The BCS No. 20 Duke Blue Devils have had a magnificent turnaround in 2013 but will be heavy underdogs in Saturday's ACC Championship game against the top-ranked Florida State Seminoles.
While it does help that the contest takes place in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium, it's likely that Duke fans may still be outnumbered despite their school's far closer proximity to the venue.
Bovada currently lists the Seminoles as 29-point favorites, so the Blue Devils aren't even being given a remote chance of pulling off a shocking upset.
But Duke quarterback Anthony Boone remains confident, as he and his team have been underdogs all year in pulling off a 10-2 record:
The point spread doesn't play for us on Saturday. Neither does the media." - #Duke QB Anthony Boone, asked about no one thinking they'll win— Laura Keeley (@laurakeeley) December 3, 2013
There are a few keys that Duke can execute to at least make the outcome more competitive than oddsmakers are anticipating.
Shorten the Game by Establishing Run Early
What will be the outcome of Saturday's game?
Time of possession will be key, especially if Florida State starts out strong. Keeping the ball out of Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Jameis Winston will be of paramount importance.
For Boone to have any room for big plays, he will rely heavily on wide receiver Jamison Crowder (88 receptions, 1131 yards and seven touchdowns) and any rushing attack the Blue Devils can muster.
One luxury Duke has enjoyed this season is a deep backfield, led by Jela Duncan, Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell.
The X-factor will be the Blue Devils' own Blake Bell-esque battering ram in quarterback Brandon Connette, who had four touchdowns when Duke beat Miami (FL) earlier this year:
Connette has been counted on in short-yardage and goal-to-go situations to punch it in, and although his yards per carry is just 3.4, Connette has accumulated 13 rushing TDs.
A heavier, early dose of the 225-pound Connette—Duke's biggest prominent ball carrier—may be necessary to set the tone and give the Blue Devils invaluable balance.
Limit the Damage on 3rd Down
Despite not sporting a top-50 total defense, the Blue Devils are actually decent at limiting the opposition on third down, yielding a conversion rate of 35.9 percent.
The problem is that the Seminoles convert third downs at 55.2 percent, adding to the devastation they can cause on any given play with their myriad of offensive weapons.
Throwing as many exotic pressures at Winston as possible will help, but the big impact player who will need to step up is All-ACC safety Jeremy Cash.
Anish Shroff of ESPN notes that the coaching staff hasn't had a player like him, and it's showing with his results on the field:
Duke coaching staff loves him, say they haven't had one like him RT @ACCSports Man, Jeremy Cash is a solid, solid tackler.— Anish Shroff (@AnishESPN) November 30, 2013
The Ohio State transfer has been nothing short of sensational on the back end of Duke's defense. Cash has 109 tackles (including 7.5 for loss) this season and leads the team with four interceptions.
That type of versatility should allow the Blue Devils to confuse Winston, as Cash can flex in and out of the box and cause indecision at the line of scrimmage.
Cash will be an instrumental part of defending the run and ensuring Duke doesn't get beat deep on the back end. It will be up to the rest of his teammates to step up, make plays in space and attack the ball when it's in the air.
Special Teams Must Be Special
The least appreciated phase of the game will be crucial if Duke is meant to have an edge to keep this game close.
Freshman cornerback DeVon Edwards averages 32.71 yards per kickoff return on 17 attempts and has taken two to the house this season, while Crowder has returned two punts to pay dirt in his own right.
Edwards' running room may be a little more limited, considering FSU has allowed under 19 yards on 63 kickoffs this season. To give some indication of his ability with the ball in his hands, he returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown and had two pick-sixes in a 38-20 win over NC State on Nov. 9.
Any production Crowder can hope to have on special teams is dependent on the Duke defense getting the Seminoles' balanced, explosive attack off the field on third down.
Even if some potential big returns don't find the end zone, it could still shift the balance of field position if the Blue Devils are able to stay on their assignments and spring one of these playmakers for a big gain.
Should there be little to no special teams impact, though, Duke will have a tough time finding ways to hang with the best team in the country.