Duke fights distractions as ‘College GameDay’ comes to town

The Blue Devils face Notre Dame in a huge game in Durham

Duke wide receiver Jalon Calhoun catches a touchdown pass over UConn defensive back Malik Dixon-Williams during the Blue Devils’ win Saturday in Hartford, Connecticut. (Josh Reynolds / AP Photo)

DURHAM — “College GameDay” is coming to Duke.

If it were four months from now, that would be no surprise at all. The ESPN show has been a regular visitor to Durham during basketball season. The college hoops version of “GameDay” has been to Duke 12 times, most recently in February, and the Blue Devils have been one of the two teams playing in the featured game 28 times. Both are tied with rival UNC for the most ever.

Football season is a different thing altogether, however. The Blue Devils are not blue bloods in the fall, and ESPN’s attentions have always been directed elsewhere. While the James Madison Dukes have hosted football “GameDay” twice and the show has visited the Duke’s Mayo Classic in Charlotte twice, most recently four weeks ago, Duke has never been a featured team, either as the host or the visiting opponent.

A 4-0 start to the season, including a win over longtime ACC power Clemson on Labor Day, helped thrust Duke into the limelight before the lights are even turned on over at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the upcoming basketball season. ESPN announced that its football “College GameDay” is making its maiden voyage to Wallace Wade Stadium for Saturday’s matchup with Notre Dame.

Of course, the Fighting Irish are no strangers to ESPN love. In basketball terms, Notre Dame is Duke. The first two “GameDays” were located in South Bend, and Notre Dame has hosted a total of 11 times and made 36 appearances — the sixth and fifth most, respectively, of any team. The show was in Notre Dame last week for the Irish’s big game against Ohio State.

It’s a marquee event, obviously, and Duke football is traveling on new ground for the program, as evidenced by Irish coach Marcus Freeman’s concern headed to Durham.

“I’ve never been there,” he said. “(Tight ends) Coach (Gerad) Parker coached there (in 2017 and 2018). We’ve played in hostile environments, so we have to make sure we have a good plan for the crowd noise and what it will be about. This thing’s going to be about us. We have to continue to remind ourselves that.”

Records aren’t as official as the ones ESPN keeps about itself, but it’s believed that Notre Dame will be the first team ever worried about crowd noise when they play football at Duke.

The Irish, who had a hard-fought, emotional loss to Ohio State in what was then a top-10 showdown last week, will also need to avoid a big game hangover as they head for what could be the biggest game at Wallace Wade since the Rose Bowl was played there during World War II.

Of course, if any team is ready to play a string of big games, it’s the Irish, who have been doing it for generations in the sport’s brightest spotlight. With his team a relative novice in that spotlight, Duke coach Mike Elko has concerns about how his Blue Devils handle the attention. The opening game against Clemson gave Duke a taste of what it will be like.

“Yeah, a little,” he said. “We still don’t have the volume of it that the teams that were playing on this stage do, and so that’s still probably an area that concerns us.”

As for the attention that a “GameDay” appearance brings a program, Elko sounded like he could do without it.

“It’s the first time hosting ‘College GameDay,’ with all the noise and the buzz that’s around that,” he said. “I told the guys this morning, we’re getting a lot of congratulations for ‘GameDay’ coming here. I’d rather wait and get some congratulations for how we play a football game Saturday night and just trying to stay focused on the task at hand.”

It will be the fourth time Elko has experienced the “GameDay” circus firsthand. When he was defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, the show was at the Irish’s game at Miami, and during his Texas A&M days, the Aggies hosted once and appeared as the visitor once.

“I’m obviously more comfortable because we’ve been through it before, but it’s still not something that happens around here all the time,” he said. “It’s still a little bit of a concern. Do you try to isolate the guys from it, or do you try to get them to embrace this? In this day and age, you can’t isolate them, aside from locking them in a closet somewhere. So it’s not necessarily about isolating, it’s just more about educating,  and we have smart kids, right? It’s not like we have an overconfident group or a big-headed group. It’s just kind of educating them on how to get through the week.”

The visiting team is worried about handling the crowd noise at Duke. The Blue Devils are fighting over confidence. “GameDay” is in town.

It’s tough to remember what season it is.