One month into their season, the Blue Devils have faced plenty of adversity and emerged from the maelstrom 4–0 and ranked twenty-second in the country. On Saturday night, the ante is raised with the commencement of their ACC schedule, in the form of the visiting Virginia Tech Hokies.
Last weekend’s 55–13 thrashing of an overmatched N.C. Central has become something of an annual rite of passage and tells us little about how good David Cutcliffe’s 2018 squad might actually be. In the previous three weeks, muscular showings against Army, Northwestern, and Baylor all provided evidence of a deep and disciplined team with the capability of reaching a prestige bowl game. The Blue Devils have overcome the short-term loss of talented junior quarterback Daniel Jones and a handful of other starters. They’ve appeared unfazed by foreshortened travel and practice schedules caused by Hurricane Florence. For weeks, they have appeared to be on a collision course with the Hokies in a pivotal early-season contest between ACC unbeatens.
VaTech foiled that narrative last week, losing in stunning fashion to Old Dominion, in a game during which they too lost a starting quarterback in Josh Jackson. In some ways, that astonishing outcome only ramps up the pressure on Duke, which figured to walk into the game as a significant underdog to a top-fifteen team and now finds itself the ranked and favored side. Coach Cutcliffe has gone to pains this week to stress the unlikely nature of Tech’s loss to ODU, suggesting it was the sort of occurrence that might take place one time in a hundred. That seems right: a wounded Hokies team figures to take the field in Durham loose and dangerous.
It is not too much of an exaggeration to call Saturday night’s game a crossroads for Cutcliffe’s program. Last year’s Blue Devils team also started 4–0 and promptly hit a massive iceberg in the form of a six-game losing streak. As gritty and composed as this year’s squad has appeared, a similar swoon seems difficult to imagine, but there is nothing like getting punched in the mouth by a conference rival on national television to set trouble into motion.
If they can survive the Hokies, the Blue Devils will take an unbeaten record into an off week and face the prospect of bringing back a healthy Jones for their October 13 contest against Georgia Tech. At that point, the ceiling for 2018 becomes sky high, and even factoring in a rough patch, an impressive eight- or nine-win season will feel inevitable. If they lose, they’ll have two weeks to chew on it and wonder if their fast start was a mirage abetted by underwhelming competition and some fortunate bounces of the ball.
Candidly, I absolutely hate this game. Tech is 12–2 against the Blue Devils since joining the ACC and a cool 6–0 when visiting Durham. They are a gifted, angry team heading into a game against a conference rival they have comfortably dominated for years. Duke backup quarterback Quentin Harris has done an admirable job filling in for Daniel Jones, but the offense with Harris is not truly equipped to play from behind. Should the Hokies race out to an early lead, this could be ugly by halftime.
That the Blue Devils enter the contest as four-point favorites is a testament to all that has gone right for them in 2018, amid injuries and distractions that would have already derailed a lesser team. Tonight’s contest represents a different magnitude of challenge. It feels like trouble, but perhaps this is the moment when Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils take the next step toward the upper echelons of the ACC and prove doubters (like me) wrong.
Gametime: Saturday, 7:00 p.m. (on ESPN 2)
Odds: Duke –4
Prediction: VT 38–Duke 20