This wasn’t the year Duke fans expected.
Kyrie Irving wasn’t supposed to miss the entire ACC season. Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler weren’t supposed to end their illustrious careers in the Sweet 16. Sean Renfree wasn’t supposed to play like a sophomore quarterback, and his teammates weren’t supposed to take the program’s first step backwards under David Cutcliffe.
But it was a great one, nonetheless.
Let me be clear, though—fans have every reason to be disappointed that Coach K didn’t capture his fifth national title and Cutcliffe didn’t lead Duke back to bowl eligibility. Lofty expectations have become as synonymous with Blue Devil sports as caffeine-induced late nights are with engineers, and despite the protests of some, neither one should elicit shame.
But on the court and the gridiron this year, Duke achieved a different kind of greatness. The Blue Devils showed a resilience that was engaging, independent of the results in the win column. It was a quality that fans don’t often get to see, yet rarely appreciate when they do. It may not have been beautiful at the time, but in hindsight it truly was.
When Irving went down against Butler, fans and media were justifiably aghast, myself included—given Irving’s transcendent performance in the CBE Classic, I thought Duke’s season was done without him. The ESPN spin cycle reflected fans’ reactions, almost immediately dismissing the Blue Devils from the national championship picture.
Make no mistake—Duke was still a fantastic team. But it seemed the only group that still believed they could be the best was the Blue Devils themselves.
Smith certainly thought so—and the circumstances that fans initially labelled apocalyptic allowed him to ascend to the pantheon of Duke legends. Make no mistake about it—Smith put the Blue Devils on his back.
Duke might have won a national championship had Irving’s toe not been the modern day equivalent to Achilles’ Heel and the team’s chemistry not been disrupted when he eventually returned, but Smith wouldn’t have been an All-American. His epic performance against North Carolina wouldn’t have happened, and neither would have one of the greatest games in the history of the rivalry.
And had Smith not had the opportunity to seize the spotlight, these Blue Devils might not have been one of the more entertaining bunches to watch in recent memory. They weren’t dominant like fans hoped, but they had more fun on and off the court than college athletes are supposed to. Even Irving didn’t wallow in his toe-induced depression—indeed, the best images of the season were his teammates having to hold him back on the bench after every one of Smith’s highlight-reel dunks.
None of this would’ve happened had Duke’s season gone as expected.
And things were pretty similar on the gridiron. Fans certainly didn’t expect a national championship from the football program, but they expected that they would at least be competitive—especially in the team’s highest-profile game against Alabama. Instead, the Blue Devils were walloped 62-13, and any optimism the team garnered by its offensive outburst against rival Wake Forest a week before was quickly forgotten.
And while Duke only won two games the rest of the season, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Had it not been for a questionable substitution at quarterback, the Blue Devils might have pulled off an epic comeback against Boston College. Duke also had a chance for a surprising comeback against rival North Carolina. And lets not forget the one comeback the team did finish—a thrilling 55-48 victory over Virginia in Wallace Wade.
Like his team, Renfree showed flashes of brilliance, albeit without consistency. Through the season’s first two games he had thrown for over 700 yards and six touchdowns—but then completed only 45 percent of his passes against Alabama. He followed up a 12-for-32 passing performance against Virginia Tech with a 28-for-30 masterpiece in a victory over Navy. In short, he played like a talented first-year starter, and one with a promising career in front of him—but wasn’t immediately the perfect successor to Thaddeus Lewis that fans dreamed of.
It was a season that was always oh-so-close to being special—but that, in itself, was special. Fans got to see the passion that Cutcliffe has for his job here after many questioned it during his winter flirtation with Tennessee. They also saw a group of players that have begun to embody the spirit of their coach and, at least on the offensive side of the ball, finally boast some legitimate firepower.
And you can bet that Renfree and Cutcliffe will turn those close-but-no-cigar moments from last year into motivation for this upcoming season.
So yes, this wasn’t the season fans expected. It might not have even been the one they wanted. But it was brilliant nonetheless—something that fans shouldn’t forget over the long, Duke-less summer.
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