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Tougher scheduling overdue for Duke football

<p>Duke has benefited from a permanent Atlantic Division crossover opponent in Wake Forest that has gone just 4-20 in ACC play since 2013.</p>

Duke has benefited from a permanent Atlantic Division crossover opponent in Wake Forest that has gone just 4-20 in ACC play since 2013.

ACC officials robbed Duke of a win in last year’s controversial finish against Miami, but some might say the league owed the Blue Devils a few more obstacles than most teams. The reason why? 

The conference has also gifted head coach David Cutcliffe and company several victories in recent years at the expense of the Hurricanes with its current scheduling format.

Since the ACC expanded to 14 teams in 2013, Duke has reaped the rewards of playing in one of college football’s best conferences without actually playing the best teams in the conference. Florida State and Clemson have combined to win the last five ACC championships and will probably be the top two teams in the Atlantic Division for the sixth straight season. 

But instead of facing Heisman Trophy winners like Jameis Winston and DeShaun Watson during the regular season, the Blue Devils have played the worst two Atlantic Division opponents each season—teams that have gone 5-43 combined in league action since 2013. Duke is the only ACC team that has gone 6-0 in crossover games during that span.

As the Blue Devils' improved recruits begin taking the field, however, their league schedule will get tougher. This is the final year Duke will avoid both Florida State and Clemson, and the Blue Devils will face Louisville, which is ranked in the preseason coaches poll, on the road Oct. 14.

Before those changes take effect, it is worth looking at how much the Blue Devils have benefited from their ACC slate. 

The Atlantic and Coastal Divisions each include seven teams after the additions of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC in 2013, and each team plays every other team in its division every year. With an eight-game conference schedule, that leaves just two games to play against teams in the other division.

Every ACC team is assigned a permanent crossover opponent in the opposite division, a rule meant to preserve traditional rivalries in the conference. Duke was fortunate enough to be matched with Wake Forest, which has won a total of four ACC games in the last three seasons.

With the matchup against the Demon Deacons locked into the Blue Devils’ schedule every season, Duke plays just one rotating crossover game against the other six teams in the Atlantic division. Two of its Coastal Division rivals have not been so lucky.

Georgia Tech, which won the Coastal Division in 2014, always has a game against Clemson and Miami plays Florida State every year. It is no coincidence that the Hurricanes have never won the Coastal Division—they have lost to one of the most dominant programs in college football six straight times while their competitors get to face the ACC’s cellar dwellers instead.

The Blue Devils took advantage of the favorable scheduling arrangement in the first year it was implemented in 2013, winning the Coastal Division with a 6-2 conference record to finish just ahead of Virginia Tech, the Hurricanes and the Yellow Jackets in a three-way tie at 5-3.

The Blue Devils dispatched both of their crossover opponents that year in Wake Forest and N.C. State—who went 2-14 combined in conference play—and watched Miami and Georgia Tech lose their games to Florida State and Clemson, respectively.

Virginia Tech fared even worse in its crossover games that year, losing to Boston College and Maryland, who were both stronger opponents than Duke had to face in the Atlantic division.

If the conference only used intra-division records when determining the division winners, Virginia Tech would have won the Coastal with a 5-1 record in 2013 ahead of Duke at 4-2. This solution would put everybody in the division on a level playing field, since teams would be compared by their play against the same set of teams.

The Blue Devils were the 2013 Coastal Division champions because of their efforts on the field, but also in part because of sheer luck of the draw.

Playing Wake Forest every season is a big break for Duke in and of itself, and the Blue Devils have also had incredible luck for the last three years with a lackluster slate of rotating crossover opponents.

With contests against the Wolfpack in 2013, Syracuse in 2014 and Boston College in 2015, Duke played teams that went 1-23 combined in the ACC the years they played the Blue Devils. 

This year's game against Louisville signals an end to the lucky scheduling that has helped Duke as its program resurrection under Cutcliffe continues. The Seminoles will come to Durham next season, and Duke will play at Clemson in 2018.

The Blue Devils are finally hitting the tough part of the rotation, and they also have their most challenging non-conference schedule in years this season with games at Notre Dame and Northwestern.

But it is about time we see how a program on the rise fares when it faces the nation's best.

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