I have documented my complex love-hate-love feelings for Duke in the past, so I’ll forego all that, except for the practical upshot: I really wanted Duke to win the Belk Bowl. As a UNC fan, I know that those Charlotte bowls are fool’s gold. UNC has gone bowling in the Queen City thrice in my lifetime, and I have zero positive memories from any of those outings. Sure, Ric Flair was there once, but in 2004 Boston College’s punter trucked a UNC linebacker for a touchdown on a fake field goal, and UNC lost in Charlotte twice in a row by a combined 3 points during the pitiful doldrums of their Davis-Era mediocrity. So my desire to see a deep blue victory was a combination of my own weird Duke emotions and of my need to see the finest state in the country finally defend itself successfully from an outside threat.
I have just seen Les Misérables, so it’s clouding (or more probably, enhancing) my understanding of the world, and I have come to this conclusion: this year’s Duke team was the Éponine of the ACC. You want what’s best for her in spite of yourself, and she’s way more interesting than Cosette (Florida State? I don’t know. The metaphor kind of falls apart here) but you know how it’s going to end, which is tragic.
In the same way that Éponine is interesting both because of her circumstances and the decisions she makes within the life-parameters that fate has saddled her with, Duke rolled into Charlotte as either a pretty fascinating case study in ACC ascension, or the least-likely flash (such as it is) in the Coastal pan. Either way, much more compelling than Cincinnati’s Cosette: senselessly virtuous and generically pretty in her redundant we-made-it-to-a-bowl-game-chrome helmets. But alas, Duke was to be shot in the chest, and Cincinnati had their victory rescued for them from out of a river of their own crap.
[The only remotely interesting thing about the Bearcats was the name of their backup quarterback, Munchie Legeaux (plus the announcers’ baffling pronunciation of that name, which is French, and seems like it should be phonetically closer to “Let’s go,” than to “leggo my eggo,” right? Although I do love the idea of the Legeaux family as a clan of interlocking Danish blocks)].
But anyway, a few hours, a healthy smattering of various injuries and two goal-line fumbles later, at the end of the game Duke was just another game older, which is all you can say for the life of the poor.
This website’s own benevolent curator has voiced his opinions on the possible fluky-ness of Duke’s “success” under Cutcliffe, and it will remain to be seen if this season was an anomaly or a step forward, but (for whatever reason) I am oddly optimistic. Under Cutcliffe, Duke has had seasons where they won the two-or-so games they should have, and seasons where they pulled of zany upsets (Thaddeus Lewis shredding That One Red Team in 2009 is still one of my absolute favorite things that has ever happened in the ACC) but when was the last time they did both in the same year? Next year, Duke can replace Florida State and Clemson (really the ACC’s only reliably semi-elite teams) on their schedule with, say, Boston College and NIU-Hillsborough Street, and their non-conference schedule is comprised of Memphis, Navy, and N.C. Central. Wake Forest and Virginia are also on the schedule, plus Georgia Tech (possibly after Navy, and that triple-option is way less pesky when you’re seeing it for the second time in a season). It’s not super delusional to see five or six winnable games in there.
The instant it seemed possible, Duke’s season became about reaching the bowl game, but never winning it. The team used up everything in achieving that sixth win, and then fell to the season’s final onslaught, behind a bunker made of furniture. The Duke team’s presence alone in Charlotte was a validation of those lofty (by uniquely Durham standards) expectations, and they just didn’t have the stuff to exceed them.
Next year, the Blue Devils won’t have the luxury of lowered expectations, but if they can eke out six wins and go bowling two seasons in a row, then the narrative that the announcers touched on Thursday is going to be the one I choose to believe: that Cutcliffe has been re-invigorated by Peyton Manning, and Duke football has become some new kind of Duke football, and is no longer singing, sadly and alone, out in the cold, French rain.
I know State’s won there twice, but this isn’t the part of the Internet where we care about State.
 Incidentally, one of my friends went to a production in Atlanta where Eponine was cut from the play entirely. Isn’t that the most Meta thing you’ve ever heard?
 An aside: here are a couple of Duke player nicknames I came up with. Need for Snead: Underground, New England Clam Crowder. Also, Connete-Four, but the credit goes to my brother.
 Hope, it should be pointed out, is cruel, probably.
 The uncertain coach has his love of the game re-kindled when one of the greatest players of all time trusts him with a vital part of that player’s journey back from an injury that should have been career-ending. The uncertain coach, with new fire, wrings every drop of the stuff that wins football games out of his players, etc. etc. That’s a beautiful story no matter which shade of blue you prefer.