Week after week, each football game Duke has played this season has seemingly been billed as the most important Duke football game in upwards of 20 years. With the Blue Devils headed back to postseason play in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 27, don’t expect that to stop anytime soon.

We said it before Duke’s season opener against Florida International, a convincing blowout victory. We said it again before the Blue Devils traveled to Wake Forest, snapping a streak of 13 consecutive losses to their ACC rival. And we said it before Duke secured bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994 with a heart-stopping come-from-behind victory against North Carolina.

So excuse me for sounding redundant, but the Blue Devils’ bowl game against Cincinnati is actually the most important game Duke has played in 18 years.

The Blue Devils are hardly coming into this game on a high note. Posting a 6-2 record in its first eight games, Duke appeared poised to compete during its remaining conference schedule and vie for the ACC’s Coastal Division crown, a feat that should not have been terribly difficult. Considering the fact that North Carolina was already bowl ineligible, Miami was likely going to join them and Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech were struggling—uncharacteristic of the division’s two typical powerhouses—Duke would have only needed one more win to secure the division crown and a spot in the ACC Championship game for the first time in program history.

It appeared as though after securing bowl eligibility in dramatic fashion, Duke may have taken its foot off the gas in its losses to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami. The Blue Devil defense was porous in its final four games of the year, allowing a staggering 49.5 points per game. Duke didn’t have any help from the ACC’s scheduling committee on this one—squaring off with the Seminoles and Tigers in back-to-back games is as tough as it can get in this conference—but the Blue Devils squandered opportunities to win each of their final two games of the season against the Yellow Jackets and Hurricanes and now enter postseason play on a four-game losing skid.

Earlier this week, head coach David Cutcliffe mentioned that the next few weeks of bowl practices are not just meant to prepare Duke for its matchup with the Bearcats, but also to bridge the gap between the end of this season and the commencement of spring practice for next year. Cutcliffe added that there will be times during this period when he forces his seniors to take a seat and watch the 2013 Blue Devils in live action. Cutcliffe even mentioned that in the next three weeks he will be seriously evaluating some position changes, adjustments for next season that could be instituted as early as the bowl game against Cincinnati.

This is a team that is going to experience significant changes in its transition toward next season. Duke will lose three of its four captains, its starting quarterback, the most statistically accomplished wide receiver in ACC history and a number of leaders on both sides of the ball.

The Blue Devils’ goal was not just to make it to one bowl game, but to become a team that is perennially bowl eligible, much like many of its ACC counterparts. But to achieve this, Duke is going to need some momentum heading into an offseason full of change, and a five-game losing streak to end the year is not the way to do that.

The changes this team faces this offseason coupled with a disappointing end the season has the potential to remind Duke fans of the winless teams they knew and did not love.

Duke needs one more victory to clinch a winning season for the first time since 1994. This is a team that has made great strides this season—the Blue Devils have accomplished a feat some thought was impossible by becoming bowl eligible and made football relevant on campus for the first time in a long time.

The Blue Devils cannot afford to be content with merely stepping on the field at Bank of America Stadium in three weeks—they need to be ready to compete for the program’s future. This is a year that should be celebrated for the accomplishments Duke football has made, not a season that drifted into irrelevancy as a 6-7 anomaly from a team with a haunted past.

It may be just the Belk Bowl trophy on the line when both teams take the field in three weeks, but make no mistake, Duke has a lot to lose.