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In September, late-season stakes for Duke and Virginia Tech

Duke’s Cutcliffe on the Blue Devils’ game against Virginia Tech

Duke coach David Cutcliffe calls Virginia Tech's upset loss an "outlier" that would only happen once in a thousand games between the two.
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Duke coach David Cutcliffe calls Virginia Tech's upset loss an "outlier" that would only happen once in a thousand games between the two.

David Cutcliffe doesn’t think it’s possible to play a season-defining game in September, not in an environment as competitive and unpredictable as the ACC’s Coastal Division. Oddly enough, the recent evidence in Cutcliffe’s tenure at Duke argues otherwise.

“It would depend on the year, the circumstance,” Cutcliffe said. “This one will not, for either team.”

There’s no arguing this: The stakes are as high as they get this early in the season when Duke hosts Virginia Tech on Saturday night, even with the Hokies’ unfathomable loss at Old Dominion last weekend. Duke lost its quarterback and best cornerback and still managed to go 4-0 in nonconference play, and may get Daniel Jones back this weekend – the kind of medical miracle with a broken collarbone that was once unimaginable but has become commonplace.

Virginia Tech’s toe-stubbing in Norfolk, followed by the very awkward dismissal of defensive end Trevon Hill, may have been embarrassing but it was, in the big picture, damaging only to the Hokies’ pride and reputation. Virginia Tech already has a win over Florida State in its pocket, which puts it one win ahead of Duke in the ACC.

The Coastal Division still runs through Virginia Tech, as it has almost every year since the Hokies joined the league, until proven otherwise.

“Everybody is aware that we are playing a team that is the benchmark in the Coastal Division, along, of course last year, with Miami,” Cutcliffe said. “But over my time in this league, they’re it. I think nothing has changed about that.”

The way things are shaking out, there isn’t a lot of competition. Miami has beat up on bad teams and struggled against the one good team it played, albeit before a quarterback switch; we’ll get a sense of just how good Virginia actually is on Saturday at N.C. State.

As for the rest of the Coastal? It’s a race to the bottom between North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh.

Duke still has to go to both Miami and Clemson, as tough as it gets in the ACC, so any hopes the Blue Devils have of winning the Coastal Division are on the line Saturday night. And if Virginia Tech is the contender the Hokies were expected to be and not the bunch that no-showed in Norfolk, there’s no better time to prove it.

It may be early, but this game under the lights has November-esque implications to it.

And not for the first time.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe explains Duke's approach to depth that has allowed the Blue Devils to start 3-0 despite injuries to seven starters.

Last season, 4-0 Duke – with wins over Baylor, Northwestern and North Carolina – hosted Miami on a Friday night at the end of September and got turnover-chained into oblivion. It took the Blue Devils weeks to recover from that, their early season optimism scattered to the winds, somehow managing to lose to Virginia and Pittsburgh and Army before rallying late to secure a holiday trip to Detroit.

Two years before that, a September win over Georgia Tech set up a run through the Coastal that included a win at Virginia Tech only to be interrupted by the officiating horror show against Miami. It took the Blue Devils three weeks to regroup from the blown calls and botched replay review on the chaotic game-deciding kickoff return, ending on a historic note with Duke’s first bowl win in decades.

Saturday’s game might even be bigger than either of those, in its own way, given the way the division is shaking out. It could, potentially, define this season for Duke. Even with more than half the season still to play. Even while it’s still September.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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