Column: To truly compete with the ACC's best, Duke football must prove its worth immediately

Duke's heart was broken against North Carolina in the final moments in 2022 — a loss which kept them from the ACC title game.
Duke's heart was broken against North Carolina in the final moments in 2022 — a loss which kept them from the ACC title game.

Head coach Mike Elko’s rapid, dramatic turnaround of the football program was, by all means, miraculous. I won’t beat a dead horse by recounting the Blue Devils’ every woe of 2021 (eight, specifically, from ACC play), but the season was as dismal as its conference record showed. 

New year, new expectations. In came Elko and the wins just seemed to follow. With three straight nonconference wins to open the season and an easy victory against ACC foe Virginia, Duke ended its 721-day conference funk. It knocked off Miami and Wake Forest, narrowly fell to Pittsburgh and North Carolina — after a controversial fourth quarter — before handily winning the Military Bowl. Duke was one missed field goal from an ACC championship appearance, as our Andrew Long put it — a feat Elko was named the conference Coach of the Year for. 

Playing in that championship game were North Carolina and Clemson. The Tigers won 39-10. 

Clemson and Duke haven’t met since 2018, when Daniel Jones was the Blue Devils’ quarterback. The Tigers took that game 35-6. Trevor Lawrence, newly 19, picked Duke’s defense apart. It was just his next step en route to an undefeated season and the national championship. 

While Lawrence has set up shop in the NFL and Clemson hasn’t seen the College Football Playoff since his final collegiate game, the Tigers sit ninth in the AP poll and lead the ACC preseason poll. Five of their players were named preseason All-ACC, leading the conference. The perennial powerhouse is once again a force to be reckoned with. 

So Duke’s reckoning will come early. Week 1, early. 

Currently, No. 8 Florida State and Clemson sit clearly atop the now division-less ACC. On Monday — Labor Day — the Tigers are coming to Durham, and the Blue Devils have the perfect opportunity to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. 

As successful as Elko’s first season was and as drastic of an adjustment the team made, it didn’t have the most difficult schedule. The Blue Devils lost to 5-7 Georgia Tech; they were plagued by late-game slumps and close losses. 

With two polar opposite seasons in the rearview, I don’t think anyone really knows what to expect from Elko and his squad. Duke was ranked joint-sixth in the preseason ACC poll. It only received four votes in the first AP poll despite ending last season with 49 votes, leading unranked schools. Last season’s hot finish hasn’t been forgotten, but it has been tempered. 

When the Tigers step onto the field at Wallace Wade Stadium, will DeWayne Carter and the defense be able to limit Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik’s offense? Will Riley Leonard be able to penetrate the secondary that held North Carolina quarterback — and Preseason ACC Player of the Year — Drake Maye scoreless through the air and picked him off twice in the ACC championship? 

For the Blue Devils to truly contend in the ACC, or even fight for the top spot in that second tier, they need to keep their first game close. Beating Clemson may not be in the cards, but this is one game that is about far more than the record tally. To rise into the AP top 25 and be able to compete in the conference, Duke needs to keep this one tight through the final whistle — win or lose.

The Blue Devils returned much of their core from last season, including preseason All-ACC offensive lineman Graham Barton, receiver Jalon Calhoun and Carter. With that talent still on the field and Elko still on the sidelines, Duke has no excuses. If last year was truly indicative of its future, it needs to prove that with every single snap. 

Amid conference realignment chaos and rumors of Clemson and Florida State fleeing, college football in the ACC is teetering. Duke’s future is no different; it will loom over every game this season, every word we write, every broadcast and AP poll. 

Duke has two options Week 1: It can fall grossly behind, losing not only the game but its viability as a strong football program, or it can prove its competence and strength, forcing itself into the national spotlight. And that battle starts at 8 p.m. Monday.

Editor's note: This piece is one of many in The Chronicle's 2023 Duke football preseason supplement. For the rest, click here.

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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