by Mike Potter
WALLACE WADE STADIUM/DURHAM It's been quite a while since Duke football was getting this kind of respect.
And the Blue Devils are rarely consensus favorites to win.
But they are this week.
Duke (3-3, 1-1) is coming off an open date following a 49-28 victory at N.C. State that was one of the Blue Devils' best performances in a very long time. So when Maryland (2-5, 1-2) visits Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday at 1:30, the Blue Devils will be about six-point favorites.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said before the season started he thought this team should be a bowl team, and that will indeed happen if the Blue Devils win four of their last six games.
Duke hasn't had more than five wins since the 1994 team went 8-4 and played in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
"Are we favored?" Cutcliffe asked the attendees about the Maryland game at his weekly media luncheon. "Lord, have mercy. ... (But) I certainly don't think we should get big-headed about anything around here. The only thing I want them to do is be confident.
"To become a great program we have to continue to get better every day, not just game day. We can't afford to do anything but get better every day."
Now, is winning four of the last six doable?
What it isn't is impossible. The Blue Devils, who haven't played Maryland since 2004 in the ACC's rotating opponent schedule, have already played two of the Bowl Subdivision-ranked teams in their schedule, losing to current No. 15 Virginia Tech by only a 34-26 score at home and falling 44-16 at current No. 22 Kansas. Richmond, which beat Duke 24-16 in the season opener in Durham, is ranked No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The two remaining ranked opponents are No. 11 Georgia Tech at home and No. 8 Miami on the road, back-to-back on Nov. 14 and 21.
If the Blue Devils could win their next three games - Maryland, at Virginia and then at North Carolina - then they could get a bowl bid without beating a ranked team if they beat Wake Forest at home on Nov. 28 and finish 7-5. Not a prediction yet, just a scenario to ponder.
Cutcliffe said when he got to Duke that he intended to change the culture. Not allowing a celebration of any kind of "moral victory" after giving Virginia Tech a scare was part of that philosophy.
"I think they (players) understand that wasn't just talk on my part," Cutcliffe said. "Sometimes that may be 'coach talk,' but it wasn't. There was nothing that felt good about the Virginia Tech game. The positives were we played better, but nothing felt good about it. If you want to feel good in the locker room, you've got to win.
"You can be proud of what you've done. I don't think you have to win every game you play; that's not life. That's not realistic. Nobody's doing that. There's a whole lot of folks having a hard time doing that right now in college football. But it's the point to where you're being the best you can be and then you win more than your fair share is what you try to get to."
And if the Devils go bowling during the holiday season, it will mean they won far more than outsiders thought was their fair share.
"I think (Duke players) do believe," he said. "We're competitive. We're not running around kicking anybody's rear end. But if you get competitive, then you can find ways to win games once you're in a game. ...
"There are a lot of people taking Duke football seriously. We're going to win (over the course of his tenure.) A lot of people might think that's arrogant to say that, but if that's so I'll be arrogant. We're going to win."
And the players seem to be buying into it. Players like Thaddeus Lewis, who won a couple of national player-of-the-week honors for his ridiculous 40-for-50 passing performance against N.C. State.
And like senior cornerback Leon Wright, whose back-to-back interception returns late in the Army game sealed a 35-19 road win.
"We just look at it now as a six-game season, and we look at it as an opportunity of the lifetime," Lewis said. "You have to play every snap and every minute. We know if we do that anywhere in the country home or away we've got a chance to get a win. I'm pretty sure our guys are hungry and chomping at the bit to go out and play."
Added Wright, "I think we've been having a lot of success. We've been building off of the good and the bad. We've come a long way since last year. We've just been striving for excellence and doing our best to stay ahead of the game and trying to compete for an ACC title."