There is a place in the Duke football building that has stood empty for more than a year. It’s the spot where the Blue Devils keep the Victory Bell when it’s in their possession.
The Bell, usually painted in one shade of blue or the other, is given to the winner of the annual UNC-Duke rivalry game. It used to just be part of the furniture at Kenan Stadium, brought out once a year to watch the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils from the sideline.
Since coach David Cutcliffe has revived Duke football, however, the Bell has had its traveling wheels on, changing possession four times since 2012.
The Tar Heels took the Bell last year, beating the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill, 20-17, on an interception in the end zone. UNC — which has been ranked as high as No. 5 this year, while Duke has opened the season 2-5 — will be heavily favored to keep it for another year.
Duke, however, sees reason for optimism. Following a week off, Duke overwhelmed Charlotte at home in its lone nonconference game this season. That gave the rested Blue Devils two wins in their last three games and the belief they are on the right track.
“I let my body rest,” quarterback Chase Brice said of the bye week. “Coach let us have a few days off to let our bodies rest. Also mentally, to take a break. Going six weeks of Power Five football, ACC football, is not easy. We went through the thick right there. Having that bye week kind of got our feet under us. Offensively, it showed (against Charlotte). We took full advantage.”
This will be Brice’s first taste of UNC-Duke week, although during his time at Clemson he certainly played some teams he didn’t like.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of some good rivalries,” Brice said. “When I was younger, I was a Georgia fan. I didn’t like Florida. I didn’t like Georgia Tech. When I was at Clemson, you didn’t like South Carolina. Now, at Duke, you don’t like North Carolina. You don’t like anybody in the state, honestly. I’m excited for next week. I know the guys are. We’re eager to get into the film room and get prep on them. The goal is to have another great week of practice and get ready to go for Saturday.”
North Carolina, meanwhile, lost to Virginia, giving the Tar Heels two losses in their last three.
From the Blue Devils’ standpoint, the game is a matchup of teams on two different trajectories.
For UNC, however, it’s a chance to right the ship. The team had visions of an ACC title, which might be dashed after two conference losses.
“We got better press and better expectations than we were as a team,” coach Mack Brown said.
The Heels still have plenty to play for, however.
For one thing, the team is in the middle of a four-week stretch against its biggest ACC rivals. In order, the Heels schedule had NC State, Virginia, Duke and Wake. It’s the first time in team history they’ve played those four teams consecutively.
“We’ve had a tough five-week stretch,” Brown said. “At Boston College was a physical game. (So was) Virginia Tech, at Florida State, NC State and Virginia. We’re beaten up. … We’ve got to pull it together.”
Brown spent much of his weekly press conference talking about what the Tar Heels did wrong against Virginia and his plans for UNC to regain its spot as a national contender.
For a coach that helped turn that Victory Bell into a piece of the landscape at Kenan, beating Duke in his final eight seasons in Chapel Hill, it’s only natural that he would have his sights set higher than on the rivalry game against a struggling foe.
“What we’re seeing is four or five teams that are better than everybody else,” he said. “Then we’re seeing about 25 that are all about alike, and you’ve got to play well every week in order to win. We’re in that group. Hopefully, we’ll grow out of that group.”
Meanwhile, up the road. Duke isn’t in that group this season. And each day, they walk past a silent, empty spot where a bell used to ring.
“We know that feeling in this program,” Cutcliffe said of winning the Victory Bell. “Obviously, we miss it. It’s intense. It’s extremely intense. It’s more than bragging rights. We have a special place for it. When you don’t have it, you miss it every day.
“We didn’t earn it a year ago. It’s also something you have to earn. It’s not easy to come up with it. So it’s a huge, huge challenge, but it’s extremely important to us.”