Duke is used to Homecoming weekend coming more than once per year.
In addition to their annual home game at Wallace Wade Stadium in front of throngs of alumni, the Blue Devils have seen their fair share of homecoming games on the road. It’s no coincidence—homecoming weekend is typically when teams schedule one of their weaker opponents. Teams tailor their schedules in the hope that a blowout win in front of the alums will amplify the explosion of school spirit on campus.
Every team has to schedule someone for homecoming, and there’s no disrespect intended toward the opponent. But if you ask a team that’s ended up on the wrong side of a few too many homecoming games, you might hear a different story.
Duke has been scheduled for multiple homecoming games on the road in three of head coach David Cutcliffe’s first six seasons in Durham. During the current senior class’ first season in 2011, the Blue Devils played on homecoming weekend at Boston College, Florida International and Miami. They turned around and played homecoming games at Virginia Tech and Florida State the next season.
That group hasn’t forgotten what it feels like to have their roadtrips feel like a homecoming tour.
“It sucked,” starting quarterback Anthony Boone said. “We were everybody’s homecoming.”
When the Blue Devils host Virginia Saturday, it will mark the first time Duke has played an ACC opponent for a homecoming game since 2008. Fans and alumni in attendance will be treated to a competitive game between two teams that have played a number of tight and chippy contests in the past decade.
But more importantly, the matchup represents a significant milestone for a program that seems to be running out of famous firsts—Duke finally feels confident enough to schedule a conference game for a weekend typically reserved for weaker nonconference opponents.
Duke’s last five homecoming opponents—Troy, Memphis, Tulane, Army and N.C. Central—were far from national powerhouses. Between 1975 and 2008, the Blue Devils had scheduled nonconference opponents for homecoming weekend just four times. But even though it meant straying from its tradition of playing a conference game, scheduling weaker opponents for homecoming made a lot of sense for what Duke needed at that time.
Five years ago, Duke was much more concerned with making an elusive bowl appearance and creating a football culture on campus than it was competing for conference championships. The program was also making a fundraising push for some much-needed facilities improvements.
A blowout win on homecoming weekend—whether it came against Alabama or Alabama A&M—was the easiest way to accomplish both of those goals. Duke could inch one win closer to a bowl game while treating its alumni base to more victories in one weekend than they may have seen during their entire four years in Durham. Happy alumni are more likely to donate to the University, especially to the optimistic head coach spearheading their program’s rebuilding effort. Everybody wins.
The Blue Devils don’t have to think like that anymore. Duke is solidifying itself as a perennial contender in a Power Five conference and has earned the right to schedule with that sort of confidence, just like all the teams who have scheduled them in hopes of an easy win during the last five seasons.
When alums head to Wallace Wade to see the Blue Devils this weekend, many might not recognize what they see on the field. Some may not have seen many good football games when they were in college—others may not have seen any games at all.
Saturday’s game won’t be for any championships, but it serves as an important stepping stone for Duke toward continuing to establish its legitimacy among the rest of college football’s top programs. Another indicator of that—people seem to have forgotten that the 5-1 Blue Devils can clinch bowl eligibility with a win Saturday, marking the third straight season Duke has made the postseason (which has never happened before).
Ultimately, what the Blue Devils are seeking is normalcy. A time when victories both large and small stop becoming a headline and fade into a part of the larger story—when Duke can schedule a conference opponent for homecoming every year and be favored by oddsmakers when it plays on the road and milestones don’t mark the first occurrence in 20 years.
The big steps toward normalcy have already been taken, but don’t lose the symbolism of the smaller ones.
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