It's no secret that Duke has gone from uncompetitive to legitimate in the last four years. Head coach David Cutcliffe has successfully turned the corner with the Blue Devils, but now comes the more challenging part—making the leap from good to great.
Just ask Northwestern.
Duke hosts the No. 23 Wildcats Saturday afternoon in the first of a four-year series between two squads with top-25 aspirations. If recent history is any guide, the games in the coming seasons could grow even more important in magnitude.
As I learned growing up in a Northwestern household, rooting for Duke is much like rooting for the Wildcats. In the last few years, I've seen both programs rise from the ashes and into the bowl conversation. But that only touches the surface of the similarities between the programs.
Duke and Northwestern are comparable in terms of size and academic strength. Duke was recently ranked eighth by the U.S. News and World Report to Northwestern's tie for 12th, and the universities are two of just four schools—Stanford and Vanderbilt being the other two—in Power Five conferences with an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 6,500.
On the gridiron, both won their first bowl games in the 1940s, with long losing streaks beginning soon afterward. With exceptions in the mid-1990s, the Blue Devils and Wildcats have gone through long periods of historically bad football—Northwestern owns the longest losing streak in Division I history by six games and Duke snapped the nation's tenth-longest skid against the Wildcats in 2007, after posting the eighth-longest skid near the turn of the century. The two squads—who have played each other 16 times during the last 30 years—have managed for a combined eight bowl appearances in the last seven years without cracking the top 15 at any point along the way.
But under the guidance of new coaches, both programs have been rejuvenated.
The Wildcats turned things around first and remained a few steps ahead until the Blue Devils overtook them during the last two seasons. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald took over in Evanston in 2006—two years before Cutcliffe was hired in Durham. Under Fitzgerald's watch, Northwestern finally snapped a nine-bowl, 64-year losing streak with a victory in the Gator Bowl Jan. 1, 2013. The Wildcats have made more bowl appearances and been ranked higher and more frequently than Duke since 2008, before suffering consecutive 5-7 seasons in the last two years.
Northwestern had its chances to ascend even higher up the college football ladder. Fitzgerald's squad has made five bowls in the past seven years—losing four straight by one possession and two in overtime, the type of heartbreak that Blue Devil fans are all too familiar with. In the regular season, things were not much better—the Wildcats went 3-8 from 2013-14 in one-possession games and dropped one on a Hail Mary. Still, the Wildcats have posted a 3-1 record against ranked opponents since the start of the 2014 season.
Meanwhile, in Durham, Cutcliffe has built the Blue Devils back into a contender in the ACC's Coastal Division, taking Duke to three consecutive bowl games—all of them near-wins—and the 2013 ACC championship game. The Blue Devils are now trying to do what Northwestern has not fully achieved—get over the hump.
With a top-25 recruiting class in tow for 2016 and new renovations ongoing at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke has its eyes set on becoming a national contender. Both the Blue Devils and Wildcats have a blueprint to follow in Stanford, which shrugged off a slump early last decade to match academic prowess with football dominance.
As long as Duke continues to follow its trajectory of growth, the program has reason to believe it can be the next Cardinal. First, though, it will need to take care of business Saturday against Northwestern.
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