The Coastal Division race could become very confusing in the next two weeks, with possible tiebreaker scenarios looming and yet another season filled with unpredictable results. Don’t get too overwhelmed, though, because as of right now, the picture is very clear: Duke is the team to beat.
The Blue Devils are just two wins away from playing Florida State in the ACC championship game on Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C., and will end the season with back-to-back road trips against in-state rivals Wake Forest and North Carolina. Duke’s job is not done yet -- it has to win out to leave no doubt that it is the best team in the division -- but based on what we’ve seen so far, Duke is the most deserving team in the Coastal. That’s based on the Blue Devils’ résumé, which includes two wins against ranked teams -- not on the fact that Duke also happens to be the feel-good-story-of-the-year in the ACC.
"We all do believe we deserve it, we worked hard over the summer and throughout the whole season we've been grinding out there, but to say we're deserving over other teams that would be a little cocky,” said Duke running back Shaquille Powell. “As a team, I think these next two wins is what we're focusing on. To say we deserve it over other teams is pushing it, but deep down we know we’re really working for this and hopefully it will all pay off in the end."
Powell is being polite. It’s just how they are at Duke. An 8-2 team, though, is a far more attractive championship prospect than any four- or five-loss team, regardless of history -- and that’s exactly what we’re looking at this week. Duke enters Saturday’s game at Wake Forest riding a six-game winning streak and is the only team in its division ranked among the Associated Press Top 25.
Nobody else in the division has done anything to separate itself.
This is not Virginia Tech’s year. The Hokies lost to Duke and Maryland ... at home?! And they couldn’t stop Boston College. Virginia Tech has lost three of its last four heading into the final week of the regular season. Not exactly screaming championship material in Blacksburg.
Georgia Tech? The Jackets have lost four games -- twice as many as Duke. Granted, they won the head-to-head battle, but that was also Duke’s first game without starting quarterback Anthony Boone, who suffered a broken collarbone the previous week against Memphis. That win over Duke, though, gives Georgia Tech the best argument in a tiebreaker scenario. Virginia Tech and Miami can’t say the same.
Miami isn’t back, it’s going backwards. The defense is regressing. It has lost three straight, including a 48-30 loss to Duke. If Miami is going to earn its way to the ACC title game, this isn’t the way to do it.
It’s very possible the Coastal Division could still finish in a five-way tie at 5-3, but do ACC fans really want to see a five-loss North Carolina team representing the division? That’s almost as bad as a six-loss Georgia Tech team playing for it all (see: 2012).
Duke, meanwhile, has something to brag about.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, who was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Duke in 2005 and 2006, knows how far the program has come.
“I can’t say enough about what he’s accomplished there,” O’Brien said of Duke coach David Cutcliffe. “Duke, when I was at Duke with Ted Roof, it was tough. We had great kids there, but I don’t think we for one second felt we had the support of our administration. Coach Cutcliffe obviously does ... That’s one of the best coaching jobs in college football in a long time. What he’s done at Duke is amazing.”
It’s the first time since 1971 that the program has defeated two ranked opponents in a season -- and they did it with only 11 seniors on scholarship (two fewer than last season). All four of Duke’s running backs are averaging at least five yards per carry. Boone is 7-0 in his first season as a starter. Duke ranks second in the ACC in red zone defense (.750). This is a smart, well-coached team that has earned its spot at the top of the standings.
All it has to do now is keep it.