People would ask.
Jamison Crowder, the best player on the best team in the ACC’s Coastal Division last season, couldn’t help it if people noticed his big new piece of jewelry.
So they would ask.
And Crowder, the record-setting Duke wide receiver, was happy to answer.
“Back in Charlotte, I may run into somebody, I may have my ring on, and they may ask, ‘Where’d you get that ring?’ ” Crowder said Monday. “ ‘Oh, I play football at Duke.’ You can definitely tell a different tone now. A lot of times they refer back to that Texas A&M game: ‘Y’all had a good season last year. I thought you were going to beat Manziel.’ ”
Being on top was a little bit of an adjustment – a pleasant one – for Duke football, a long-downtrodden program that broke through with a bowl appearance in 2012 and an ACC division championship in 2013. The moment has passed. Last year officially is last year.
“It kind of hit me. I went home last night and thought, ‘We really are zero and zero,’ ” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We were kind of 10-4 up until we reported. Not anymore.”
The beginning of practice might mark that moment on the calendar, but this summer, if the returning Blue Devils needed a reminder that last season is over, that they’re back where they started, they got plenty.
Despite returning 15 starters – including All-ACC picks Crowder, linebacker Kelby Brown and safety Jeremy Cash as well as quarterback Anthony Boone – from a 10-4 team that lost its final two games to eventual national champion Florida State and Johnny Manziel, and despite an conference schedule as favorable as any in the ACC, the preseason prognosticators have been falling over themselves finding reasons to pick Miami or Virginia or anyone but Duke to win the Coastal.
One team from the Triangle cracked The Associated Press preseason Top 25. It wasn’t Duke. It was North Carolina, which hasn’t beaten the Blue Devils since 2011.
The Tar Heels certainly are worthy of inclusion in the Top 25, and might indeed pose the most significant threat to Duke’s division-title defense, but there’s also no question the Blue Devils aren’t getting the kind of credit they thought they might have earned over the past two seasons. It’s easy to figure out why: In the world of college football, Duke meant something else for a very long time.
“We all saw Duke,” sophomore safety DeVon Edwards said. “Duke wasn’t a secret.”
In that respect, the rest of the football world hasn’t quite caught up. There was a lot of ground to make up. There still is. The improvement under Cutcliffe has been stunning, but it’s still only a two-season bowl streak.
All of this is fine with Duke, which has derived no end of motivation from snubs both real and perceived during Cutcliffe’s tenure.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Boone said. “At the end of the day, we’re still Duke football. People don’t think of us as a football school. They think we’re a basketball school. It’s also the reason why I came here, to change that culture.”
It’s changing. Whatever plaudits the Blue Devils might not be receiving before this season clearly are outweighed by the respect Duke has nevertheless earned – whether it’s on the recruiting trail, from the ESPN executives who picked Duke-North Carolina for a Thursday night national TV slot, or from people asking Crowder where he got that ring.