Duke-North Carolina Preview
(AP) - Duke has good reason to move past the Miami Miracle - or, as it's referred to locally, the Debacle in Durham.
That game-ending play could wind up being completely meaningless in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
For the Blue Devils (6-2, 3-1), the path to first place in the Coastal Division is exactly the same as it was a week ago. To get there, they must win their next two games, starting Saturday against their top rival - No. 21 North Carolina (7-1, 4-0).
"Even if we (had beaten Miami), we would still need to beat UNC to make it to (first place in) the Coastal," defensive lineman A.J. Wolf said Tuesday. "That helps us refocus up and say, `Guys, this game's huge.' We still need to beat them to make it there. We're still in the driver's seat."
With a win, North Carolina will have the inside track to a spot in the ACC title game. A Duke victory creates a three-way tie for first with the Tar Heels and Pittsburgh - and the Blue Devils face the Panthers next week.
Coach David Cutcliffe says he's "not even going there yet" with regard to those Coastal scenarios.
"We've got November left to play," he said. "What our goal is, is to play November the best we've played any month this year. ... You start trying to pile more on a group of athletes than that, you start running into restricting people. It's fun to be a part of any competitive opportunity for winning championships in November."
A lot of the college football talk the past few days has been about the wacky finish to the Miami-Duke game, which ended when Hurricanes cornerback Corn Elder returned the last in a series of eight laterals after a kickoff for a winning touchdown that the ACC later said shouldn't have counted.
But the final score - Miami 30, Duke 27 - stands, and there's nothing the Blue Devils can do about that now except keep that one loss from becoming two.
They insist focus won't be a problem this week because they've been a bit miffed at the Tar Heels for the past year.
North Carolina kept Duke from a second straight ACC championship game with a 45-20 victory last November. It's customary for the winning team in the rivalry to spray-paint the Victory Bell in its specific shade of blue when the traveling trophy changes hands, but the celebration irked the Blue Devils because the carpet and inside and outside walls of the visitors' locker room at Wallace Wade Stadium were damaged by paint.
"I think we're over (the Miami game), and hopefully it will fuel us for this North Carolina game because we're going to need it," center Matt Skura said. "The rivalry in itself fuels us already, and we have a lot of energy going forward."
This is the latest North Carolina has been ranked in the Top 25 since 2009, a fact that was hard to envision when the Tar Heels lost their opener to South Carolina 17-13, committing a series of mistakes that doomed them in a winnable game.
Most notably, Marquise Williams threw three interceptions - two in the end zone - and top tailback Elijah Hood had a curiously low workload despite tearing through the Gamecocks' defense all night.
UNC hasn't lost since.
The biggest improvement has come on defense, where former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has turned around a unit that gave up program records of 6,472 yards (497.8 per game) and 507 points (39 per game) a year ago. UNC ranks 16th nationally in scoring defense and third in passing defense.
That unit took a hit in the last week when Fedora said defensive back Brian Walker, who had started 18 games in his career, has decided to leave the program. Walker didn't travel with the team to Pitt due to what the team called personal reasons.
The Tar Heels won't have an easy final month. After playing Duke, they host Miami, then close on the road at Virginia Tech and rival North Carolina State.
"Every game does get bigger and bigger," Hood said. "You're on a seven-game run and you just want to keep it going."