College football is all about the polls.
More than any other NCAA sport, it has become more about perception over reality, reputation over performance.
That’s why it’s such a big deal that even one writer put the Blue Devils in his AP Top 25 ballot after this week’s 42-17 win against Virginia.
John Silver was the only one of 60 voters to acknowledge Duke’s 5-1 start, ranking the team No. 23 between Boise State and Ohio. The assistant sports editor at the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., he primarily covers Connecticut but told The Chronicle Sunday he looks to select “up-and-coming teams” for the last few spots in his ballot and was swayed in large part by the Blue Devils’ 76 points in their two ACC matchups.
Meanwhile, the reaction within the Triangle was more subdued. Neither of the two local voters—Harold Gutmann of the Durham Herald-Sun and Joe Giglio of the Raleigh News & Observer—had Duke in their rankings.
Should Duke be ranked? Frankly, I’m not sure. The four teams it has beaten are a combined 10-18, and it doesn’t have a notable win like Iowa State’s over then-No. 15 TCU—but neither does new No. 23 Louisiana Tech, whose best win is a 44-38 shootout with…Virginia!
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, they don’t get any extra credit for playing with so few healthy defensive starters that they likely couldn’t have fielded a full team for the Blair Holliday 4-v-4 tournament last Friday. But that fact alone means Duke has done more than simply take care of business.
The Blue Devils were treated similarly across the rest of the polling landscape, receiving votes in the USA Today/Coaches’ Poll and a No. 25 vote in ESPN ACC blogger Heather Dinich’s weekly national power ranking.
So why is Duke getting so much national love but so little regionally? Gutmann, responding to a follower wondering what Duke needed to do to get his vote, wrote on Twitter “if they beat FSU and Clemson then maybe.” Meanwhile, Gutmann has Louisiana Tech (whose best win is still against Virginia) at No. 22.
I don’t mean to make this about finding inconsistencies in voters’ ballots. The criteria mandated to voters from the AP are vague enough that anyone would fiddle with their evaluative criteria over time. Nor am I trying to pick on Gutmann, whose decision to not include the Blue Devils—a team that has yet to beat a bowl-caliber squad—in his ballot is justifiable. I even picked Duke to finish the season 4-8 just two weeks ago, when they were already 3-1.
Reputation and history have long played a big role in polling, just ask Notre Dame. That doesn’t always lead to incorrect results—once again, the SEC appears to merit its lofty reputation—but it can unduly hold teams like Duke outside the rankings because of its past. But this time, it seems national voters are more willing to jump on the Duke bandwagon than their Triangle colleagues.
This year’s Blue Devils have had so many reasons to fail—the rash of injuries, an unfavorable ACC schedule and the shellacking at Stanford—that the local media (myself included) have felt like it’s just a matter of time before the inevitable collapse. And in fairness, that’s what has happened every year since 1995.
After the last few weeks, though, it sure doesn’t look like any of those factors are going to drag Duke down. Obviously the Blue Devils aren’t perfect—the Stanford game wasn’t that long ago, after all—but after last week, I know this: The Blue Devils have made the biggest leap forward of head coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure, even bigger than the 2008 squad that quadrupled its victory total compared to the previous two seasons combined.
Las Vegas certainly hasn’t realized that yet, as Duke opened as a 10-point underdog for Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech. The Hokies lasted just three weeks in the rankings, falling out after losing to unranked and then-winless Pittsburgh in a 35-17 blowout. Since then, Virginia Tech is 1-2 with its only win against a struggling Bowling Green.
Regardless of what happens Saturday or through the rest of the season, this 5-1 stretch has begun to give the Blue Devils their reputation back on the national level, one voter at a time.