When the Associated Press Top 25 poll was released Sunday followed by the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, there was a name toward the bottom that hadn’t been seen in either list for a very long time–Duke.
The Blue Devils fresh off their 8th win of the season, a 48-30 victory over the then No. 23 ranked Miami Hurricanes, were ranked No. 25 in the AP poll and No. 24 in the Coaches’ Poll. The milestone may seem like a small accomplishment in the grander scheme of things but considering how bad Duke Football has been over the years it is nothing short of remarkable.
Despite the season they are having, most have failed to give Duke much, if any credit. On ESPN’s College Gameday, the analysts more or less treated Duke’s success as a cute novelty, not something worthy of too much recognition. David Cutcliffe was appreciative of the consideration but wants it to be known that the Blue Devils aren’t a blip on the radar that will just go away.
“I heard a little bit about what they said on Game Day. Its still almost like you are saying, ‘Okay this is kind of fun. Well, we’re not going away. Get use to it. This isn’t an accident,’ Cutcliffe said . “This is all by intention. I’m not trying to sound cocky that’s just a fact. ”
The facts are that Duke sits at 8-2 (4-2 ACC) and is in sole possession of first place in the ACC Coastal Division. Two more victories and the Blue Devils will be in Charlotte playing for the conference championship, something the Blue Devils have never done in the expanded ACC. Duke hasn’t won a conference championship of any kind since 1989, Steve Spurrier’s final year in Durham.
“It is real. That’s not something we don’t need to realize. When you get this late in the year and you control your own destiny it’s not distracting to say that. That’s a misnomer. They know that goes away if you don’t play well in the next game. Its not what we are thinking about when we are working.”
Following the team’s victory Cutcliffe didn’t hesitate to say that he felt his team deserved to be ranked and that he was going to be casting a vote in favor of his Blue Devils.
“I have enough respect for our team, I’m going to vote for our team. I think we’ve earned that respect from my vote but I can’t control what anybody else thinks,” Cutcliffe said.
Apparently enough people agreed with Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils made both polls for the first time since 1994. That year has been the benchmark for Duke Football success but with two victories this year over ranked opponents and with 8 wins already with two more regular season games to go, this season has a chance to be the new benchmark.
“Another win over another top 25 opponent and well on our way with our sights set on Charlotte,” senior lineman Dave Hardin said following the victory.
The victory may shock a few but not this team or its coach who have felt all along that the process of building Duke into a true football program would eventually come.
“That’s why we came here,” quarterback Anthony Boone said. “Its not over, we still have two tough teams coming up and we just got to go out there and take care of business.”
“Some people are going to say I saw it coming and then there are some that still don’t believe in Duke football and say they got lucky. We’re not really worried about what others say. We play for each other and our families.”
For senior cornerback Ross Cockrell, things have come full circle. As a freshman he struggled at times and the team while better, still wasn’t seen by many as a program that could ever be salvaged.
“It has been a long road. I still remember my first start against Elon four years ago. To go out in this kind of way at Wallace Wade is indescribable,” Cockrell said. ‘Coach Cut always says leave a place better than you found it. I’m happy that we are here at this point. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work from guys that came before me and lead the way and got the ball rolling.”
Duke hasn’t done bad for a program that was picked to finish near the bottom of the division that they are currently in first place in and just two games away from playing for the conference championship. That was a point that Cockrell pointed out following the Miami game.
“At the beginning of the season when we were in Greensboro one of the reporters asked me what one of my goals was this year and I said to go to the ACC championship. You can imagine what kind of reaction I got from that,” Cockrell said.
And while he said the reporters were nice enough not to laugh in his face, the suggestion, even among so-called Duke fans would have drawn more snickers than head nods. Duke has long been a program that has struggled to get fan support.
Despite coming off a bowl appearance, the attendance at Wallace Wade Stadium, save for the last two games hasn’t been great. Students haven’t made it a habit to come out and support the team and most other Duke fans are Duke Basketball fans who just so happen cheer for other programs. Now that Duke is winning, it seems even some of those are joining the old guard and while few admit to being on the bandwagon, the extra bodies are a welcome seat for the players.
“I don’t think anybody has admitted it,” Cockrell said. “Its nice to see the crowds packed like that. To have the support of our university, to have the support of our students. We are giving them a reason to celebrate and I’m happy about that.”
Following the final seconds ticking off, Duke students and fans alike rushed the filed to celebrate with the players, giving them some of the recognition and support that has been lacking for years. It was a welcome site.
“I came here for a moment like this, to build something, to build a program and I think that is what we are doing. Things change when you start winning games,” Cockrell said.
Time will tell if the support will continue but chances are if the winning continues, the support will continue because Duke will have something that the football program hasn’t had for decades, belief that they belong.