It’s all about perspective.
How you feel about Duke’s 2014 football season, which concluded its regular-season portion at 9-3, 5-3 in ACC play, depends on what you use as a measuring stick.
Do you go back to the turn of the century, when the Blue Devils were the worst Division I program in the country? Or do you look at more recent history, starting with the 2012 season, which I’ve declared the dawn of the modern era of Duke football?
If the goal is to be treated like a nationally relevant program, then, at some point, the ball and chain of the Blue Devils’ historical struggles on the football field have to be let go to a non-relevant section of the past. Assuming every eligible scholarship player returns next season, just 14 of Duke’s 85 players will have experienced a season that did not end with a bowl. The culture has changed. And so should the expectations.
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The stated goal for this season, according to the coaches and players, was the return to Charlotte and the ACC championship game. That was a completely attainable goal. In fact, now with the benefit of hindsight, it’s one that should have been achieved.
To borrow a description from Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel, this is the national perception of the ACC’s Costal Division: “the weaker division in the weakest Power Five conference.” And Duke had the easiest road to the top, with crossover games against the two worst teams of the Atlantic Division, Syracuse and Wake Forest. For comparison, Georgia Tech, the division champion, had to play perennial power Clemson and N.C. State. The Blue Devils’ two crossover opponents went a combined 2-14 in league play. Virginia Tech and Pitt were the next most fortunate, with their pair going 5-11.
And Duke was able to beat the Yellow Jackets 31-25 on Oct. 11, and the game wasn’t even as close as the final score suggests. It was, by far, the high point of the Blue Devils’ season – the ground game amassed 242 yards, the best mark of the conference season, beating Georgia Tech at its own keep-away game. And quarterback Anthony Boone had one of his most accurate games of the season, completing 61.5 percent of his passes.
But after successfully acing the hard part of the test, when the stakes were the highest, Duke played its worst, losing to two mediocre-at-best teams in Virginia Tech (6-6) and North Carolina (6-6). Duke did its best to help the Hokies and the Tar Heels beat them, too, with six turnovers and seven sacks allowed.
With those losses died the dream of another division title. That’s too bad. Because it was there for the taking.
Who knows how long the Coastal will continue to be stacked with entirely beatable teams. That’s a big reason why letting this opportunity go unused has to be particularly tough to swallow for supporters of the program with visions of an even brighter future.
But for those who won’t let go of the past, or those interested in painting an overly rosy picture, the fact that Duke went 9-3 will be enough. They’ll brush aside that the combined record of the nine teams the Blue Devils beat was just 37-70 (.346) – and that the combined record of the three teams that beat Duke was 18-18 (.500).
Again, it’s all about perspective.