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DeCock: Duke’s appearance latest surprise in ACC’s post-expansion world

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com

Duke’s unexpected appearance in the ACC Championship Game is yet another blow to the established order of things in the conference, which has rarely gotten the results expected after expansion.

In nine title games, the ACC has never gotten the Miami-Florida State matchup it expected, and indeed facilitated, by putting the rivals in different divisions (unlike, say, Duke and North Carolina, both in the Coastal). Instead, it has gotten Virginia Tech five times, Florida State four times, Georgia Tech thrice, Boston College twice, Wake Forest and Duke once each and Miami never.

Who would have thought, when the idea of expansion was first broached, that Florida State and Miami would win basketball championships before the two schools played for a football championship?

Duke-Florida State in basketball in 2009 was a little odd. Duke-Florida State in football in 2013 is downright weird.

Even on Duke’s campus, this is a strange moment. In the two biggest sports, men’s basketball has obviously been light years and gigawatts ahead of football for decades, creating perhaps the biggest gap between the two of any school in the country.

Five years ago, Duke won a lawsuit against future ACC cohort Louisville by arguing any and every football program in the country would make a more prestigious opponent than the Blue Devils. “Duke’s argument on this point cannot be reasonably disputed by Louisville,” a Kentucky judge wrote. It’s not hard to imagine Duke arguing the opposite in basketball.

Since David Cutcliffe took over the football program six years ago, Duke is no longer irrelevant and the gap with basketball has started to close slightly. This weekend is the biggest movement yet. Duke hasn’t played for an ACC basketball championship since 2011, but the football team will Saturday.

“It’s a magical thing,” Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “When it’s magical, sometimes when you hear that, you say like, it’s lucky? It’s not lucky. To me, it’s magical that Cutcliffe, (athletic director Kevin) White, his staff, all these guys, (university president Richard) Brodhead, it’s magical how they’ve worked together to all provide an environment where magic can happen.

“I talked to ‘Cut’ for about 15 minutes after they won on Saturday. It’s such a great thing for our university. We as a program could not be happier for them. And you know what? They’ve got a chance. Because they’re winners. They were a program that wanted to win going into the season and now they’re a program of winners. They’ve proven that they can win. And when you cross that bridge, a lot of neat things can happen. So we’re happy and pulling for them like crazy.”

The inaugural championship game in 2005 pitted Florida State against Virginia Tech in a not-unexpected matchup of two of the conference’s more consistently successful football programs.

A year later, when Wake Forest not only emerged from the Atlantic Division but beat Georgia Tech to go to the Orange Bowl, it was seen as a mild aberration, the Deacons profiting from the bottoming-out of Clemson and Florida State. Yet history has shown that kind of unpredictability to be more the rule than the exception when it comes to this point in the season.

Wake was followed not once but twice by Boston College, and the Eagles and Georgia Tech have combined to make as many ACC appearances as Clemson, Florida State, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina and N.C. State together.

The Tar Heels have made five bowl appearances in the past six years, the Wolfpack four. Duke will make its fourth bowl appearance in the past six decades this season, but the Blue Devils have now beaten their more accomplished neighbors to ACC football’s biggest stage. Duke’s argument on that point cannot be reasonably disputed, either.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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