Since, well, just about forever there has been reason for the football teams at North Carolina and Duke to view the basketball teams at their schools with at least a little bit of envy. For while basketball receives all the attention – and wins all the championships – football at both schools has often been a venture in futility. Or, at least, mediocrity.
The football game on Thursday night between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, then, represents something of a departure from the norm. Long a regionally-televised Saturday afternoon affair, the UNC-Duke football rivalry makes its debut on the national stage. For the first time, the schools’ football teams will play each other in a prime time, nationally-televised game.
“You always love playing on Thursday night,” Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, said earlier this week. “Because you’re the only game on, everybody’s watching you. And so our guys are excited. It should be a lot of fun.”
Entering the season, this game looked like it might decide the winner of the ACC’s Coastal Division. And though Duke still has a chance – the Blue Devils need to beat UNC and Wake Forest, next week – the stakes aren’t quite as high given the Tar Heels are no longer a factor in the division race.
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Still, a Thursday night game in front of ESPN’s cameras is a sign that the football rivalry between the schools matters. Or, it at least matters more than it has in a while. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils have taken a long time, and traveled a long road, to reach this point.
Here’s a look at their journey, and the recent struggles they endured, on the way to their first prime time ESPN game against each other:
UNC fans have grumbled at times this season amid embarrassing defensive performances and lopsided defeats. And Duke fans might have been disappointed by that sloppy loss against Virginia Tech last week. But both groups of fans know it could be worse. Much worse.
How much worse?
How about being mired in an impermissible benefits and academic fraud case that wound up costing a high-profile coach his job? That was UNC’s reality before the 2011 season, when the school parted ways with former coach Butch Davis.
And how about being a national punchline of a program that was, for the longest time, incapable of competing with just about any team in the ACC? That was Duke’s reality for much of the 1990s and 2000s. Between 2000 and 2011, it won just nine ACC games.
So while times haven’t always been great this season, take heed: these are high times compared to recent lows.
A New Effort
Both Fedora and Duke coach David Cutcliffe inherited programs in turmoil. It’s difficult to judge who had the more arduous task when they took over.
When Cutcliffe arrived at Duke in 2008, the Blue Devils were among the worst programs in the country. Duke hadn’t had a winning season since 1994. The culture had long been one of losing. Those were undoubtedly difficult circumstances.
Fedora had it tough, too. When he took over at UNC in 2012, the school was still awaiting its fate from the NCAA, which has since reopened its investigation into the academic irregularities that were the focus of the recently-released Wainstein report. Because of NCAA sanctions, Fedora still hasn’t benefited from a full recruiting class.
It took some time but Cutcliffe’s efforts have paid off more than anybody might have ever expected. The Blue Devils won a record 10 games a season ago and, if they win their final two regular-season games, they’ll be back in the ACC championship game for the second consecutive season.
Fedora, meanwhile, entered this season saying “it’s time” – time for the Tar Heels to take the next step and win the Coastal Division. Another poor start to the season – similar to the one UNC had in 2013 – has doomed the Tar Heels to another mediocre finish.
What Went Wrong, What Went Right
Positive change rarely ever happens as quickly as the people trying to institute it might like, and that was the case at Duke – and for years – after Cutcliffe arrived. The Blue Devils showed promise in 2008, with four wins, and then with five wins in 2009. Then came back-to-back 3-9 seasons.
Cutcliffe, long considered one of the best offensive minds in college football, remained patient and dedicated – and Duke remained confident in him, too. Persistence began to pay off in 2012, when Duke went to a bowl game for the first time since the 1994 season, and then the Blue Devils broke through last season, Cutcliffe’s sixth in Durham.
At UNC, Fedora’s first team was a victim to the mess and scandal that came before it. An NCAA-mandated postseason ban kept the Tar Heels out of the ACC championship game that season, and subpar defenses have hampered UNC both this season and last. Despite the challenges, recruiting has remained somewhat steady at UNC – though defensive recruiting has not been an overall strength – and Duke has never recruited better than it is right now under Cutcliffe.
Where Are They Now?
Duke is clearly a step ahead – several steps, perhaps – of UNC. And who would have thought that possible just a few years ago, when the Tar Heels were in the midst of winning 21 out of 22 games against the Blue Devils?
Duke established itself in recent seasons as what UNC desires to be: a legitimate contender in the Coastal Division. The Blue Devils have played for an ACC championship, while UNC is still trying to get there – and won’t this season.
Still, there’s some hope for UNC. For the first time since Fedora arrived, the Tar Heels in February can sign a full recruiting class. It hasn’t helped matters that an NCAA investigation is still looming, and that the football program could possibly face more sanctions.
At Duke, the Blue Devils during the past three seasons have gone a long way toward shedding their status as a perennial loser. Duke can’t erase two decades of football futility but this – a nationally-televised prime time home game against its primary rival – is a sign of how far the program has come.
“Our guys are excited about that, and they should be,” Cutcliffe said of playing in a Thursday night game on ESPN. “They’ve earned that opportunity. It’s a program that has earned that opportunity. A lot of players that really actually put a lot into it before the guys that are currently on this team.”
As long as Cutcliffe remains at Duke it seems possible that the Blue Devils can be the Stanford of the east. Duke is pouring money into the football program and plans are in place to give Wallace Wade Stadium a much-needed facelift.
Given the lack of a dominant program in the Coastal Division – there’s no Florida State or Clemson, like there is in the Atlantic – Duke for the foreseeable future should remain a contender to play for an ACC championship.
The future is more uncertain at UNC. Fedora expressed publicly his goal of the Tar Heels taking the next step this season, and it hasn’t happened. The defense is on track to be the worst in school history – at least statistically – and until UNC fixes its issues on that side of the ball it’s difficult to see the Tar Heels being a real factor in the Coastal, regardless of how good the offense is.