DURHAM – Duke will play a football game tonight in which it is a 30-point underdog whom very few – if any – expect to compete, let alone win.
The Blue Devils’ counter: So, what else is new?
“We haven’t been favored yet this year, I don’t think so,” said a laughing Kelby Brown, Duke’s star linebacker. “You know, I don’t expect any less.”
No. 20 Duke is in the midst of its best season in 24 years, though most expect the magic to be crushed by No. 1 Florida State tonight at the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. The Blue Devils (10-2) have won eight straight games, but Florida State (12-0) hasn’t played a game closer than 14 points all year.
The Seminoles haven’t played a game closer than 41-14 since September, a run that included their three most difficult games and a game that saw them score 80 points.
With that resume, the Blue Devils weren’t surprised by the spread.
“They’ve just killed a lot of teams, and that’s why the spread’s huge,” Brown said. “I mean, yeah, it’s a bit of a challenge. There’s a reason they’re the No. 1 team in the country.”
Duke’s players said the team was much more offended about being underdogs to North Carolina last week than it is about the perceived discrepancy against Florida State.
Watching the Seminoles on tape wowed some Duke players.
“They are an unbelievable football team. They are everything a No. 1 team in the country should be,” Duke tight end Braxton Deaver said. “I think our up-tempo, I think they’re going to have to deal with that. As far as everything else, we’re going to have to play the best football we can to beat this team.”
Florida State already has been penciled into the BCS National Championship Game by many, though, for a program that came from the bottom of major college football, Duke is used to being big underdogs.
The Blue Devils were picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division in the preseason. To them, being a 30-point underdog doesn’t matter.
“That may offend some people. It doesn’t offend me,” Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We haven’t gotten a chance all year, so I’m kind of just used to that.”
The change in the Duke program, its players believe, is attitude.
Kenny Anunike, a sixth-year senior, said the mindset going into a game as big underdog this year is much different from when he first arrived on campus.
“Way back then, I might have heard a few guys say, ‘Hey, let’s try to keep this game close,’ or ‘Let’s just go out there and survive,’” said Anunike, shaking his head. “That tore holes in me, man. If you’re going into a game trying to survive, you might as well not even play. You’ve already been defeated. You might as well not get off the bus.”
Running back Josh Snead said players used to kickback as soon as they picked Duke. They never have been the popular team, Snead said.
“We’re Duke. We’re looked at as ‘not cool,’” he said. “But, you know, we’re winning games, which makes us cool. It’s cool not being cool.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe acknowledged that Duke simply cannot survive big plays from the Seminoles, whom he lauded for their ability to quickly take hold of games.
This week, the conversation has not been if Duke would lose, but how ugly the loss would be.
Cutcliffe said his players have heard nobody giving Duke much of a chance.
“They hear the comments. They’re young and they’re human, and when you hear people kind of chuckle, that should create an edge,” Cutcliffe said. “That edge is never enough. You have to back it up with preparation.”
And whatever everyone else thinks, Duke’s players said none of it matters come gametime.
“The point spread doesn’t play for us (tonight),” Duke quarterback Anthony Boone said. “Neither does the media.”