July 28, 2003 DURHAM Duke tailback Alex Wade was outraged at the notion that the ACC media would predict the Blue Devils to finish last in 2003. Actually, he was beyond outraged. He was in disbelief. Anybody who bets on us to finish last in the ACC is going to lose that bet, Wade said, shaking his head, during the ACC Football Kickoff in Georgia. No way do we finish last this season.
That's typical football-player talk in July, and while in most instances that alone would be reason for some healthy skepticism, this isn't any typical instance. This is Duke football, and Duke football players rarely have spoken with the authority or the confidence shown this summer by Wade and senior teammate Matt Zielinski, a defensive tackle. In summers past, Duke football players have shown optimism, but not the kind of unshakeable belief shared by Wade and Zielinski that this season will really, truly be different.
We're bigger, stronger, faster, more confident, Zielinski said. We're better. We're ready to win this season.
If only it were that easy. While it's true the Blue Devils are definitely more experienced and probably more talented than they've been in coach Carl Franks' previous four seasons, it's also true that ACC football could reach its apex this year. That leaves Duke in the difficult situation of probably being much better than it has been in years but possibly not having that much to show for it, at least within the conference.
Well, that's probably what ACC media members were thinking when they predicted during the Football Kickoff that Duke would, despite Wade's protestations, finish last again this season. Sure, Duke could be better, but so are Maryland, Virginia and N.C. State and Florida State probably will be very good again.
The Blue Devils' best bets for breaking their current 25-game ACC losing streak appear to be dates with Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina.
In this regard, the schedule is not necessarily kind. The Blue Devils won't see any of those four teams until their seventh game of the season, when they play host to Wake Forest on Oct. 18. That matchup will come on the heels of contests with Florida State and at Maryland, and before games against N.C. State and at Tennessee. That's a brutal stretch, and it could go one of two ways. Duke might get distracted, even depressed, if they are picked apart by FSU and Maryland and lose focus of its golden opportunity against what looks like a depleted Deacons team. Or, on the bright side, Duke could see the Wake game for what it is, a mid-desert oasis to be treasured, not trashed.
After that five-game stretch, the Blue Devils close the season with their other three most beatable ACC opponents, a home date with Georgia Tech, followed by trips to Clemson and North Carolina.
Last year Duke played that trio tough, losing leads in the final seconds to Clemson and North Carolina and going down 17-2 at Georgia Tech. In all, Duke lost five games by five points or less last season, when the Blue Devils went 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the league.
We're not going to lose five games by five points or less this season, I can promise you that, Wade said. We're going to win those games this year. We know what it's like to be in those situations, and we'll handle ourselves better now.
Final Opportunity For Franks?
Franks is optimistic about the season but realistic about his situation. That much was evident when he was asked what would happen if Duke suffered through another season with two wins or less, as was the case in 2000 (0-11), 2001 (0-11) and 2002 (2-10).
You'll probably be talking to another coach, Franks said. I think I've had all of those I can get away with.
Franks quickly backed away from those comments, saying he felt no pressure to post a certain number of victories in his fifth season to ensure his job for a sixth. But his first instinct probably revealed his true gut feelings on the matter.
It also was probably close to the thinking of Duke athletic director Joe Alleva, who has shown not only considerable patience with Franks but considerable support. In past interviews, Alleva has said only that he wants to see signs that Duke football is heading in the right direction under Franks. This season, he should see just that.
With early non-conference games against Western Carolina, Rice and Northwestern all at home Duke could get off to a 3-1 start, assuming it loses its difficult opener, on the road against Virginia. Western Carolina is a Division I-AA team, while Northwestern and Rice were a combined 7-16 last season.
Half-Full Projection: Bowl Game
On top of that, Duke is as loaded as it has been in years, maybe ever, in terms of experience. With a whopping 20 of 22 starters back, plus its punter, kicker and long snapper, Duke has to be the most experienced team in the country. A Sports Journal perusal of preseason magazines showed no other Division I-A team with that kind of experience.
That experience especially personified by studs such as Wade (979 rushing yards), versatile Chris Douglas (1,019 all-purpose yards), Zielinski (18.5 tackles for loss) and linebacker Ryan Fowler (138 hits, 18 for loss) is why Franks spoke almost as boldly as his players during the Football Kickoff.
Outside the program, people just see our won-loss record, Franks said. What I see is a resilient group of players who are bigger, stronger and faster. When I got to Duke, there were players there who didn't have the desire to play. That's not the case now.
Assume Duke capitalizes on that early non-conference schedule and opens the
3-1. That should give the Blue Devils the kind of lift they'll need to overcome expected drubbings by FSU and Maryland, who combined to beat Duke 93-29 a year ago. Even at 3-3, Duke would have to feel good about its chances entering the Wake Forest game on Oct. 18.
So let's say Duke is 4-3 going into its eighth game, Oct. 25 against N.C. State. Trouble for the Blue Devils? Maybe it's trouble for the Wolfpack. In the past five seasons, Duke has come within seven points of beating N.C. State on four different occasions.
So, best-case scenario: A newly confident, inspired Duke team finally gets over the hump against N.C. State to improve to 5-3 entering its final four games, including those final three against Georgia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina. Suddenly, from this vantage point, a winning record doesn't seem out of the question for Duke. Difficult? Yes. Unlikely? Yes. But impossible? Not this year.
It's our time, Wade said. We're ready to take that step forward. Anything less than a bowl game will be a major disappointment.