Duke beating FSU could be better for ACC long-term
Posted December 6, 2013
It’s hard to blame casual football fans and national pundits for having a bit of fun with Duke’s football season. There are plenty of jokes to go around, and the snarky tweets have no doubt flowed on Twitter timelines from coast to coast. Historically, this makes sense. After all, 10 wins or not, it is Duke — or as it’s often pronounced with a smirk, it is just Duke.
Of course, those well-versed in college football understand the enormity of what David Cutcliffe has accomplished in just a few short seasons in Durham, taking a perennial laughingstock of a program and winning more games in 2013 than nine other Blue Devil coaches ever won at Duke in their entire careers.
Sportswriters (good ones, anyway) know that no major conference team walks into double-digit wins, no matter how easy a schedule might seem, and that no program just falls into a conference championship game, no matter how weak a conference might be perceived.
But perceptions matter. And this presents quite the problem for the ACC and its fans as the league’s Saturday championship game (8 p.m., ABC, 620 AM The Buzz) between the Blue Devils and Seminoles approaches.
On the surface, it seems like Duke is nothing more than the sacrificial lamb to be feasted on at the table of Jimbo Fisher and top-ranked Florida State. Just look that the Las Vegas odds, where most casinos have the ‘Noles favored by — what seems like a typo — around 29 points. Or just look at the ESPN promos running for the game, where Duke essentially gets the treatment of the nameless opposing team in a sports movie.
The storyline is clear: Florida State is back.
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. Sports feed off narratives. It’s great for fans. It creates excitement. It sells tickets. The conventional wisdom is that it’s good for football for traditional powerhouses like FSU to be “back.” It makes us feel that everything is right in the world of sports; that things make sense again.
For FSU to win the ACC Championship Game and head to the BCS National Championship Game seems good for college football in general. And to raise the stakes, Jameis Winston and Jimbo Fisher aren’t just seen as saviors of this particular blue-blood program, but of the entire Atlantic Coast Conference — whose existence seemed in doubt just a couple years ago.
In that regard it doesn’t just feel like the ACC wants this, but needs this. And the end-game for Duke is quite obvious: don’t blow it.
Translation: don’t win. Sure, don’t forfeit or roll over. But certainly don’t ruin this for your conference.
What complicates things is that Florida State’s opponent isn’t a traditionally decent team. For fans and pundits, it isn’t just that an FSU loss would crush the ACC’s title hopes, but that a loss to Duke (or remember, Duke) would be an outright embarrassment for the league — proving that if the league's most dominant team in 15 years could lose to Duke, then the ACC really is just a laughingstock after all.
Yes, in the sensible world of sports, an FSU loss to an 8-4 Virginia Tech or 9-3 Miami team would make more sense and cause less ridicule than losing to a 10-2 Duke team who beat both of those aforementioned squads. Reminder: Duke hasn’t lost since it was summertime on the calendar, a time when the starting QB was injured, no less (Cue the Ryan Kelly-like “Duke hasn’t loss with Anthony Boone in the lineup” info graphics).
If it sounds a bit ridiculous that a 10-2 BCS school winning a conference title game could cause these PR problems, it’s because it is. No other conference would operate this way. It’s simply hard to wipe away decades of Duke history and “basketball school” jokes.
But it’s time for David Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils to do away with this. If national pundits and fans don’t want to believe: too bad, force them. Odds are they’ll get crushed on Saturday. But if they don’t, it will be great for the league. It will prove that any coach can come to this conference and win and beat one of the more dominant college football teams in a decade. It will show that any ACC school can make a few smart coaching decisions, win a few recruiting victories and be in contention.
This would represent a total paradigm shift in college football — a sport controlled by old school traditions, where 6-6 teams from the SEC are regarded as top 25-esque simple because of the name on their jerseys, and where sportswriters with poll votes stick to their guns no matter how bad their early seasons predictions are by year’s end.
This is a sport where a winless team beating the best team in the conference is seen as a good thing — only if it’s from the right conference. In the traditionally dominant conferences, this shows depth, it shows strength. But for the little ACC, it has always shown weakness.
Duke can change all of that on Saturday, and then change it all again in the BCS. Sure, the Blue Devils probably don’t have a chance, but then again no one thought they had a chance to make it this far either.
The times, they are a changin’.