In pointing out the accomplishments of his senior class, Duke coach David Cutcliffe noted that they don’t know anything but bowls.
Four years. Four bowls. A first in Duke history.
That’s been the ascendency of Duke football under Cutcliffe. Records fall. Trends end. History is made. History is dismissed.
There’s still something missing. Going to bowls is one thing. Winning them is another, and Duke has somehow lost all three in the final moments.
But winning Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl against Indiana isn’t just about ending a streak that dates back to 1961, like so many Duke football streaks have ended in recent years. To continue this upward trajectory, the Blue Devils need to start clearing a higher bar. And that means winning bowl games, not just playing in them, something the players, seniors and underclassmen alike, openly acknowledge.
“Any good program you see around the country, they all have postseason wins,” senior center Matt Skura said. “That success really carries on to the next season, gives a team momentum. ... It’s a huge step, and it’s going to be something we need to do in order for Duke to take itself to the next level.”
It isn’t just about what happens in Yankee Stadium. The same logic extends to other areas of the program. Barring a bowl win, this season was really one of stagnation for Duke, continuing the forward momentum that had been established but not really adding much to it. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with going 7-5 and playing in a bowl game – there isn’t – just that for the second year in a row Duke maintained its position instead of improving it.
It isn’t fair to expect Duke to win the Coastal Division every year, but it is fair to expect Duke to be more of a contender than the Blue Devils were down the stretch this season, when Duke withered in the aftermath of the Miami debacle and turned one loss into two and then three and then four.
Under Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils have excelled at winning the winnable games, but they too rarely have overachieved against demonstrably better opponents. Winning more of those games, like winning a bowl game, is part of taking the next step. (At 6-6, Indiana appears to be more the former type of team than the latter, although Duke is a slight Las Vegas underdog.)
In other words, Duke has achieved enough football success that it’s time to expect more. It’s time to stop patting the Blue Devils on the head for making bowl games and start holding them to the same standard as North Carolina or N.C. State, where that’s the minimum level of success expected on an annual basis.
It is still a little jarring, given Duke’s longstanding lack of success on the football field, to look at the Blue Devils in that same light. But they have earned it over the past four seasons.
So it’s time for Duke football to up the ante. Not just next season, but to end this one.
“We’re trying to change the culture here at Duke,” sophomore linebacker Zavier Carmichael said. “To make us a more prominent program, we need to get a bowl win beneath our belt. All these achievements the senior class has had through these last few years, they’ve all been great, but winning a bowl game is the next step we need to take to move our program in the right direction.”
Qualifying for bowls is good. Winning bowls is better. Expecting more is next for Duke, not just Saturday but next season and beyond.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock