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Data digging: Duke football's home-field edge

Every team loves playing at home—the comfort of your own bed, the perks of knowing every inch of your home turf and, of course, the thousands of screaming fans rooting for you to succeed. In an era where everyone is scrounging for a competitive edge, the right to host a contest is still one of the simplest yet most sought-after advantages.

But how much is home-field advantage really worth?

After easily dismantling Tulane on the road in last week’s season opener, the Blue Devils will play their first game at the newly-refurbished Brooks Field at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday. Along with a new name, the renovated stadium has a brand-new 3,175 square-foot electronic scoreboard and additional seating designed to enhance the fan experience—at the expense of the running track that once surrounded the field. So as Duke begins a new chapter in its football history, it seemed like a good opportunity to find out just how much of a difference playing at home makes.

Head coach David Cutcliffe took the helm prior to the 2008 campaign and during his seven full seasons in Durham, the Blue Devils posted an overall record of 40-48, good for a .455 winning percentage. Breaking down that record even further reveals that Duke has a .479 winning percentage at home versus a .425 mark in road or neutral-site contests. Yes, there's a difference. But considering the home team tends to win marginally more often than the visitors in just about any sport, nothing appears earth-shattering.

It turns out the Blue Devils have performed better on both sides of the ball within the familiar confines of Wallace Wade. They have outscored their opponents by more than three points per game at home under Cutcliffe, but overall have actually been outscored by their opponents by just less than two points per contest.

With offensive coordinators Kurt Roper and Scottie Montgomery calling the plays, Duke has put up 30.7 points per game at home—more than a touchdown better than its 22.9 average elsewhere. Defensively, the difference is less pronounced, though still there—Cutcliffe’s teams have yielded 30.5 points per game on the road but just 27.6 at home.

College football is unique in that teams have the liberty, to some degree, to choose and schedule opponents on their own accord. It’s not uncommon for schools to butter up their non-conference home slates—especially during marquee weekends like Homecoming—with cupcake teams to give their fans a positive experience and boost morale surrounding the program.

The Blue Devils are no doubt guilty of this to some degree—their first three home victories last season came by a combined 111 points against opponents who ended the year with a total of 29 losses. But Duke has also hosted seven ranked opponents—including a No. 1 Alabama squad in 2010—during the Cutcliffe era to balance the scheduling. Taken as a whole, the Blue Devils’ home opponents entered Wallace Wade with an aggregate winning percentage of .552, and finished their respective seasons at a .522 clip, excluding the Duke game from their records.

Another way to assess the quality of opponent is through betting spreads, which can be explained as the estimated final score differential prior to kickoff. Since 2008, Duke has beaten the spread—meaning it either won by more than expected or lost by less than expected—60.5 percent of the time at home, as compared to 59.5 percent in road games.

Betting spreads usually grant a three-point edge to the home team, but that can easily be negated by unevenly matched teams. For reference, the Blue Devils were still a 13.5-point favorite last week despite being on the road in New Orleans. Duke has been a favorite in roughly half of its home games in the past seven seasons, but a road favorite less than one-sixth of the time. This, more than anything, is evidence the Blue Devils have taken a slightly easier road in terms of who they schedule for their home games.

This week’s home opener is another one of those scheduling perks, pitting Duke against fellow Durham inhabitant N.C. Central. Although the Eagles—a member of the MEAC conference—romped to a 72-0 victory against St. Augustine’s last week, they are sure to be heavy underdogs when they take the field Saturday. When the two schools last met two years ago, N.C. Central failed to get on the scoreboard and found itself on the wrong end of a 45-0 blowout. But you can be sure Cutcliffe will be warning his team of the perils of looking past the Eagles to their next two foes, a suddenly-hot Northwestern program and a top-15 Georgia Tech squad.

Fortunately for Duke, both of those contests will be held in the new Wallace Wade—because, to borrow from "The Wizard of Oz", there’s no place like home.

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