News & Observer sports columnist Luke DeCock and correspondent Barry Jacobs debate the issues surrounding Duke’s appearance in the ACC Championship Game, from the Blue Devils’ chances to the long-term impact on the conference.
DOES DUKE HAVE A CHANCE?
Luke: A chance? Yes. But consider the Blue Devils haven’t faced a team anywhere close to as good as Florida State all season – or a player as good as Jameis Winston. Duke beat Miami, N.C. State and Wake Forest by a combined 43 points. Florida State beat those three by 115.
Barry: We love a story of the underdog triumphant, from American hockey’s Miracle on Ice in 1980 to N.C. State’s Cardiac Pack three years later. We cherish those tales, though, because they’re rare.
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Think back to 2009, the only other time FSU and Duke met for a championship. That ACC tournament in Atlanta pitted a football school making its first appearance in the league title game against a perennial national power. Leonard Hamilton’s squad was strong, but the result was predictable – Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils won.
Now it’s Duke, the basketball school, appearing in its first football title game against a perennial national power. Watching the little guy get his chance is fun. But victory probably remains a dream.
Luke: Let’s not forget Florida State did end up winning an ACC basketball title three years later, and the Seminoles had to beat North Carolina, a perennial national power itself. So, for that matter, did Miami last spring.
If the Blue Devils can establish their running game and if they win the turnover battle and if their defense can limit big plays from Winston and his explosive receivers and if they can get a touchdown on special teams – and that’s a lot of ifs – maybe the game will be up for grabs in the fourth quarter. But Florida State is one of the three or four best teams in the country. Duke is not.
HOW DOES DUKE’S RUN COMPARE TO WAKE FOREST’S IN 2006?
Barry: Both private schools went with a proven program builder who reached the title game in his sixth year on the job. Both David Cutcliffe and Jim Grobe benefited from enhanced facilities and salaries. Picked last in their division, each ended the regular season with a 10-2 record and didn’t lose outside the ACC. Each won six league games by an average margin of 10.2 points.
Duke is more balanced on both sides of the ball than Wake was in 2006. Still, befitting the backgrounds of the respective coaches, this Duke team is generally stronger on offense while the ’06 Deacons were stronger on defense. The Deacons of seven years ago ranked sixth nationally in turnover margin at plus-13 and gave up no more than 27 points in a game, including a mere six in the championship against Georgia Tech.
Luke: For one thing, the Deacons didn’t have to face a national-title contender in the ACC title game. They faced a Georgia Tech team that was top-25 caliber, but no more so than Wake Forest. There’s a big difference between playing for the title and winning the title, and Wake Forest was able to cross that Rubicon.
Barry: Duke’s task is more difficult by far, but the Blue Devils come into the championship game on a roll with eight straight wins. Duke has justifiable confidence because it beat Virginia Tech and Miami, the two ranked opponents it faced. In ’06 Wake faced three ranked teams and lost twice, including against Virginia Tech in its home finale.
WHAT DOES DUKE WINNING THE COASTAL DIVISION SAY ABOUT THE ACC?
Luke: It says the divisions are out of whack, with Clemson and Florida State perpetually prohibited from playing each other for the title. It says there’s a lot of mediocrity among Miami and North Carolina and Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, all of which had their chances but left the door open for Duke in the Coastal. It says if there’s enough room for a program like Duke to make enough improvement to win a division title, there are no excuses for anyone else in the ACC.
Barry: Mediocrity isn’t confined to the Coastal. Lopsided as the divisions may be, Duke’s rise says that, for all the attention garnered by having two top-10 teams for most of the season, this is a bigger version of the same old ACC.
Regardless of the division, ACC teams were 1-4 against top-10 opponents outside the league. Three of the five power conferences, and the Big Ten’s Legends division, rate higher than either ACC division according to Jeff Sagarin’s power rankings. Since the expansion of 2005, the Coastal is the more balanced division, with five different first-place finishers. It’s also rated higher by Sagarin than the Atlantic in 2013.
Luke: Boston College has won the Atlantic twice along with Wake Forest, so the door is always open. But having the conference’s two traditionally strongest programs on the same side of the ledger is inherently imbalanced, and it’s only going to get worse when Louisville joins the Atlantic next season. Meanwhile, the ACC went 3-5 against the SEC this season.