DURHAM, N.C. — Duke’s celebration after becoming bowl eligible with a last-minute victory over hated rival North Carolina on Saturday night was one rarely, if ever, seen at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Jubilation hasn’t visited this old house very often over the last half-century, so the Blue Devils and their fans were excused for pouring onto the field and prolonging their joy. It was emotional, as it should have been.
Duke will play in a bowl game for first time in 18 years and just the third time since 1961. It’s a goal the program has set each season since David Cutcliffe took over the program nearly five years ago, but only now has it become a reality. But once the euphoria died down another reality hit the Duke players: They still have plenty to play for.
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“It’s a huge burden off our shoulders,” said junior cornerback Ross Cockrell. “Every year we talk about going to a bowl game and every year we didn’t reach that goal. This year, we have met that goal and we still have four or five games left to play. I think the sky’s the limit for this team. We have a lot of talent, a lot of athletic ability so we’re going to go after it.”
At 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the ACC, Duke sits atop the Coastal Division. Miami is a half-game behind at 3-2 in the league and Virginia Tech, which is 4-4 overall and in serious danger of seeing its nation-best streak of eight straight seasons with at least 10 victories snapped, is 2-2 with UNC.
The scenarios that could lead the Blue Devils to Charlotte to play in the ACC championship game aren’t that far-fetched. Certainly not any more than driving 87 yards in the final minutes to beat a UNC team that had won 21 of the previous 22 meetings and had just scored three touchdowns in a 10-minute span.
And really, no more implausible than the program qualifying for a bowl game. But it has, and in the often-bizarre world of ACC football, just about anything is possible, especially when a club is well coached, like Duke is, and believes deeply in itself, like Duke does.
“We’re going to enjoy this one right now and then start preparing for a big one next week,” senior safety Walt Canty said after Saturday’s game. “That’s a big game because of who we’re playing and where we’re playing them.”
There was a time not long ago when Duke wouldn’t have looked forward to playing Florida State in Tallahassee. It would have been a rather unappealing assignment.
But this is a different group of Devils. These Devils are confident and resilient, yet based in the reality of their past Duke experiences. They aren’t taking success for granted by any stretch, yet it almost seems expected.
Sunday’s short practice gave Cutcliffe another indication of his program’s growth.
“I like the way our team responded,” he said. “You could tell they were locked in to what they were doing. I like the fact that they looked and appeared ready to go.”
Regardless of what happens at No. 12 FSU (7-1, 4-1 ACC), Duke can still win the Coastal Division. After traveling to FSU, the Devils host No. 18 Clemson before visiting up-and-down Georgia Tech and closing with Miami at home.
Georgia Tech has three ACC losses, so it’s likely out of the race. The Miami game could decide the division winner, and if it doesn’t, Virginia Tech owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. But the Hokies still must visit Miami and host FSU, so they may never factor into the equation. Thus, beating the Yellow Jackets and Hurricanes may be enough.
And, if Duke falls short of that mark, it can become just the third Duke team to win more than seven games in a season since 1962. The Blue Devils won eight games in 1989 and 1994, the former coach by Steve Spurrier and tying for the ACC championship.
Duke’s last nine-win season was in 1941, when it hosted the Rose Bowl after large crowds were banned on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor a month earlier. It remains the only time the Rose Bowl has been played outside of Pasadena, Calif.
Duke can’t play in the Rose Bowl, but the Orange Bowl is a possibility. For now, however, the Devils are viewing the remainder of the season just like they’ve looked at the first eight games, and that’s without looking too far ahead. But that doesn’t change the team’s goals
“We still have things we can accomplish,” senior quarterback Sean Renfree said. “I don’t think anyone of us see this as the ultimate accomplishment.”