DURHAM — It didn’t take long for the Blue Devils to get excited about playing Texas A&M.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is excited, too, and he had high praise for the most famous Aggie of all, one he acknowledged will bring a myriad of eyeballs to the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31.
“Everybody is going to tune in to see Johnny Manziel, whether they’re at a party or at their home, but there are going to be millions upon millions looking,” Cutcliffe said of the Aggies’ quarterback. “We’re all competitive. That’s what you live for. You’ve got to be kidding me, Johnny Manziel – that’s how it hits our team.
“As I’ve said, they should be excited. As I said, he truly is one of the more dynamic, if not the most dynamic player, over a long period of time in college football. So if you are a competitor, we know it’s a challenge, but you’ve got to be excited about that, and we are excited about that challenge.”
That was the second time during the news conference that Cutcliffe, the mentor of quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, as well as coach of Heath Shuler and Tee Martin, lavished Manziel with lofty praise. The first time he brought him up, unprompted, Cutcliffe called Manziel, “maybe the premier player of the last 25 years, if not more, in college football.”
High praise indeed.
While Cutcliffe was talking about him in Durham, Manziel was in Orlando for the college football awards show. While there, according to the website Deadspin, Manziel went around Walt Disney World jumping in photos with fans, sticking out his tongue.
A fitting end to the regular season for one of college football’s most watched athletes, starting with his offseason partying regimen (and early departure from the Manning Passing Academy), to his half-game suspension in the Aggies’ opener against Rice for an “inadvertent violation” of NCAA rules (signing autographs for which he may or may not have received payment), all the way through Texas A&M’s 8-4 season, during which he posted better passing numbers than he did during his 2012 Heisman campaign.
Manziel, a redshirt sophomore, said during an in-game video that aired on the Texas A&M Jumbotron during the Oct. 26 Vanderbilt game that he’d most like to party with actor Charlie Sheen, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and golfer Tiger Woods. Manziel completed 69.1 percent of his passes and threw for 3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.
He also ran 133 times for 686 yards and eight touchdowns, an average of 5.2 yards per carry.
Thanks primarily to Texas A&M’s Johnny Football, the Aggies are the second-most watched college football team in the country, behind Alabama, according to a Chick-fil-A representative. The opportunity for Duke to (potentially) play back-to-back Heisman winners (Manziel, and Florida State’s Jameis Winston in the ACC Championship game) was appealing as well.
The two superstar quarterbacks aren’t all that similar as players and FSU and Texas A&M run completely different offenses, Cutcliffe said, but there will be at least one lesson that carries over from the ACC Championship game to the bowl.
“Our guys understand how well we have to play to play against this caliber of opponent. That’s great. You always want the bar high,” he said. “When you’re playing a team like Texas A&M, the preparation is more important to the players.
“So I’m excited for what level our practices can get us to. That’s the challenge. How much can you, not maintain, how much can you improve from the last game you played til the bowl game, that’s always the thing a good bowl team does.”
Las Vegas doesn’t have faith in Duke – the Blue Devils are 11.5-point underdogs – but that’s business as usual, as Duke was a heavy underdog (12.5 points) against Virginia Tech and wasn’t favored at home against Miami, either.
That didn’t stop the Blue Devils from winning the Coastal Division and 10 games for the first time in school history, thanks in large part to the guidance of Cutcliffe, the ACC and Walter Camp national coach of the year.
It’s been quite a rise for Duke football, which entered last season with a bowl drought that dated back to the 1994 season. Through less than a week, Duke has sold more than 8,000 of its 18,500 allotted tickets for the game in Atlanta, with an anonymous donor covering the cost for any student tickets purchased on campus Tuesday and Wednesday (valued at $90 each).
“As you transitioned our football program from irrelevant to relevant a year ago and right now to pretty damn relevant, I couldn’t be more excited and prideful about being in this with you to some degree,” said Duke athletics director Kevin White, sitting next to Cutcliffe at the news conference. “I am so proud of your leadership.”
As a reward for a job well done, Johnny Football awaits. The country will be watching.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley