Duke needs to open this kind of hole for Desmond Scott (33), shown in the Elon game, to establish a solid rushing game.
  • File photo by Al Drago
  • Duke needs to open this kind of hole for Desmond Scott (33), shown in the Elon game, to establish a solid rushing game.

David Cutcliffe has brought the Duke football program a long way in a short time, taking the Blue Devils from what looked like permanent ACC doormat status to becoming a competitive force in the conference.

But on Saturday the Blue Devils are going to get their toughest test in quite a while.

Defending national champion and No. 1 Alabama, which also happens to be Cutcliffe’s alma mater, will visit Wallace Wade Stadium for a nationally televised matchup that’s a hard sellout. They’ve even brought in several thousand extra bleachers for this one, what with several hundred Crimson Tide fans buying season tickets to see Alabama’s first true road game outside the SEC in seven years.

It’s certainly going to be a big day of football in the Triangle, what with UNC — still reeling from its NCAA problems and likely with a double-digit number of players still sitting out with eligibility questions — hosting a powerful running attack from Georgia Tech.

If you don’t have tickets, it’s a great chance to sit back in the recliner and watch a top-notch doubleheader.

Duke’s game will be the season debut for Alabama’s reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, who has sat out the season’s first two games following arthroscopic knee surgery.

“Where we are right now is we’re more concerned about Duke than we could be any opponent, and that includes Alabama,” said Coach Cutcliffe, whose team lost a 54-48 heartbreaker at Wake Forest on Saturday. “We’ve got to find a way to become better and better quickly for the purposes of our season. We’re extremely impressed as anybody would be with Alabama in all phases of the game. There’s a lot of festivity and hoopla surrounding the ball game up here, but I think our team has done a good job of getting our focus back on the field.”

Cutcliffe is 12-13 in games against the Crimson Tide during his tenures as head coach at Mississippi and a top assistant at Tennessee.

“This is my 26th time to coach against Alabama, which is pretty amazing in itself,” he said. “It’s always a special challenge and a special feeling.

“We have to improve from an assignment standpoint. Mental errors have far greater hurt us much more than physical errors. And you can’t cure it talking about it. It’s about work, it’s about putting people in position to be successful and not making mental errors. All we need to do is get it done on the grass, and I feel better about us now. I love testing yourself. What a great opportunity to measure yourself and test yourself. I want our players to learn how to contest every single play for 60 minutes.”

Speaking of returning players, UNC got great news when senior running back Shaun Draughn was cleared by the NCAA to play against the Yellow Jackets.

“Obviously we’re anxious to get back to playing,” said UNC coach Butch Davis, whose team almost pulled off a miracle in its 30-24 season-opening loss to LSU in Atlanta on Sept. 4 and was idle last week. “We spent last week trying to work on things we felt we could learn from from the LSU game. We’ve been working on fixing things we’re going to see over the next 11 ball games.

“Georgia Tech is clearly one of the more difficult teams in the country to prepare for. The buzzword is discipline. One of the challenges is for our guys to understand how critically important it is for them to take care of their responsibilities. It’s all going to start with (Tech quarterback) Josh Nesbitt. In any triple-option offense the quarterback is the most critical guy. And I see them having more speed at the skilled positions than they’ve had in the past. And the same challenges that face the defense face the offense. We don’t see a 3-4 defense that often.”

The Tar Heels will be without running back Giovani Bernard (knee), wideout Brendon Felder (knee) and linebacker Tommy Heffernan (shoulder) while backup quarterback A.J. Blue (knee), offensive lineman T.J. Leifheit (ankle) and defensive lineman Jared McAdoo (illness) are listed as questionable.

UNC vs. Georgia Tech
[Saturday, noon, Kenan Stadium]
Tech leads series 24-18-3.
UNC 0-1; GT 1-1.
Audio: WCHL 1360, WRDU-FM 106.1, XM 191, XM 192, Sirius 213, Sirius 214, RamblinWreck.com.
Video: WRAL 5.
Coaches’ records — UNC: Butch Davis 71-39, 20-19 at UNC; GT: Paul Johnson 128-47, 21-8 at GT.
Leading rushers — UNC: Anthony Elzy 14-52, 0 TD; GT: Josh Nesbitt 31-163, 3 TD.
Leading passers — UNC: T.J. Yates 28-46-412-0, 3 TD; GT: Nesbitt 6-21-124-1, 1 TD.
Leading receivers — UNC: Jheranie Boyd 6-221, 1 TD; GT: Stephen Hill 5-63, 1 TD.
Leading tacklers —— UNC: Quan Sturdivant 8, 1 TFL, 1 FR; GT: Isaiah Johnson 15, 2 TFL, 1 Sk, 1 FF.
Favorite — UNC by 2 (Vegas line).

Duke vs. No. 1 Alabama
[Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Wallace Wade Stadium]
Alabama leads series 2-1.
Duke 1-1; Alabama 2-0.
Audio: WDNC 620, WRBZ 850, XM 191/192/199, Sirius 213/214/220.
Video: WTVD 11.
Coaches’ records — Duke: David Cutcliffe 54-45, 10-16; Alabama: Nick Saban 141-67-1, 30-8 at Alabama.
Leading rushers — Duke: Desmond Scott 26-202, 2 TD; Alabama: Trent Richardson 32-210, 3 TD.
Leading passers — Duke: Sean Renfree 59-83-708-3, 6 TD; Alabama: Greg McElroy 29-40-447-0, 3 TD.
Leading receivers — Duke: Conner Vernon 18-310, 2 TD; Alabama: Julio Jones 10-142, 1 TD.
Leading tacklers —— Duke: Matt Daniels 15, 2 TFL, 1 INT; Alabama: Jerrell Harris 11.
Favorite — Alabama by 24 (Vegas).