It has been a long time since Duke was playing catch-up this early in its schedule. Getting Duke out of that position on an annual basis is perhaps David Cutcliffe’s greatest accomplishment there. It has been so long, in fact, that only Cutcliffe really remembers what that was like.
None of his players do. They’re used to bowl games and competing for Coastal Division titles and getting off to good starts. They have known nothing else. But after mistakes doomed Duke to defeat in early losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern, with a difficult trip to Notre Dame looming Saturday, the Blue Devils find themselves in what was once a familiar position that has become a most unfamiliar position.
“Our program had to fight through a lot of things,” Cutcliffe said. “These young men haven’t had the same battles. We’ve pointed out the history. We’ve pointed out the commitment that it took. We’re going to be mentally tough. Is that just done because you snap your fingers and say so? No. That may be as important as anything we face right now. That may be the biggest item that we’re faced with.”
That makes this season a major test of Duke’s program both in the short and long term. The Blue Devils need to show they can bounce back this season and keep the four-season bowl streak alive – a 20-point underdog to the Fighting Irish, Duke still has to take the long and difficult road through Louisville, Pittsburgh and Miami – as well as ensure this season is a blip on what has been a slow, steady, inexorable procession forward for Duke football under Cutclifffe and not a turning point.
Our program had to fight through a lot of things. These young men haven’t had the same battles.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe
As far as the former goes, the Blue Devils can take solace in their overall performance so far, sabotaged too often by critical errors on every side of the ball in the losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern. That may not help Duke too much against Notre Dame, which is 1-2 after losses to Texas and Michigan State – the deep end of the pool – and a win over Nevada, an opponent and environment that presents the kind of singular challenge that could see the Blue Devils play extremely well and still lose.
“Stuff happens,” Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “It’s college football. Stuff happens. … I know they’re 1-2. They need to win, just like we do.”
As for the latter, that gets a little trickier. Bowl berths have become a given for Duke at this point, but the Blue Devils profited from an era when annual crossover opponent Wake Forest was down (Duke had won four straight against the Deacons), when North Carolina struggled through its NCAA issues, when Miami and Virginia Tech weren’t up to traditional standards.
Just as Wake Forest won the ACC title in 2006 with Florida State historically bad and went to bowl games the next two seasons before making just one bowl in the next seven years, there’s a chance Duke’s success can be attributed to temporary external factors as much as diligently established internal standards, although there’s no doubting the results of Duke’s hard work in that department. Next season may have more to say about that balance than this season does, but this season certainly looks like it may pose a question that can’t be answered immediately.
In a more competitive Coastal Division, long-term success may be determined by scheduling vagaries and rotating Atlantic crossover opponents as much as anything else – just look at Wake Forest, which now has a realistic shot at going 8-4 (or better) this season.
This is an unfamiliar position for Duke, which hadn’t been below .500 for even a single week since 2011. That’s quite an accomplishment for a program that couldn’t break .500 for a season for 17 years. The Blue Devils have some bouncing back to do, whether that’s this Saturday, next Saturday or next season.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Duke at Notre Dame
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Ind.