Looking back on the 2015 regular season, Duke (7-5, 4-4 ACC) did what it has done under David Cutcliffe since 2012: beat the teams it should, but lose to teams with winning records.
Entering this season, the Blue Devils were 16-2 against FBS teams that have finished the season with a losing record and 6-13 against teams with a .500 mark or better. This year, Duke went 5-1 against teams with a losing record and just 1-4 against .500 or better teams – and the one win was against 6-6 Virginia Tech, so that could move to a different category after the bowl season.
The 27-21 win against Wake Forest was, at least, a return to Duke beating the teams it should (and make no mistake, that is an essential skill for any program to master). Since the program officially left its dark ages in 2012, there haven’t been many loses to the 4-8 Virginias of the world, one reason the 42-34 loss on Nov. 21 in Charlottesville was particularly eyebrow-raising.
But Saturday, there were no slow starts, no spotting an opponent a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. Duke never trailed at Wake Forest, and the game was only tied at 7-7 before Duke rolled off 17 unanswered points over the second and third quarters.
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It’s easier to win when a team isn’t sloppy with the football, and Duke managed to win the turnover margin for the first time since the 30-27 loss to Miami on Oct. 31 (which was only a Miami win thanks to several officiating errors).
“Start with the three takeaways and giving up none,” Cutcliffe said after the Wake Forest game. “If nothing else, that’s enough to win a game like this.”
On the year, Duke was minus-1 in turnover margin, one reason why wins against good teams proved elusive. And against FBS teams with a winning record this year, the Blue Devils were minus-5.
But the Blue Devils are guaranteed at least one more chance at beating a team with a winning record in their bowl game. That will also be an opportunity to end the last long-standing futility drought, as Duke has not won a bowl game since the 1960 season (the Cotton Bowl, a 7-6 win over Arkansas). Since 2012, Duke has had fourth-quarter leads in all three of its eventual bowl game losses to Cincinnati, Texas A&M and Arizona State.
“We came in with a mindset this year of winning the Coastal Division championship,” Jeremy Cash said. Obviously that didn’t happen. But there are still some other goals that we wanted to get. One was to have a winning season, and next after that, we accomplished that, so just have to win a bowl game now.”