Not many people expect Duke to win.
After all, Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country. They boast a Heisman-winning running back and a backup running back very nearly as good. They possess some of the best athletes in the nation who are coached by one of the best coaches in the nation, Nick Saban. They have bragging rights to thirteen national championship trophies.
Duke, on the other hand, has a different story. The Blue Devils cannot brag about any national championships in football. And throughout its entire history, the Duke football program merely has three bowl victories compared to Alabama’s 32. Duke saw three winless seasons in the past decade, a statistic that most Crimson Tide fans will never expect themselves, nor their children, nor their grandchildren, to ever see from their beloved team.
Needless to say, most people consider the Blue Devils as the underdogs against the Crimson Tide. Online betting services predict Alabama will beat Duke by 24 points. Online opinion pieces and predictions range from “Duke also scored 48, but that won’t happen against ’Bama.” to “’Bama will surely dominate the Blue Devils. Durham becomes sweet home Alabama.”
And while on paper, this game might seem over before it ever began, it would be smart to take a moment of reflection before counting Duke out of the contest. Duke may not have the national attention-grabbing future NFL players that Alabama does, but its players Tuesday repeatedly said they are determined to take their team to the next level. They added that they relish the chance to test themselves and their improvement against some of the nation’s finest.
“Everybody wants a chance to play the best team in the nation, or the Heisman trophy winner,” junior safety Matt Daniels said. “It’s a great opportunity for our team to understand where we’re at physically, emotionally and mentally.”
Daniels’s sentiment reflects the overall attitude surrounding the team that Duke has the potential to be great. Over the past two weekends, the Blue Devils showed signs of excellence, albeit not consistently. Quarterback Sean Renfree continues to prove himself as one of the ACC’s top up-and-comers, throwing for 350 and 358 yards, respectively, in Duke’s first two contests this season. Sophomore wide receiver Conner Vernon has sparked the offense by racking up 18 receptions for 310 yards.
But at the same time, the Blue Devils have balanced out their solid performance with late-game problems. Against Elon, their defense stalled in the third quarter, allowing the Phoenix to attempt a late-game comeback. Against Wake Forest, Duke seemed unable to match its 35-point first-half performance in the third and fourth quarters. In both games, the Blue Devil defense allowed more yards than defensive coordinator Marion Hobby would like.
To beat Alabama, Duke simply cannot afford to make the mistakes it has made over the past two games. An Alabama offense will not forgive turnovers. But if the Blue Devils consistently play with the skill and high level of performance that they have shown at times, then maybe they can come out on top. It happened to James Madison University against Virginia Tech, and it just may happen again this weekend in Durham. Head coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday that he feels Duke can beat Alabama.
“I believe that with all my heart,” Cutcliffe said. “This year’s team, more than the last two, is capable of playing great, and at times we have. [But], it’ll take four quarters of that type of football to beat Alabama.”