Apparently basketball season has begun? Or so I’ve heard. Before we fixate all of our attention on the firm of Barrett, Reddish, and Williamson, let us enjoy one last regular season game for that other Blue Devils team. The pretty accomplished one that plays on the gridiron.

Duke has been very good for long stretches of their 2018 football season, but last Saturday’s trip to face Clemson in Death Valley was never going to be pleasant. The Blue Devils aren’t bereft of gumption, and Coach David Cutcliffe is one of the great game planners in the country. But all of the moxie and machinations in the world were not going to make up for the talent disparity between these two rosters. Clemson is loaded again as they make their way toward another berth in the national championship playoff. Duke is another echelon below that. They knew it, the Tigers knew it, the fans knew it, and even after a slow start by Clemson, it was only just a matter of time before the hammer came down in a 35–6 loss. Despite the lopsided score, Duke did not embarrass themselves. They briefly lead 6–0 and were competitive throughout the first half, after which they trailed 14–6. They played with effort and character. They just aren’t at Clemson’s level.

So exactly what level are they at? This question has been a sort of overarching theme that has run throughout the Blue Devils campaign. At 7–4, they can look back at some very good wins over Northwestern, Miami, and Georgia Tech. They have also looked overmatched at times—not only against Clemson—but also Virginia and Virginia Tech. Even though the Blue Devils may be far from the playoff picture, this Saturday’s home finale against a capable Wake Forest team represents something truly consequential.

In college football, symbolism is critical. An eight-win season in which the Blue Devils seem to have separated themselves even slightly from the second tier of ACC competitors can play a crucial role in recruiting. Winning your regular season finale at home matters. Qualifying for a relatively prestigious bowl game has crucial ramifications for the program both in financial and recruiting terms. One can argue that, in its seemingly low-profile way, this is among the most important games in Coach Cutcliffe’s long career in Durham. The eyes of the world won’t be on Duke football Saturday afternoon, but that doesn’t mean that the future of the program will not be at stake.

Next Game: Wake Forest at Duke

Where To Watch: Saturday 12:30 p.m., ACC Network

Odds: Duke -11

Prediction: Duke 38–Wake Forest 31