The Virginia Tech-Duke game on Saturday night was a game we‘ve seen a hundred times before here in the Triangle. And not just at Duke. Sometimes it‘s at Carter-Finley and sometimes it‘s at Kenan, but there always seems to be that one game where the football world is actually paying attention to Big Four football and the Big Four fails to deliver in the national spotlight. I guess you could call it the Peter Principle of college football where our local teams succeed enough to rise to the level of their incompetence.
Take away the window dressing of tailgate-scene rankings, stadium sizes, uniform suppliers, NFL alumni and coaching reputations and Duke, NC State and UNC are the same when it comes to the height of the glass ceiling they all face. Don‘t get me wrong, each program has to put in different amounts of effort to get to that ceiling, but then you‘re just venturing into excuses of which division is more difficult or which coach has the hardest sell when walking into a recruit‘s living room or the admissions office. For all of the subtle differences, at the end of the year when we‘re adding up wins and losses, each program is shooting for the same score.
Think of it as an average golfer who‘s out there to try to break 80, which is good enough of a score to brag about in the bar and might win some money in cash games, but it‘s not getting anyone on tour. “Breaking 80” for area football teams is the 8-win mark, which sounds really bad, but outside of a handful of consistent contenders and another handful of delusional fanbases, the majority of college football programs would be thrilled with eight wins. In fact, Duke, State and UNC have only reached that ninth win a combined 31 times since football was invented. Since 2000, one of the three teams has “broken 80” just six times in a given season. In four of those 18 seasons, no area team was able to even reach that eighth win.
In golf, the trick to consistently breaking 80 is to keep the big numbers off of the score card and maintain a mindset that there‘s an infinite number of possible paths towards breaking that threshold. On a traditional course with a par of 72, you‘re allowed seven bogeys and 11 pars. If you get an eighth bogey, you need to find a birdie somewhere. Some rounds you‘ll get there the easy way, and others you‘ll get there with two double bogeys and an eagle. But at the end of the day, it‘s still breaking 80, and that‘s all that matters.
Right now, UNC is the area program that‘s struggling to stay away from those doubles and triples. At the risk of handing out the “sleeping giant” moniker, there‘s enough talent on that roster to find an eagle somewhere by winning an unexpected game that nobody saw coming. They‘re the golfer you see on the course with a beautiful swing who somehow ends up in the trees after every tee shot. You just know at some point they‘re going to catch one on the sweet spot and hit the perfect shot. They‘re struggling to break 100 right now, but they‘ll get to 80 soon enough.
NC State is the golfer who birdies the first hole and thoughts of breaking 80 are immediately replaced by thoughts of breaking the course record. Spoiler alert – that golfer eventually has to birdie the 17th and 18th holes for their 79.
For the past few seasons, Duke has been the golfer who misses a birdie chance and instead of recognizing the value of a par and the opportunities that still lay ahead, they‘ll start throwing clubs and hack their way to four straight double-bogeys. All because they‘re stewing over a missed 30-foot putt.
In 2012, back to back losses to the ACC‘s two best teams (12-win Florida State and 11-win Clemson) derailed a 6-2 start and the Blue Devils lost 3 straight winnable games to finish 6-7 instead of 9-4. In 2015, they took another 6-2 start and allowed the controversial Miami loss to turn a possible 10-win season into an 8-win season with a four-game losing streak. A year ago, Duke started 4-0 and lost the next six games after laying an egg against Miami in the “revenge game”.
The loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday can mean whatever hot take you want it to mean. Duke‘s not ready for primetime. Duke‘s come a long way but does it matter if they can‘t win the big game, etc. In reality, Duke‘s loss to Virginia Tech was Triangle area football‘s destiny running its course. If Duke had won the game – and they could have, if you reverse the outcomes on a missed tackle in the backfield on a screen pass or a dropped touchdown catch by a hugely disappointing “game-changing” recruit – they probably drop another somewhere down the line to maintain the order of the 8-win boundary.
It mattered because Duke had zero margin for error in the Coastal race as the Blue Devils draw a road game at Clemson while Miami and Virginia Tech both drew a comically bad Florida State team in their crossover. It also didn‘t matter because, at best, Duke was always going to be shooting to “break 80” because that‘s what we do here in the Triangle.
In this case, they were allowed three bogeys this season. They just put one of them on the scorecard, and have road games at Clemson and Miami ahead of them. After the bye week, Duke just needs to keep it in the fairway against Georgia Tech.