When Duke’s football team took the field for their regular season finale four weeks ago, they did so with an opportunity to make a statement. A home win against Wake Forest would give them nine regular-season victories and the opportunity for a tenth in a bowl game. If they accomplished those two feats, a 2018 season that included impressive wins over Northwestern, Army, and Miami would have been viewed as one of David Cutcliffe’s best in Durham.

That didn’t happen. On what turned out to be a miserable day for both weather and Blue Devils football, an underdog Wake Forest team absolutely beat the brakes off of Duke for sixty crushingly one-sided minutes. When the dust settled on a 59–7 demolition, it felt anything like the culmination of a successful season. Out-schemed, out-executed and out-efforted by an inspired Demon Deacons squad, the Blue Devils appeared to quit.

It was weird, frankly. As is commonplace with Duke football under Cutcliffe, this is a team with a handful of premium talents and a much larger number of pretty good to mediocre players who were recruited on the basis of their stature as high-motor and high-character guys. Duke is not and never will be Alabama or Ohio State or Georgia. They will never turn out first-round draft picks like ticker tape or go three deep on 5-Star recruits at nearly every position. What they have traditionally been is well-coached and competitive under most circumstances. In their regular-season finale, they were neither.

What went wrong? It’s hard to say exactly. The Blue Devils were coming off a brutal 35–6 road loss at Clemson where they competed hard but were ultimately (and expectedly) worn down by the sheer volume of the Tigers’ talent. That game may have exacted a physical toll that came to bear the following week. Wake came in needing a sixth win to become bowl eligible and appeared motivated, in diametric opposition to the Blue Devils’ lackadaisical posture. And playing in a driving sleet storm is never easy—it’s particularly unpleasant when you look up and find yourself trailing 31–7 at the half. All in all, it was a formula for catastrophe and a low moment for the highly respected Coach Cutcliffe.

All of this makes today’s Independence Bowl contest against Temple somewhat more consequential than your usual December 27 bowl game between unranked teams. Things have changed in Duke’s own backyard since their last outing. Crosstown rivals UNC acted quickly following a nightmare season, firing head coach Larry Fedora and replacing him with beloved local fixture and recruiter par-excellence Mack Brown. This represents an escalation in the arms race for regional talent that potentially poses real problems for Cutcliffe’s program. Coupled with the blowout loss to Wake (and Wake’s thrilling bowl victory over Memphis), the potential suddenly looms for Duke to become the third best of the ACC’s four North Carolina-based programs. This is exactly the trend line the Blue Devils will be looking to interdict when they take the field in Shreveport this afternoon.

How will they do? In Temple, they face a tough, physical opponent on a hot streak. The Owls have won six of seven following a rough start to the season and have been installed as three-and-a-half-point favorites. They are clearly playing the better football heading into the game but will be without head coach Geoff Collins, who moved on to take the Georgia Tech job at the end of Temple’s regular season. Coming off an aberrantly atrocious performance, Duke finds itself in a similar situation as they did heading into the Wake game: If carefully prepared and disciplined in their execution, they should win. Failing that, they could easily be humiliated.

Ultimately, I suspect Duke will play well and spring a mild upset. A restorative month off and the ample opportunity for Cutcliffe and his staff to scout Temple’s deficiencies feels like the correct mix for righting the ship. Regardless, the Blue Devils’late-seasonn swoon and the other developments surrounding them freights the contest with more meaning than your average mid-tier bowl game. A win puts the pin in an up-and-down season that could largely be interpreted as positive. A loss—and especially a bad one—feels a lot like a great unraveling.

Where to Watch: 1:30 p.m., ESPN

Odds: Temple -3.5

Prediction: Duke 31 Temple 24