average of 50 points per game in three November losses in 2012. In four games this November, Duke allowed 24 per game and won all four games.
• No. 3: No pressure
Only one team is playing for a spot in the BCS title game and it’s not Duke. All the pressure is on Florida State.
Since entering the national race with a 51-14 destruction of Clemson on Oct. 19, the Noles have avoided so much as a squeeze on the wrist. Their pulse hasn’t quickened since BC led 17-3 in the second quarter, and the Noles were “only” ranked No. 8 in that game.
Maybe FSU can do what it has done all season to Duke, jump all over them in the first quarter and waltz to Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS title game Jan. 6.
Maybe their talent advantage is so overwhelming it won’t matter, but that’s not usually how pressure works. Pressure will hit you when you’re not looking, especially at the stage where FSU is.
Saturday’s game is the equivalent of the Round of Eight in the NCAA tournament or the conference championship in the NFL. Ask any coach – Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams or Bill Belichick – and they’ll all say the same thing: the round before The Round, the game before The Game, is the most difficult to win.
It’s in those pressure situations where the mysterious outcomes thrive, where months later the only explanation is, “That’s football.”