Before the 2013 season began, ACC watchers believed the Coastal Division could go a number of different ways. Indeed, four teams received first-place votes in preseason polling in July.
None of those teams was named Duke.
Now, with one final week left in the regular season, the Blue Devils -- not Miami, or Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech or North Carolina -- sit in control of the Coastal Division. After a hard-fought 28-21 win over Wake Forest on Saturday, all Duke needs to do is beat North Carolina next week in Chapel Hill to win the Coastal Division outright, secure its first trip to the ACC championship game and earn a date with Atlantic Division champ Florida State.
It sounds so simple, right?
And yet, this will be perhaps the most pressure-packed game Duke football has played in its modern history, against a surging archrival that put up 80 in a victory over Old Dominion on Saturday. Both teams enter the game on long winning streaks -- Duke has won seven straight; UNC has won five straight to become bowl-eligible after a horrendous 1-5 start.
If Duke falters, well, the door remains open for several other Coastal contenders. Miami beat Virginia 45-26 on Saturday to keep its slim division hopes alive. The Canes need to beat Pitt on Friday, and then have Duke and Virginia Tech lose.
Virginia Tech must beat Virginia next week to have any shot at the crown. Georgia Tech, already in the clubhouse with a 5-3 mark in the ACC, needs Virginia Tech to lose to have any chance.
A five-way tie atop the division remains possible. If North Carolina beats Duke, and Miami and Virginia Tech win, then they would join the Jackets at 5-3 in division play. Virginia Tech would win in a five-way tie based on its 5-1 Coastal Division record.
Got all that?
The Coastal Division generally is a muddled mess up until the very end, but never once has the division ended in a five-way tie. Only twice since divisional play began has the Coastal finished without an outright champion. So more often than not, the division works itself out.
This could very well be Duke’s year. The Blue Devils clinched at least a share of the Coastal and tied the school record with nine wins, last accomplished in 1941. And they stayed perfect on the road (4-0) after overcoming an early 14-0 deficit.
Wake Forest hung around until the end, briefly holding a 21-14 third-quarter lead before Duke scored on consecutive drives to make the difference. In 11 games this year, Duke has allowed the opponents to score only 34 fourth-quarter points.
But this D has to now contend with a North Carolina squad that has found new life with Marquise Williams under center. Williams set the school record for total offense in a game with 469 yards and tied the school record with five passing touchdowns in the 80-20 win over the Monarchs. Ryan Switzer returned his fourth punt for a score, tying the ACC record.
North Carolina set the school record with 80 points, and both sides agreed to mutually shorten the fourth quarter to 10 minutes.
But the Tar Heels were not the only ACC team involved in an out-of-hand nonconference game Saturday. No. 2 Florida State also scored 80 in an easy win over Idaho; Georgia Tech handled Alabama A&M 66-7; and No. 7 Clemson beat the Citadel 52-6 as Tajh Boyd also threw five touchdown passes. NC State was the only team to lose in nonconference play this weekend, falling 42-28 to East Carolina, a team that also beat North Carolina early in the season.
The Tar Heels today are a different team than the group that took the field against the Pirates in September. Duke, on the other hand, is a different team than the group that has taken the field year after year.
An epic showdown awaits.
“I'm just a little bit almost at loss for words because the emotions are pretty strong of what those guys accomplished,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe told reporters after the victory. “Seventy-two years is a long time. That’s pretty significant. … The thing that pleased me is every time we’ve won a game, the next one gets bigger. The challenge gets bigger. This will be our greatest challenge of the year coming forward. Who knows what’s going to happen?”