One of the repeated jokes over the Halloween weekend, at least during the game snippets I caught in between party preparations, was the fact that Duke football, joke of the conference for the last fifteen years, has the second-best record in the ACC and is in control of its own destiny as the November schedule plays out. It's funny, you see, because the entire conference is awful.
Duke's position is in no small part a result of a favorable schedule; after opening the conference slate with a surprisingly close loss to Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils faced a row of the worst teams in the conference. State, Maryland and Virginia are a combined 8-16 on the year, leaving North Carolina, bottom dweller of the Coastal Division as their first opponent in a month with a winning record. So are the Blue Devils actually any good, or is it all a mirage? And does Carolina have it together enough for it to matter?
First of all, to call Duke's offense one-dimensional is an insult to one-dimensional offense. The Blue Devils running game has a combined 185 yards in its four conference games. And yet they've managed 1,532 through the air in the same four games, mostly to a collection of freshmen and sophomore receivers. Expect the ball to only move when Thaddeus Lewis throws it; fortunately he's not quite the talent Christian Ponder is, and won't be able to single-handedly win the game, but expect him to put more stress on the UNC secondary than, say, Virginia or Virginia Tech.
At this point in the season, however, we know that what offense UNC faces really isn't important. The defense can handle it. The question is, is their defense flawed enough for UNC to put up the roughly two touchdowns they get in wins over 1A teams? And the answer is, I don't really know. They held N.C. State to four touchdowns, so they're not Florida State bad, but their ranking of 4th in the ACC s also a bit deceptive. Duke's best defensive strategy is keeping the defense ff the field all together – they've faced almost forty fewer plays than, say, UNC in their four conference games. I don't know how the offense grinds away at the clock with such a pass-happy strategy, but there you go.
Needless to say, Duke's schedule difficulty ramps up beginning this week, as UNC is followed by two ranked teams in Georgia Tech and Miami, only to close with schizophrenic Wake Forest. This is a near must win for Duke to reach their first bowl game since 1994. It's also a chance to see if Carolina can string together back-to-back victories. The Heels have a tendency to follow up their big conference wins with pretty dismal performances – Maryland last year and South Carolina in 2007 – so it be another step back to respectability for them to get a winning streak going. Also, Duke sucks.