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Take of the week: Duke football is ready to contend in wide-open ACC

Duke boasts the top-ranked rushing attack in the ACC through Week Four.
Duke boasts the top-ranked rushing attack in the ACC through Week Four.
  • Week 1: No. 10 North Carolina falls to Virginia Tech, No. 3 Clemson slips up against No. 5 Georgia and No. 14 Miami is demolished by No. 1 Alabama. Right away, all three ranked ACC teams are 0-1. Two of those losses are to top-tier non-conference opponents, however; perhaps the ACC's sloppy start is nothing more than an early-season hiccup.
  • Week 3: No. 24 Miami is embarrassed by Michigan State, No. 15 Virginia Tech is beaten by West Virginia and No. 6 Clemson barely edges Georgia Tech. Maybe the top dogs aren't as good as many anticipated, but they're still the top dogs, right?
  • Week 4: No. 21 North Carolina is blown out by Georgia Tech as No. 9 Clemson falls to N.C. State, losing its second regular-season game for the time since 2014. Ahead of Week Five, the preseason conference favorites—North Carolina, Miami, and Clemson—are unranked,  unranked and No. 25 in the AP Poll, respectively. The balance of power in the ACC is a mess, as evidenced by the fact that the last three spots in the AP Poll belong to three unproven teams in the conference. Every other Power Five conference has at least one team in the top six.

So, what does this mean for Duke, a team that has not been ranked since 2018 nor beaten a ranked opponent since 2016? It means, shockingly, that it finally has a chance to not only crack the Top 25 but to return to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2013.

Of the three teams rounding out this week's rankings—N.C. State, Wake Forest and Clemson—none belong to the ACC Coastal like the Blue Devils. Not only does Duke avoid competing for a spot against these teams, but they also steer clear of 4-0 Boston College, who nearly cracked the rankings as well. So, what does Duke's actual competition look like? Entering the fall season, North Carolina and Miami were the frontrunners, but Miami is 2-3 and the Tar Heels have already dropped two ACC matchups, including last week's concerning 45-22 defeat at Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils will get the chance to prove themselves against their rivals Saturday.

If Miami and North Carolina are no longer runaway favorites, who is? Georgia Tech enters the conversation after crushing the Tar Heels, but they have not always looked so dominant and are still just 2-2.

What about Virginia, the team that dropped Miami to last in the division Thursday night? The Cavaliers impressed in the 30-28 win but dropped consecutive 20-point losses to North Carolina and Wake Forest in weeks prior. The result of Thursday's contest may have been more of a testament to how far Miami has fallen rather than how good Virginia is.

That leaves Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, the only two Coastal Division teams that share the same 3-1 record as Duke. Virginia Tech seems the more threatening of the two: the Hokies' loss to another Power Five opponent in West Virginia is only mildly disappointing and their win against North Carolina stands out. Having already been ranked once this season, the Hokies look most likely to represent this half of the ACC in the title game. The stats, however, beg to differ.

Four games into the season, Duke's Achilles' heel has been its defense. That would be a massive concern in the Atlantic Division against tougher competition, but the defense has been significantly worse throughout the Coastal thus far. Duke could be in for its fair share of shootouts, a task that they now, fortunately, seem well prepared for. Not only has the team's passing game improved, but it boasts the top-ranked run game in the ACC and one of the best ground attacks in the nation. The Blue Devils are among the leaders in total rushing yards and rank first in total rushing touchdowns with 17. If they remain dominant on the ground, the Blue Devils could run through the entire division.

Conference play for the Blue Devils starts Saturday against the rival Tar Heels. But this week also marks the start of Duke's push for contention: having already shocked its own fans with an upset of Northwestern, the time is right to shock the ACC with an upset of North Carolina. A statement win Saturday would quickly shift this take from a bold claim to a legitimate possibility, placing the Blue Devils among the conference's elite for the first time in years and exponentially raising the bar for a team that nobody saw coming.


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