Over the past three seasons, the Duke football program has gone on a record-breaking tear, racking up wins, top-25 rankings and bowl appearances along the way.
That, in turn, has started to change expectations.
Three seasons ago, Duke was just happy to make a bowl game. Now, making a bowl game is no longer good enough. Duke wants to make a bowl game AND win a bowl game, a feat that last happened in 1960.
The Blue Devils (9-3) get their chance Saturday in the Hyundai Sun Bowl against No. 15 Arizona State (9-3), the second straight season they have faced a ranked opponent in a bowl game.
“That’s a goal and a milestone for this program,” receiver Jamison Crowder said. “The first bowl we had against Cincinnati -- that was an accomplishment in itself making it to a bowl. We came up short in that game and last year we came up short.
“Right now, we’re focused on what we need to do to win the bowl. We feel if we are able to win, that definitely helps out the program, and that just adds another accomplishment to what we have achieved.”
Go back to 2012, when Duke finished the regular season 6-6 and made it to the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati, its first bowl appearance since 1994. There was cause for celebration because the program had been down for so long. As proof, coach David Cutcliffe was selected ACC Coach of the Year despite failing to post a winning record.
Most folks seemed to view Duke as a one-hit wonder, giving the Blue Devils a little pat on the head for a job well done. But Duke had no plans to go anywhere. Last season, Cutcliffe won ACC Coach of the Year honors again after Duke won the Coastal Division and made it to the ACC championship game. It faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Not many gave Duke a chance in either game. Yet the Blue Devils nearly won them both, losing in heartbreaking fashion in the fourth quarter both times. Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the final 44 seconds to win the Belk Bowl; Texas A&M scored 21 fourth-quarter points to win in perhaps the most entertaining bowl game of last season.
“We put a big emphasis on finishing,” defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “We come out hot in the first half and maybe a little bit in the third, and then kind of die off in the fourth, which is kind of where we lose the game. [We need] to come out strong and finish strong.”
Though Duke ended up losing to Texas A&M, the Blue Devils believe they gained respect in a roundabout way. They proved they could hang with the former Heisman Trophy winner despite being a heavy underdog. Duke led 38-17 at halftime but only scored 10 points in the second half of the 52-48 loss.
Crowder called the Chick-Fil-A Bowl “one of the best experiences of my college career.”
“We felt like we could go in there and compete,” Crowder said. “I think people saw that. A lot of people didn’t think we could compete with a team like Texas A&M last year but just going out there and playing, even when we lost in the last moments of the game, I think a lot of people see the Duke program -- now we have athletes that can play and compete with the best of them.”
Competing is one thing. Winning is another. Having said that, some perspective is still in order.
As much as Duke wants to win a bowl, it only has made five postseason appearances since beating Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, 7-6, in 1960. Three have come since 2012.
“It’s a very interesting chance for our team to go out there and do something that our team last year didn’t do or the year before that or teams a long time in the past,” quarterback Anthony Boone said. “It’s not going to be easy, playing the No. 15 team in the country. They do a lot of good things, and they come from a great conference, so this is more a program game for us more than proving a point or having a chip on our shoulders. Just a chance for our program to be matched up against another great program and seeing where we are.”