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Tougher nonconference slate necessary for Duke football to take the next step

<p>The Blue Devils will take on Baylor for the second year in a row next month.</p>

The Blue Devils will take on Baylor for the second year in a row next month.

August 31, 2019: Duke runs out onto the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The crowd politely acknowledges its appearance.

The attention then turns to the opposite corner of the stadium. Head coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide storm out onto the turf with easily 50,000 Alabama fans cramming into their home away from Tuscaloosa with red-and-white pom-poms filling the air.

For the Blue Devils, next year's Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game against the perennially-contending Crimson Tide will be a rare occurrence. For the first time since 2012, Duke will face a ranked nonconference opponent.

This is not to say that head coach David Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils aren't trying to challenge themselves. 

They have played Northwestern—a team with eight bowl appearances in the last 10 seasons—every year since 2015, and will do so again in 2018 as well as in 2021-24. They scheduled a home-and-home series with Baylor well before the Bears were rocked by a sexual assault scandal that has resulted in them becoming one of the worst programs in Power 5 football. 

And after Duke pulled off a stunning upset at Notre Dame in 2016, it will get to host the Fighting Irish in 2019 before returning to South Bend the following year—part of the ACC's agreement with Notre Dame despite the program remaining independent from the conference in football.

But consider the rest of the FBS opponents the Blue Devils have scheduled for the next six years: Army, Alabama, Middle Tennessee State, Charlotte, Kansas and Temple. Combined with Northwestern and Baylor, those teams have a total .506 winning percentage during the last five seasons. Then, take out the ever-dominant Crimson Tide and that number drops to .443.

In Week 1 of the 2018 season alone, here are some teams that ACC opponents will face: Alabama, LSU, California, Western Michigan and 2017 FCS runners-up James Madison. Over the next six seasons, every ACC Coastal Division team other than Duke will play nonconference FBS foes that have combined for winning records since 2013.

At the end of the day, though, there are several factors at play. 

First, there is no real "selection committee" that matters to the Blue Devils. Yes, if Duke were a College Football Playoff contender, then that committee might consider the Blue Devils' strength of schedule—or lack thereof. But for now, that's a very unlikely scenario.

Second, no matter who it plays, Duke needs six wins every season to guarantee bowl eligibility. Although the ACC schedule is pretty much set, the Blue Devils have the option to set themselves up with easy opportunities for victories during the nonconference season to increase their odds of a postseason berth.

Lastly, money is a factor. Most major-conference teams, like Duke, want to play as many home football games as possible in order to generate revenue that they can use to pay for other sports. By simply hosting FCS schools like N.C. Central, North Carolina A&T and Elon, the Blue Devils can pay a small chunk of guaranteed money, knowing that they'll not only get a relatively easy shot at a win but also a chance to bring in plenty of cash.

Unfortunately, Duke's nonconference games are essentially set through 2022, save for one contest that year. One could argue that in that span, the only truly exciting home matchup will be in 2019 when Notre Dame visits Wallace Wade.

In that time, North Carolina will play Auburn, Central Florida and Wake Forest in a non-ACC contest. Both Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh will host Penn State by 2020. And both Miami and Georgia Tech will continue regular rivalries with SEC teams in Florida and Georgia, respectively.

The Blue Devils have done just about everything to make themselves into a legitimate football program. They now compete with essentially every top school for the best recruits and Duke has found its way into a bowl four of the last five seasons.

But for a team to prove its worth, it needs to be tested from Week 1 to the season finale. That's the next challenge for a Blue Devil program that continues to trend in the right direction.

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