How Duke football could define its 2023 run early

Sep 10, 2022; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Elko looks on prior to the first quarter against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2022; Evanston, Illinois, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Elko looks on prior to the first quarter against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports /

When highlighting big-name college football matchups to watch, Duke football is rarely included. This is simply because they are no strangers to the bottom of the college football hierarchy. However, the pieces are there for 2023 to see that image be flipped on its head.

Said pieces began coming together last year, as Duke went 9-4 (its best record since 2014) behind first-year head coach Mike Elko and dual-threat quarterback Riley Leonard. Of their four losses, the most “lopsided” was dealt by the Kansas Jayhawks, who only beat them by eight.

Okay, so the Blue Devils are clearly a solid team — cool. But what does that have to do with their opening matchup? What gives it the potential to be such a defining moment on a season-wide scale? Are they facing a tough opponent or something?

The short answer is yes, the long answer is this season-opening battle will, without question, be Duke’s biggest in years. The reason for this is that the Blue Devils aren’t just facing a tough opponent, but also a rival, and they aren’t just facing a rival, but also the one that has dominated the ACC for several years and counting: The Clemson Tigers.

Amazingly, I just heard the collective pop of everyone’s balloons of suspense. Seriously? That’s what the buildup was for? Clemson, A.K.A. the ACC winner in seven of the last eight years, and Duke? Why would we care about that massacre when there are so many better games to watch?

While that question may seem valid when taking the game at face value, please allow me to ask one of my own in return: What makes anyone so sure that it’s going to be a massacre? Not only is Duke coming off of a run that thoroughly outshined its historical standard, but Clemson has been failing to meet the one it set in the mid-to-late 2010s, recently “suffering” from back-to-back three-loss stints.

When combining that with the facts that Duke will be at home and that first-game jitters can affect anyone, we see the Blue Devils having what is easily their best shot at downing Clemson since 2004 — so let’s say they pull it off.

What are the next steps if Duke wins?

It’d surely be a great win for the Devils and an upsetting loss for the Tigers, while also greatly lessening Dabo Swinney’s room for error in his hunt for a ninth conference title. But other than being an emotionally overwhelming moment, what makes winning the game so huge for a Duke team with such a tough schedule?

Well after Clemson, there are only two more ACC powers on Duke’s slate that stand out particularly far in regards to formidability and league impact — Florida State (today’s highest-ranked ACC team) and North Carolina (2022’s ACC runner-up) — but the Blue Devils have to face them both on the road.

When approaching meetings of those magnitudes, we find ourselves in a situation very similar to the one we were just in, as there is nothing about FSU, UNC, or Duke that paints the Devils out as having any realistic shots at victory…or is there?

Sure, Florida State is coming off of a 10-3 season with some of the best returning talent in the country, but two of those losses were dealt by 8-5 teams (one of which was the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, who Duke later managed to beat). And in total, the 2022 ‘Noles went 2-3 against teams with eight wins or more.

In other words, while the Blue Devils have never beaten FSU before, the odds of them shattering the glass ceiling now are not exactly nonexistent, as the Seminoles are clearly more “mortal” than many would like to believe.

As for the Heels, they ultimately lost five games in 2022 themselves, and even their win over the Devils was by a whopping three points. So again, while the Devils are in no way promised a win, they’ve reached a quality of play that leaves it very well within their realm of possibility, which is certainly better than nothing.

And now for the kicker: We must remember to approach both of these squads under the previously established assumption that Duke beats Clemson. Especially with how well the Tigers played FSU and UNC last year, Duke beating them would make the idea of it beating the others all the more practical.

At that point, we’re no longer talking about the Blue Devils merely having a good season; rather, we’re talking about them being contenders to win the ACC. If they were to do so, they’d have their first conference title in football since 1989, and only their second in the last six decades. At the absolute least, that sounds pretty season-defining to me.

The point here is that Duke beating Clemson would count for only so much on its own, but if it were to serve as any implication of what the Blue Devils had up their sleeves for the rest of the year, they’d likely be worthy of your screen time every single week.

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