Duke football begins the 2013 season at a crossroads—perhaps the most important mark in the program’s recent history, or maybe ever.
Blue Devil fans may get to watch their team play in a bowl game for a second consecutive year—something this team has never accomplished.
Bowl games have become the premier barometer of success in college football. If your team doesn’t make it, and more than half of FBS teams receive a bowl bid, then you don’t matter much to the rest of the college football world.
Duke has been playing football since 1890. The first Rose Bowl was played in 1923 and has been held every year since. The nation’s oldest bowl game even came to Durham in 1942 at Duke’s invitation, since playing the game in California was deemed too risky with World War II tensions at their highest.
What’s more, the Blue Devils even played in the Rose Bowl—twice! The famed Iron Duke’s lost 7-3 to USC in 1939, and then fell to Oregon State 20-16 in the 1942 game. Three years later, the Blue Devils won their first bowl game in program history, knocking off Alabama 29-26 in the Sugar Bowl.
But Duke would not return to another bowl game until 1955. And the Blue Devils have never received more than two bowl bids within a span of four years.
To the newer generations of Duke football fans, though, postseason success is unheard of. For current students, the Blue Devils have only played in two bowl games during our lifetimes—the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl against Wisconsin and last year’s loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. Some freshmen may not have even been born for the 1995 bowl appearance.
Duke is normally watching from home come time for late-December and early-January’s postseason games, making the 2013 campaign a monumental moment for the Blue Devils.
Consecutive bowl bids don’t automatically transform a team into a perennial conference championship contender, but they do mean a great deal for a school like Duke that doesn’t get the coverage and publicity of other top ACC football squads. Even teams in the SEC or PAC-12 that reside mostly in their conferences’ respective cellars seem to garner more attention on a national level than the Blue Devils do, even when Duke wins games.
A bowl game means TV coverage, 15 extra postseason practices and a new way to court top recruits. It boosts team revenue, garners players more attention from NFL scouts and allows fans a coveted 13th game to cheer on their team.
Perhaps more important, though, is the new winning mentality that Blue Devil players and coaches have been touting since their post-season appearance. There is a new expectation throughout the program about what the result of this season should be. Duke has been to a bowl game, and now it expects to go back.
And as it so happens, fate saw it fit to grant the Blue Devils with a schedule that most mildly-optimistic observers believe holds at least six wins, the magic number that makes a team eligible for post-season play and almost guarantees a bowl bid.
Unlike last year, the Blue Devils don’t have to play Stanford, Florida State or Clemson. Instead they face opponents like Pittsburgh, N.C. State and Navy—teams that don’t look like automatic losses on the schedule. Besides the Midshipmen, the Blue Devils face weak non-conference opponents in N.C. Central, Memphis and Troy. Duke will also play Miami and Georgia Tech at home, after last year’s games against the Hurricanes and Yellow Jackets resulted in disappointing losses.
An easier schedule than last season and a new winning mentality after postseason experience, not to mention a talented recruiting class that coaches have been raving about this offseason, all have the Blue Devils poised to make program history.
The importance of a second consecutive bowl game cannot be understated.
For head coach David Cutcliffe, the recruiting advantages provided by a bowl appearance are unparalleled. For current players, the taste of winning and playing in the post-season provides an unequaled mental edge. For a program trying to push its way onto the national stage, the 2013 campaign is a turning point—Duke can either make program history or fall back to the bottom of the pile in the ACC and remain for now as a ‘basketball-first school’ that also plays football.