The ACC football race always had a contrasting quality to it. There was the nice, stable Atlantic Division where Florida State would play Clemson and the winner would dutifully move on to the December 7 conference championship game in Charlotte. Then there was the chaotic Coastal Division where it seemed anything was possible. That’s exactly how it’s played out this season, and now, improbably, it’s the Duke Blue Devils who are on track to earn the berth opposite Florida State in the ACC Championship Game.
Duke spotted Miami an early 17-7 lead on Saturday in Durham, came back to lead a close game by one point after three quarters and then blasted the ‘Canes in the fourth quarter, en route to a 48-30 win. It wasn’t the passing game that did it either. Even though throwing the football effectively has become the program’s staple under David Cutliffe, on Saturday, Duke just ran it down Miami’s throat. The Blue Devils amassed 358 yards on the ground, with big games from both Josh Snead and Jela Duncan.
The week couldn’t have gone any better for the Dookies. As expected, on Thursday night Clemson hammered Georgia Tech 55-31. The loss by the Yellow Jackets, one of the two conference teams to beat Duke this season (Pitt being the other) gave Cutliffe’s team a stronger position in the tiebreakers.
Then the unexpected happened. Virginia Tech lost at home to Maryland, 27-24 in overtime. The Hokies just could not get a ground game going, nor sustain the offensive consistency they’d shown the prior week in Miami. The loss meant that Duke is now in sole possession of first place in the Coastal, with tiebreaker edges on the likeliest teams to catch them, Virginia Tech and Miami.
Before we book Duke into the ACC title game, the Blue Devils will need to win at least one more game. Two road trips are ahead, one to Wake Forest and the other to North Carolina. Both teams are fighting to get bowl-eligible.
As good a job as Duke has done this season, I’m not ready to believe they’re going to win two straight must-win road games against desperate teams, all the while maintaining their focus coming off the big Miami win. Two straight Duke wins means they close the year on a 8-0 run, with a victory over Virginia Tech also mixed in. Do you really think they’re that good?
I do think they’re good enough to get one more win though, and that in all likelihood means a division title. The tiebreaker possibilities remain complex–Georgia Tech and Pitt are also a game back, along with Virginia Tech and Miami, and figuring out every possible scenario would make a book-length discussion. But it’s fair to say that Duke’s position is going to be very strong, and I think it highly probable that with one more victory, it’s the Blue Devils moving on to Charlotte.
Dick Vitale has become famous (or infamous) for his frantic cry of “Here come the Dookies!” in basketball. Now the ACC has to be on the alert for the football team, who might stand as the last hurdle in front of Florida State on the way to a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.
The ACC has eight bowl tie-ins, and the good news for Duke (or whomever wins the Coastal) is that the conference championship game loser can slip no lower than the Sun Bowl, the #5 choice, against what will be a credible Pac-12 opponent. Too often, in a league like this, a loss in the title game leaves you free-falling through the bowl selection process. The ACC is farsighted enough to at least provide some minimal protection to its conference champions.
Here’s TheSportsNotebook’s current ACC bowl projections…
BCS Automatic: Florida State (BCS National Championship Game, vs. Alabama)
BCS At-Large: Clemson (Orange, vs. Oklahoma State)
Chick-Fil-A: Miami (vs. Georgia)
Russell Athletic: Duke (vs. Louisville)…yes, a football rematch of last spring’s NCAA regional final.
Sun: Virginia Tech (vs. Washington)
Belk: Maryland (vs. Houston)
Music City: Syracuse (vs. Ole Miss)
Advocare V100: Boston College (vs. undecided)
Military: Pitt (vs. Tulane)
The opponent in the Advocare V100 Bowl is the last spot on the SEC bowl ladder, and as of this week’s SEC bowl projections, I don’t have enough teams qualifying. If Florida doesn’t beat Florida State or Mississippi State beat Ole Miss, this spot becomes available to a league with more eligible teams than bids.
Please note also that if Clemson does not make it as a BCS at-large, they’ll drop into the Chick-Fil-A spot, everyone moves down a rung, and Pitt would be left shopping for an open spot somewhere.