It’s tantalizingly close. The No. 1-ranked Florida State Seminoles will play for the program’s third national title if they prevail in Saturday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game. The Seminoles need to make their statement by defeating … Duke.
Um, this is football, right?
“We’re not taking Duke lightly,’’ FSU center Bryan Stork said.
Because nobody laughs at Duke football anymore.
“These guys deserve more respect than they have been given,’’ Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’re not just fortunate. We’re a good football team. We wouldn’t be where we are if we weren’t good.’’
Duke (10-2) is ranked 20th in the Associated Press poll and captured the ACC’s Coastal Division title by winning eight consecutive games. It’s the perfect follow-up to 2012, when Duke broke its 18-season bowl drought.
Regardless of what happens Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C., when everyone expects 29-point favorite FSU (12-0) to claim its destiny, it has been a remarkable football season for the Blue Devils.
“In the back of our minds, we do know there are people not giving us a chance,’’ Duke cornerback Russ Cockrell said. “We know that we were picked last in the ACC at the beginning of the season. We understand all those things, but at the end of the day, it’s the guys in the locker room who have a belief in each other that has propelled us forward.’’
Still, it’s FSU vs. Duke.
Duke, which last won an ACC title in 1989 under Steve Spurrier, was 13-90 from 1999 to 2007, with a 22-game losing streak mixed into the end of that miserable run. Fortunes began to change when Cutcliffe was hired in 2008.
Even with its recent improvement, Duke remains the only ACC team to never defeat the Seminoles, losing all 18 meetings. Six of the games were decided by 40 points or more. The closest game? A 19-point margin.
All of that adds up to absolutely nothing for FSU coach Jimbo Fisher.
“I think it’s confidence in what they’re doing,’’ Fisher said. “They’ve become much bigger and more physical. Overall, they just have better talent.’’
That’s no accident.
Even Cutcliffe acknowledges that.
“We’ve been at this a long time, and we realize that you win with a great organization, a systemic organization and great players,’’ said Cutcliffe, who was Peyton Manning’s position coach at Tennessee and also served as head coach at Ole Miss. “Recruiting is really that simple.’’
Cutcliffe makes it sound simple. As always, he was looking for the right mix of athleticism and academics to fit Duke’s culture. But Cutcliffe’s ability to sell that vision made all the difference.
“It was more than belief,’’ said Blue Devils quarterback Anthony Boone, who picked Duke over Clemson and Virginia Tech. “It was a confidence. It was a poise, a swagger about it that we’re going to be part of the class that’s going to shock and change the culture of Duke not being a football school.
“That’s the mentality of every player in my class. It’s happening in front of our eyes and it’s a great feeling.’’
Duke has thrived with a two-quarterback system, often alternating Boone and Brandon Connette. The Blue Devils utilize a running back by committee — five players have at least 200 yards rushing — but the real offensive catalyst is receiver Jamison Crowder (88 receptions for 1,131 yards).
Duke’s defense, ranked 37th nationally, features three first-team All-ACC selections in Cockrell, defensive back Jeremy Cash and linebacker Kelby Brown. It improved greatly after a brutal 58-55 home loss against Pittsburgh on Sept. 21.
It’s one thing to attract players. It’s quite another to actually reach this point. Some people might be skeptical of Cutcliffe’s claim that he saw this coming. He actually did. In his detailed, long-range plan for Duke’s football program, he projected an ACC championship game appearance this season.
From afar, FSU players sound like believers in what Duke has accomplished.
“I see a lot more execution,’’ Stork said. “I don’t know what they did, but they’ve got some faster guys than what I remember, and they all play together. They’re very smart and they play intelligent. Teams like that you’ve got to watch out for.’’
“Those guys have bought into their team,’’ FSU defensive back Lamarcus Joyner said. “When you have a belief, you can do a lot of wonders. I just see a team that believes in each other that has a great coach and some smart players. I mean, they’re on a roll.’’
Even though most of the nation expects FSU to roll over Duke, the Blue Devils already have earned the Seminoles’ respect. Considering the FSU-Duke track record in football, that’s an accomplishment in itself.
The Duke football laughter has finally ceased.
“Well, probably not until this week in some cases, and some people probably still are (laughing),’’ said Cutcliffe, who is ultimately seeking Duke’s first postseason victory since the 1961 Cotton Bowl. “I’ve been mentored by a lot of good people. We believe in how we do things, so we’re going to continue to do things well. And if you do that, you’re going to be successful.’’