We have heard all the noise by now.
Duke was college football’s Cinderella in 2013—a team that less than a decade ago suffered two winless seasons in three years won 10 games, which was more than powerhouse programs like Michigan, Notre Dame and Texas. On that magical ride, the Blue Devils even put an initial shock into Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the ACC championship game and were minutes away from toppling Johnny Football himself on primetime on New Year's Eve.
But this is a new season.
It’s time to turn the calendar and fire up the grill—football is back, and for the first time since many Duke students were born, the Blue Devils have some expectations to live up to.
If there’s one thing the 2013 season should have taught you, it’s that preseason expectations mean about as much as the optional readings your professor insists on including in your class syllabus. Duke was picked to finish dead last in the ACC Coastal Division a year ago and finished first. Florida was a top-10 team heading into the season and finished 4-8.
Welcome to college football, a sport that is every bit as volatile as it is unforgiving. A team that finishes 3-9 can go 10-4 two years later, and the same can happen in reverse. That’s why we watch this beautifully sadistic sport—to see how it all unfolds.
The 2013 Blue Devils were a good football team. Anyone who writes the season off as a fluke wasn’t really watching. That being said, just about everything that could have gone right for Duke could have a year ago. The Blue Devils had a favorable schedule, won ugly games, went undefeated on the road and missed very few starters due to injury, although quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette both missed games due to injury during the year.
Most of those things are a credit to Duke and not to chance, but for every single one of those things to go right in a football season is rare. Teams make mistakes and drop games they shouldn’t (some Coastal foes may argue that game was against the Blue Devils last year). Freak injuries occur. That is football, and it is a part of football Duke did not experience in last year’s historic season.
Heading into 2014, the Blue Devils already have to deal with some of that adversity. Their schedule is still favorable for another winning season and a potential repeat at 10 games, but despite losing very few seniors Duke will kick off this season without its goal-line bulldozer, its leading rusher, best defensive player and second-leading receiver due to transfer, suspension and injuries.
These are the challenges that teams around the country deal with every year. The good ones push forward, and the average ones fold under the pressure. Duke’s biggest challenge last year was an off-field one—establishing a football culture and proving the skeptics wrong. Now the Blue Devils have to make up for significant losses on the gridiron, but for the first time since I have been watching them, they may be talented enough to overcome those setbacks.
If there’s one thing you should know about this year’s Duke team, it is that they are just as hungry—if not hungrier—than last year. Winning is contagious, and the Blue Devils have tasted it. They understand the importance of this season in establishing that last season’s success was not a blip on the radar.
But most importantly, they still act like there’s a chip on their shoulder. Even as college football pundits discuss the Blue Devils’ chances to repeat in 2014, they can’t say the words “Duke football” without being slightly patronizing. This team’s goal is to make people stop acting surprised.
Would you be disappointed if Duke only won seven games this year? Most would probably answer yes. That speaks as a testament to the University’s budding football culture, which head coach David Cutcliffe has worked tirelessly to foster since his first season in 2008.
That is the mindset at major programs around the country—bowl games aren’t goals, they are annual vacations at the end of the season. Big-time college football is all about winning championships, and the difference between an eight-win team and a 10-win team is not a big one.
If the bar is set high, that leaves significant room for disappointment. This year is just as likely to hold that disappointment as it is last year’s euphoria.
But that disappointment is also what makes college football so addicting. It’s what keeps people clamoring about next year all spring and summer until we find ourselves at the dawn of a new season. Because three wins or seven wins or 10 wins, there is always next year.
For the Blue Devils, the fact that you care about next year means they are accomplishing their ultimate goal. Now Duke has 12 Saturdays to write the rest of the story.