In August, it would have been pretty easy to assume this week's game would feature one team in control of its own destiny in the ACC and another looking for help. Of course, who would've guessed the team with its sights set on the ACC championship game would be Duke, and it would be Florida State that was still on the outside looking in?
Still, history suggests there's little room for concern for Florida State this week, even if Duke is playing its best football in nearly two decades. But the Seminoles know what can happen when they take an opponent lightly, and the Blue Devils have talent.
So, what are the keys to running up another big win over Duke? We checked in with Blue Devils beat writer Laura Keeley from the Raleigh News & Observer for some answers.
NoleNation: Duke is 0-17 all-time against FSU, has never lost by fewer than 19 points and has allowed at least 44 points in 14 of the 17 previous meetings. Obviously this year's Duke team is the best they've had in a while, but do these Blue Devils really believe they have a chance to knock off FSU?
Laura Keeley: They do. This is not your Duke team of old, and I present you three different situations as evidence:
1) Wake Forest scored 10 points in the final 2:26 of the third quarter to tie that Sept. 29 game at 20-20. Duke scored 14 straight points and won 34-27 to snap a 12-year losing streak to the Demon Deacons.
2) Duke came out of the tunnel at Blacksburg and built a 20-0 lead against a physically superior Virginia Tech team in the first quarter. That's the second-highest total ever surrendered by the Hokies in the Frank Beamer era, and it took the largest comeback of the Beamer era for Virginia Tech to win.
3) So yes, in the above game Virginia Tech scored 41 unanswered points to win 41-20. But the Blue Devils shook that off and came out and beat UNC 33-30 to end an 8-year losing streak to the Tar Heels and clinch bowl eligibility. The game-winning drive came after Duke CB Ross Cockrell failed to corral a loose ball that would have sealed the deal for Duke, but instead UNC RB Giovani Bernard scooped and scored and gave UNC the temporary lead.
So, yeah, things are different in Durham this year. That said, the Blue Devils are aware of the monumental challenge Florida State presents and acknowledge that the Noles are bigger, faster and stronger. That's just a fact.
NN: Obviously Conner Vernon, Jamison Crowder and Sean Renfree have been the centerpieces to Duke's offense this season, but the ground game picked things up last week against UNC. Given FSU's stout secondary, do you think David Cutcliffe is going to try to find similar balance this week, and how important will the run game be to opening things up for Renfree and the passing attack?
Keeley: Attempting to sustain the potent ground attack that came out of nowhere last week (that was Duke's highest rushing total since a 2006 loss to Vanderbilt) will be paramount to the Blue Devils' chances for success. In fact, one of the reasons the game got out of control in Blacksburg is because the Hokies made Duke one-dimensional, and then, to use OL Dave Harding's words, Virginia Tech's pass rush just teed off on Duke's offensive line. So yes, expect Duke to make a good-faith effort to get Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead and Jela Duncan going. Otherwise, expect the game to get ugly.
NN: In last year's game, Florida State completed three passes of 50 yards or more. How is Duke's secondary hoping to prevent those big plays in this year's game?
Keeley: The big play has plagued Duke consistently this year, and you saw some of that in the fourth quarter against North Carolina, as QB Bryn Renner completed four passes of over 10 yards after collecting just 36 yards total through the first three quarters combined. So, to be honest, I'm not sure Duke has an answer for that problem. I can tell you that the guys in the secondary have been scouring film on the Seminoles in order to pick up on any tips or tricks that will help them contain FSU's receivers.
NN: Duke jumped out to big leads against Virginia Tech and UNC and let both slip away in the second half. Against a team with as much depth as FSU, how prepared are the Blue Devils to go four quarters Saturday?
Keeley: Well, you know, if you're Duke, I think you're encouraged by the fact that you did sustain your edge longer against UNC than at Virginia Tech. But, like I said, the Seminoles are just bigger, faster, stronger, so that's obviously a huge concern for Duke. The Blue Devils do rotate running backs and defensive linemen in and out on a regular basis in attempts to keep those guys fresh. There's a little depth on the offensive line as well but virtually none in the secondary or at receiver.
NN: What do you think will be the two or three keys to Duke keeping this game close and, potentially, having a chance to pull out the upset?
Keeley: 1. Duke has to run the ball. Becoming one-dimensional will get Renfree hurt by the constant FSU pass rush.
2. Duke has to start strong. If it can be close at the half, the Blue Devils have been pretty good at making in-game adjustments: for example, after rushing for 184 yards in the first half, Virginia managed just two in the second.
3. Florida State has to come out flat. And it's not like that's an unreasonable expectation (see: Wake Forest 2011, 2008, 2007, 2006). Cutcliffe said that the Blue Devils will need some luck, and he wasn't lying.