Wake Forest, North Carolina State, and North Carolina – not just Duke – have endured rough times as football programs. Over the past 20 years, Florida State and Virginia Tech have ruled the ACC. In the 1980s, Clemson and Maryland generally outpaced the rest of the conference. Georgia Tech has periodically been able to rise to the top of the league. The North Carolina schools are called basketball schools for good reasons. They've typically been good enough to ruin another's season, but flawed enough on the gridiron to fall short of a 10-2 or 11-1 record.
Duke needed to win its last two games against Wake and Carolina to finish at 10-2, reshaping the way the ACC Coastal is perceived. On Nov. 16, the Blue Devils had already established themselves as a more overachieving team than Virginia Tech or Miami this season, but in order to claim a division championship, Duke had to survive a two-game in-state thicket of trouble. Moreover, the Blue Devils fell behind Wake and Carolina in each of these two games. Duke overcame a deficit to dump the Demon Deacons, but when Team Cutcliffe fell behind the surging Tar Heels on the final afternoon of November, the fatigue of having to make another climb up the mountain could have worn on each and every Blue Devil.
Instead, Duke kept climbing.
The Blue Devils committed numerous 15-yard penalties on defense. They muffed a punt. They showed alarmingly weak tackling technique on the two-point conversion by North Carolina that remained the difference in the game late in the fourth quarter, as the Tar Heels clung to a 25-24 lead. Yet, for all the mistakes the Blue Devils made, they shrugged off every one of them.
Quarterback Anthony Boone – who came very close to throwing a game-sealing interception on his team's final drive – rebounded from that wobble just moments later to beat a safety blitz with a completion that put the Blue Devils in field goal range. After tallying three points for a 27-25 lead, Duke turned the game over to its defense. Promptly, the Blue Devils' pass rush generated a level of pressure that had been missing for much of the second half. North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora sat on two timeouts, and with the clock pinching the Tar Heels, a panicky downfield throw turned into an interception that sealed a 10-win season, an ACC Coastal championship, and – quite possibly – the 2013 National Coach Of The Year award for Cutcliffe.
ACC Coastal parity? Not this season. While five other teams stumbled at various points along the way, Duke took care of business and stood above the crowd. The Miami Hurricanes, a proud football power, have never made an ACC Championship Game appearance. The Duke Blue Devils can now say they have. What a world we live in.