Duke sent an email to its alumni association this week with a plea to buy football tickets for its remaining three home games, “to show the country that Duke does play football.”
This is the kind of thing that starts happening when you could win out, go 12-1, beat Florida State to claim the ACC title – however unlikely that is – and still not get a sniff at the four-team national-title playoff. Maybe a few more fans would catch the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee. Just in case.
Funny thing is, there’s not much more Duke could have done to make its case as a one-loss team. The CFP committee has put a heavy emphasis on strength of schedule, and Duke’s is undeniably weak, with nonconference games against 3-6 Kansas, 2-8 Troy, 3-6 Tulane and FCS school Elon.
“You don’t know how good they’re going to be when you schedule them,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “These days you’re six years out. You better win. And if you do it in one of these big-five leagues, you’re going to be just fine.”
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The Blue Devils scheduled a power-conference opponent from the Big 12 that was ranked 22nd when the first half of the series was played in 2009. It just so happened that by the time of the return game in Durham, Charlie Weis had turned Kansas into an unrecognizable wreck.
At one point not too long ago, Troy went to five bowl games in seven years (and was bowl eligible in a sixth but went unselected), which made the Trojans look like a solid opponent from a minor conference back when the game was scheduled.
Tulane is the kind of academic-minded peer Duke likes to schedule and Elon is a rather standard in-state FCS game. That’s about as well as Duke is going to do on a limited scheduling budget. If Kansas and Troy weren’t historically bad, it might have looked just fine to the committee.
Then in ACC play, the Blue Devils dodged Florida State, Clemson and Louisville from the Atlantic Division, drawing weaklings Wake Forest and Syracuse instead. That left Duke in control of the Coastal Division heading into these final three games, but it deprived the Blue Devils of the opportunity for a big ACC win once they lost at Miami.
So in this week’s rankings, Duke was 21st, lowest of any one-loss team from the power conferences, only one spot ahead of 8-2 Georgia Tech, a team Duke beat on the road.
That leaves a massive what-if should the Blue Devils face undefeated Florida State for the second straight season. Pulling the upset in Charlotte – and the Seminoles have certainly looked beatable at times – would leave Duke at 12-1 and champions of a power conference with wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech and a single road loss to a quality opponent.
Would that be enough to jump 18 teams, from where the Blue Devils stand today, and get into the top four? No one has any idea how the committee will weigh conference titles, but even if only one SEC team makes the cut, there are three Pac-12, three Big Ten and three Big 12 teams ahead of Duke right now.
But Duke does control its destiny in the stands, hence the email and the giant “Hell yes it’s Duke football!” ad in the News & Observer. Would a sold-out Wallace Wade on ESPN on a Thursday night against the Tar Heels boost Duke’s profile in the eyes of the committee should the Blue Devils win out? It can’t hurt.