David vs. Goliath
Months after being picked to finish dead last in the ACC's Coastal Division, No. 20 Duke will ride an eight-game winning streak into the conference title game where it will meet undefeated No. 1 Florida State, a juggernaut on both sides of the ball. The Blue Devils and Seminoles will square off at 8 p.m. Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte with the ACC championship and an Orange Bowl berth on the line.
College football pundits across the country aren't giving Duke much of a chance. The game opened with Florida State as a 27.5-point favorite, with the line shifting to 29 points soon after. Although the Blue Devils are playing this game in their home state and are in the midst of a historic season, they will enter Saturday's matchup in an all-too-familiar position.
"Nobody has given us a chance all year long," redshirt senior offensive guard Dave Harding said. "It's business as usual for Duke football. We are going to come ready to play, and as underdogs that's a role we embrace."
With a matchup against the Seminoles (12-0, 8-0 in the ACC) looming, Duke (10-2, 6-2) will face the same outside skepticism it has all season. For instance, the Blue Devils went on the road last week as the 24th-ranked team in the nation to take on an unranked North Carolina team and came into the game as four-point underdogs.
When the Blue Devils and Florida State squared off last season in Tallahassee, Fla., the Seminoles ran Duke off the field in a 48-7 drubbing. But Florida State lost five players in the first two rounds of the 2013 NFL draft and has replaced those players with a new crop of talent, including Heisman hopeful Jameis Winston, who swept the ACC's individual awards among offensive players.
Although the Seminoles have replenished their core, the Blue Devils believe they have grown enough in the past season to compete with the No. 1 team in the nation.
"I think that as far as they go, they're still very talented, very physical and great football players," Harding said. "I think the differences really lie on our side of the ball, where we've become more talented. We've been able to close the gap from a speed perspective."
Winston's offensive arsenal is fully stocked with weapons like wide receivers Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Nick O'Leary. The Florida State offensive line has three first-team All-ACC selections in tackle Cameron Erving, guard Tre' Jackson and center Bryan Stork, who pave the way for the team's three-headed rushing attack of Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder, Jr. Six of the conference's 12 first-team All-ACC players on offense are Seminoles.
Despite only having one first-team All-ACC selection on the defensive side of the football, Florida State boasts one of the top defenses in the nation. The Seminoles rank first in the nation by allowing a paltry 11.0 points per game.
Florida State ranks first in the conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Seminoles are tops in the conference in a slew of offensive and defensive categories—the Blue Devils do not rank second in any of those statistics.
But Duke has done something Florida State has not this season. In the Blue Devils' eight-game winning streak, they have come back from second-half deficits to win the game four times. The mantra of this year's team has been to finish, and Duke has done that, allowing just 3.08 points per game in the fourth quarter.
The Seminole starters, meanwhile, are not even used to being on the field in the fourth quarter of games. Florida State's starters have played just one full game this season—a 48-34 victory against Boston College Sept. 28. The Seminoles' narrow 14-point victory against the Eagles was the only game Florida State has won by fewer than 27 points.
"We're going to be able to battle for three-and-a-half hours and get ready to give them our best shot," redshirt senior defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. "There's a reason why they're number one in the nation. It's going to be tough."
The Blue Devils' success this season has garnered the program more attention from national media than at any other time in the program's recent history. It has also caught the eye of a man who knows a thing or two about winning ACC championships. Duke head men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who brought the Blue Devils to national prominence in the early 1980s, understands the difficulties of playing the role of underdog.
"When it's magical, sometimes you hear that its lucky. It’s not lucky. It’s magical what Cutcliffe and his staff, all these guys, how they’ve all worked together to provide an environment where magic can happen," Krzyzewski said. "They have a chance. They are winners. They were a program that wanted to win going into the season, and now they are a program of winners. They’ve proven that they can win, and when you cross that bridge a lot of neat things can happen."