Luke DeCock

Duke’s approach to playing Alabama a measuring stick for football program’s progress

The last time Duke played Alabama, almost a decade ago, coach David Cutcliffe will admit now that there was really only one goal to Duke’s game-planning.


“I mean, honestly,” Cutcliffe said. “Survival.”

That 2010 game in Durham went about how everyone expected, with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson running over the Blue Devils in a 62-13 win.

That was Year 3, the bowl drought still very much alive, Cutcliffe’s tenure at Duke still very much a work in progress. Duke survived, but that’s about it.

This is Year 12, with Duke having posted winning records in five of the past six seasons. The Blue Devils play Alabama in Atlanta on Saturday to open the season, and the approach is different.

“You’ve gone from survival to real preparation, real planning,” Cutcliffe said.

Whether that gives Duke a chance or not — the Blue Devils are a 32 1/2-point underdog — is almost beside the point, which is that enough has changed in nine years that Duke is preparing for Alabama the way it prepares for anyone else. There’s equal footing there, to at least some degree.

“Yes, if you don’t play well, things can get bad in a hurry,” Cutcliffe said. “Ask anybody that plays them on a regular basis. But I know what we’re capable of.”

Alabama will always have a special place in Cutcliffe’s heart, where he spent his college years with Bear Bryant, but it also happens to be a useful barometer of his progress at Duke. The Blue Devils will get a real sense on Saturday of just how far they have come since 2010, because Alabama certainly hasn’t slipped in the interim.

That game, with the temporary bleachers set up to handle the hordes of visiting Alabama fans whose RVs filled abandoned auto lots in Durham, also served as the impetus for the renovations that have remade Wallace Wade Stadium. The stadium’s inability to handle that crowd of 39,042, the largest at Duke in 20 years, was a wake-up call for boosters and administrators alike that Duke had outgrown it — and given the state of Wallace Wade at the time, that didn’t take much.

With the track gone and the field raised and the medical offices/press box replaced by a state-of-the-art tower full of luxury suites and other bells and whistles, Wallace Wade long ago caught up to where the football program is now, which unlike in 2010 is consistently competitive in the ACC and competes regularly in the postseason, with one appearance in the conference title game.

Duke has been built into something in Cutcliffe’s 12 years at the school, but even on that long path of change, it helps to mark a milestone or two. Taking another hack at Alabama covers that ground.

“There’s no question this was earned over 12 years here — people, players, all the players,” Cutcliffe said. “The trajectory of change here probably exceeds anybody out there. Maybe them, in the 12 years. Fittingly, it’s a challenge we need to face.”

Playing Alabama to open the season is one way to find out, win or lose, just how far Duke has come. It’s the deep end of the pool. In 2010, the Blue Devils had no chance. In 2019, they believe they do.

“People may criticize us and say, ‘Why?’ ” Cutcliffe said. “I say, why not? This is where you’re supposed to live in college football.”

Duke vs. Alabama

When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Watch: ABC

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.