Duke vs. Virginia Football: Bowl Dreams on the Line

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IMarch 9, 2017

To dream the impossible dream.

Two ACC programs are on the verge of improbable, unbelievable endings to this season and these dreams come to a clash this Saturday.

On one hand you have the Duke Blue Devils.

The Duke football program has been a running joke for quite some time.

The Blue Devils have not been to a bowl game since 1994. Just one winning season since the "Ole Ball Coach" Steve Spurrier roamed the sidelines.

Former Duke coach Ted Roof looked like he could turn things around but after winning as many games in his last four seasons as he had in his first one (four), it was clear that Roof had to go.

His replacement, David Cutcliffe, knows football. Everyone knew the problem facing Cutcliffe would not simply be X's and O's but getting his team to believe that it can win and be competitive in the ACC.

Passing a long-standing mental barrier of inferiority is no simple task, even with optimistic players.

Well just one and a half seasons into his career and Cutcliffe has everyone believing in the scrappy Duke Blue Devils.

However, all that faith began with a fateful moment on September 27, 2008.

Duke entered that day with a 25-game losing streak in the ACC. The Devils had lost 31 out of their last 32 ACC contests.

Well, the Virginia Cavaliers proved to be the perfect victim to end the streak.

The Cavaliers came into the game with a new quarterback in Marc Verica and Duke was able to force six turnovers to completely turn the game around.

Duke did not just win its first ACC game in years, it dominated the scoreboard en route to a 31-3 victory and the first 3-1 start since 1994. The Blue Devils had a senior class that had not won a single conference game until that moment. Now they were leaving with a re-newed sense of purpose and direction.

With that victory, Duke saw the proof that they could be competitive in their conference. The Blue Devils put forth some solid efforts, including giving the eventual ACC Champion Virginia Tech Hokies quite the scare in Lane Stadium.

Nevertheless, the true goal for Duke alluded them. A 5-7 record left Duke as one of only two teams in the ACC not to go to a bowl game last season.

Coincidentally, that other team just so happened to be the Virginia Cavaliers.

Well, this year, Duke has once again put itself in position to reach its first bowl in 15 years. The Blue Devils are 4-3, 2-1 ACC. That leaves the magic number at two. With five games to go, Duke can almost taste the postseason berth but they cannot falter this weekend.

If Duke is to achieve a winning season, they have to do it against a team that is going through a turnaround of their own.

Words cannot describe just how awful Virginia looked in the beginning of the season.

The Cavaliers couldn't throw, catch, run, block, tackle, cover. Heck, they couldn't even field a punt!

The season started with a rather shocking loss to William & Mary, a game that featured seven Cavalier turnovers. Virginia then followed that beauty with a completely anemic offensive effort against Texas Christian in a game where the Cavaliers were not even competitive.

The Cavaliers were dead and Al Groh's job was as good as six feet under.

Then came, October, or as Virginia has come to know it "Groh-tober".

Virginia went from an 0-3 hole to a three game winning streak where the Cavaliers outscored their opponents 83-19. The Cavalier offense which looked so pathetic was moving like a well-oiled machine and Virginia stood alone as the only team in the ACC without a conference loss.

Except that time on the top was short-lived. Last weekend, Georgia Tech came into Charlottesville high off a signature win over Virginia Tech and proceeded to run right through the Cavaliers towards a 30-9 victory.

At 3-4, Virginia still has bowl aspirations which seemed completely impossible just about a month ago.

However, the Cavaliers know that reaching the magic number will not be easy for them either. With games remaining against Clemson, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech, the boys in the blue and orange have perhaps the toughest finishing stretch in the entire conference.

That means Virginia simply cannot afford a wasted opportunity this week. If the Cavaliers do not win this week, they have virtually no chance of reaching a bowl and a third straight losing season will seal the fate of Groh at his alma mater.

In all honesty, this is what Virginia should want. To be embarassed by the former conference doormat last season, the Cavaliers have been itching for the rematch to get the taste of losing out of their mouth. To get that game at home is just icing on the cake.

Virginia's loss to the Blue Devils was the first one under Groh and the Cavaliers know that if they had avoided all those turnovers, they may have pulled off an ugly win on the road. Instead, the Cavaliers gave Duke a short field and allowed the game to get away from them in the third quarter.

If the game had been later on, when Verica was better acclimated to the offense, Virginia probably would have won this game too.

The Cavaliers can muster all the excuses they want about last season's debacle, but even if Virginia is better than they were last year, so too are the Devils. Both teams have far more competent offenses and although Virginia's secondary has a great deal of size and experience, Thaddeus Lewis has the arm to test them.

This is a game that may seem meaningless on a national scale, but mean the world to both of these programs.

For Duke, it is about reaching respectability. They want to prove to the rest of the ACC that they are a legitimate program that can reach bowl games and compete with any team in a conference suffering from mediocrity.

For Virginia, it is about avenging a tough loss and proving to themselves that they are still a rung above the Duke Blue Devils. This is about saving a season that seem destined towards infamy. This is about Al Groh saving his job yet again.

Say what you want about Groh, but his teams have always responded when their backs were against the wall. Even with the loss to the Yellow Jackets, this is still his month for success.

Unfortunately for Groh and the Virginia fans, the trick is that November is right around the corner. That's rarely been a treat.



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