A Chance for Vindication
By Matthew Osborne
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The Duke Blue Devils won one game the season before David Cutcliffe came to Durham, and it has been an arduous climb to respectability ever since.
When compiling a list of the top non-BCS bowl games in college football, the Belk Bowl in Charlotte is not one that immediately jumps to the forefront of the mind.
Currently a matchup between the No. 5 team from the ACC and the No. 3 team from the Big East, the Belk Bowl has a history of producing close contests, even if it doesn’t come between two of the nation’s more highly ranked teams.
Even without the lore of an overwhelmingly prestigious bowl game, for a program that has waited nearly two decades the experience the joy of postseason football, the Belk Bowl offers an exciting and awe-inspiring opportunity.
In the history of the Duke program, the Blue Devils have played in a mere eight bowl games, with six of those postseason bouts coming prior to 1962. In the last half decade of football, Duke has played in just two bowl games: the All-American Bowl in 1989 and the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1994. The Blue Devils lost both of those contests.
Scanning over the Duke Football record book, it is easy to see why the Blue Devils are so excited to be playing in Charlotte on Thursday. It has been 18 seasons since the Blue Devils last played a game in December or January, and it has been an amazing 51 years since the Blue Devils last won a bowl game (the 1961 Cotton Bowl).
As a reward for the tremendous coaching which David Cutcliffe has done with a once lifeless Duke program, the Blue Devils will now receive an outstanding opportunity to continue to show the college football world that they are a program to be taken seriously.
In order to do so, however, the Blue Devils will have to outpace a very talented Cincinnati team which finished with a share of the Big East title.
“I view this game is a phenomenal opportunity for our program,” Cutcliffe remarked to the ACC Digital Network earlier this month. “[Cincinnati] over the last 10 years has been a consistent 9-10 game winner. They went 5-2 in their conference and tied for their conference championship, so it’s a great opportunity for everybody who cares about Duke Football, but also a big opportunity for our players.”
While the entire Duke community certainly feels a sense of relief and vindication after an 18-year bowl drought, it is the Blue Devils’ crop of talented veterans who likely feel the greatest sense of accomplishment after this year’s six-win campaign.
Going back even farther, it is an accomplishment in which many of Duke’s recent graduates can also take a tremendous amount of pride.
The Blue Devils won just one game the season before Cutcliffe came to Durham, and it has been an arduous, albeit steady, climb to respectability ever since.
“I’m really thrilled for our seniors,” Cutcliffe continued. “I’m thrilled for the players that have left us in the past two or three years that have put so much into this program, because I hope they know this is partially their accomplishment as well.”
If anything, with the buzz and excitement surrounding the Duke program heading into Thursday’s contest, the biggest concern for the Duke coaching staff Thursday afternoon may very well be keeping the players’ emotions in check.
Although there was undoubtedly significant reason to rejoice over reaching bowl eligibility, Cutcliffe knows that the key to postseason success is keeping an even keel on the gridiron.
“After [coaching] this many years, you realize that a steady hand pays off,” Duke’s head man calmly exclaimed.
To the normal outsider, this year’s Belk Bowl may seem like just another insignificant bowl game that will hold college football fans over until the real bowl games start on New Years Day.
For the Duke Blue Devils, though, there is no more important game in college football this season than Thursday’s Belk Bowl.
By no means would a Blue Devil victory erase decades of failures and disappointments, but it would undoubtedly validate the hard work that the players, coaches, administrative staff and fan base have put into the program since Cutcliffe’s arrival.