Duke and Wake Forest both began playing football in 1888. In the 130 seasons since, the two teams have never gone to a bowl in the same year.
That could change this season, as the Blue Devils head to Winston-Salem for a regular season finale that has a great deal at stake for both teams.
Riding its record-breaking offense, Wake has already qualified for a bowl game. At 7-4, the Demon Deacons need to win to improve their chance of getting a Tier One bowl bid. Most prognosticators predict that the Deacs are on track to head to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl.
Wake last appeared in that bowl in 2007, when it was known as the Meineke Car Care Bowl, beating UConn 24-10 to cap a 9-4 year. Helping Wake’s cause is the fact that its main competition for a Tier One bowl slot — Louisville, NC State and Virginia Tech — have appeared in the game the last three years.
For Duke, a bowl bid might depend on upsetting the Deacs. The Blue Devils won their first four, then suffered through a six-game losing streak before getting their fifth win of the year last week, against Georgia Tech.
As one of the leaders in APR, Duke would be one of the first five-win teams selected, if there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill the slots for all 78 bowls slots. The math doesn’t look promising for that, however.
Currently, 70 teams have reached the six-win plateau. Of the 18 teams that have five wins, eight will play each other, guaranteeing someone a sixth win.
That leaves, at most, four spots for a five-win team.
In addition to Duke, the teams vying for those spots are:
Temple (who plays Tulsa)
Texas Tech (Texas)
Louisiana Tech (UT San Antonio)
Louisiana (Georgia Southern)
Georgia Tech (Georgia)
The latter two are of particular concern. Louisiana has five wins, but it has two games remaining. If they lose this week, the Ragin’ Cajuns can clinch a sixth win against App State on Dec. 2.
Georgia Tech lost a scheduled game with Central Florida due to hurricane-related reschedulings early in the season. The Yellow Jackets could petition the NCAA for a waiver if they don’t win their sixth. They were granted one in 2012, so that could also take a spot from a five-win Duke team.
There are also a pair of four-win teams that could make Duke’s life difficult. Vanderbilt, which plays Tennessee, has the same APR as Duke, and Air Force (Utah State) has a higher APR.
In other words, Duke’s best bet is to beat Wake Forest on Saturday and remove all doubt.
“This game is the most important thing in our life right now,” said center Austin Davis. “We want to win for each other, go out on top and earn that game in December — that bowl game.”
Wake quarterback John Wolford makes that task more difficult. Having a breakout senior year, Wolford is now second on Wake’s all-time passing list and the second-best quarterback rusher in school history as well.
For a Duke team coming off back-to-back games against triple option teams, defending both threats will be a challenge.
“Their RPO (run-pass option) — that’s how they’ve been getting teams a lot,” said safety Alonxo Saxton II. “We can’t bank on them running it or passing it. We’ve got to play disciplined and sound.”
Duke has given up long passes to both Army and Georgia Tech in the last two games, on the rare occasions that the two run-based attacks threw the ball. That’s not a good sign when facing Wolford.
“He can kill you in the run game and the passing game,” Saxton said. “But playing in the ACC, you always have to account for dual-threat quarterbacks. This is what we signed up for. This is what we’ve been preparing for.”
If Duke wants to begin preparing for a bowl game, the Blue Devils need to find a solution for Wake’s offense.
“Obviously, there’s always an importance and urgency in every game,” Davis said. “As seniors, we don’t want this to be the last game. We want to spend more time with this team. We love these guys.”
Davis also knows that, as the Blue Devils showed against Georgia Tech last week, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
“We have to help the defense out,” he said. “We need to keep from going three-and-out. The best way to make sure they’re not scoring points is to make sure we have the ball.”