Why Duke relishes the opportunity to play Alabama in Atlanta to open the season

Duke’s Cutcliffe ‘feels great’ about decision to play Alabama

Three years ago, Duke coach David Cutcliffe agreed to have his team play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2019 Chick-fil-A Kickoff. While earning Duke a multi-million dollar payment, the game lets Duke show much its football program has improved.
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Three years ago, Duke coach David Cutcliffe agreed to have his team play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2019 Chick-fil-A Kickoff. While earning Duke a multi-million dollar payment, the game lets Duke show much its football program has improved.

With coach David Cutcliffe turning Duke football into a winning program, Gerald Harrison’s task was to put the Blue Devils in a game with a national presence.

Such events are commonplace for Duke’s fabled basketball program, which annually opens the season in the Champions Classic with fellow blue-blood programs Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas.

In 2016, Harrison took a call that gave Duke football an opportunity.

Peach Bowl Inc. President Gary Stokan needed a team for his Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic event in Atlanta.

Harrison, a Duke assistant athletics director overseeing football at the time, had also attempted to get the Blue Devils in season-opening showcase games held in Orlando and Arlington, Texas. Playing in Atlanta, he thought, was perfect because it was in the ACC’s footprint, and Georgia is a prime recruiting area for the Blue Devils.

The catch was the opponent. Stokan had Alabama lined up.

Harrison took the offer to Cutcliffe and Duke athletics director Kevin White.

“Coach is never one to back down from a challenge,” Harrison, now Austin Peay’s athletics director, said in a phone interview with the News & Observer this week. “They were all for it.”

That’s why the Blue Devils find themselves opening the season Saturday against the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide at Atlanta’s sparkling Mercedes-Benz Stadium before a national TV audience on ABC.

It’s kind of like saying you like ice cream only to be handed a gallon and a spoon. That’s the same as Cutcliffe saying he’s up for a challenge and facing Alabama.

In both cases, you might wind up feeling poorly in the end.

Duke the underdog?

Alabama has gone 55-4 with two national championships over the past four years. Over the past 11 seasons, the Crimson Tide has suffered just 15 losses.

Duke won only 10 games over the first eight years of this century before Cutcliffe took over for the 2008 season. Although it took him a few years to get the program turned around, he’s now taken the Blue Devils to bowl games in six of the past seven seasons.

Though Duke is a 32 1/2-point underdog and few outside their locker room believe the Blue Devils can upset the Crimson Tide, Cutcliffe remains steadfast that this game is a great thing for his program.

“I felt like our program had earned this opportunity,” Cutcliffe said. “How do you walk away from this opportunity? I still feel great about this decision, no question. Challenging, yes. But how do you grow? This is what you are supposed to do.”

A decade ago, Duke’s inclusion in such an event would never have happened. Prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival, Duke hadn’t played in bowl game or experienced a winning season since 1994.

That all changed when the Blue Devils won six of their first eight games in 2012 to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time under Cutcliffe.

The following year, an eight-game winning streak brought Duke an ACC Coastal Division championship and an invitation to play Texas A&M in Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Stokan extended that invitation and watched as Duke not only sold its ticket allotment but also built a 38-17 halftime lead. Though quarterback Johnny Manziel rallied the Aggies to a 52-48 win, Duke’s football program reached new heights on the national scene.

“People look at Duke football and say they don’t have the support of the fans,” Stokan said interview with the News & Observer this week. “David proved in 2013 that, No. 1, they are a good football team and, secondly, the support is there. Duke fans came from all over the world for the Texas A&M game, and I literally mean that.”

Duke followed that up with bowl appearances in 2014 and 2015, capping the latter by beating Indiana in New York’s Pinstripe Bowl for the program’s first bowl victory since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.

It was in that environment that Harrison, in putting together future Duke football schedules, hunted for a splashy showcase game. The Blue Devils mostly opened at home with Football Bowl Subdivision foes like N.C. Central, Elon, James Madison and Richmond.

Kickoff Game payout

Playing season-opening, neutral-site games also bring nice paydays for athletic departments. According to game organizers, team payouts for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game have averaged $5.2 million since the first game was held in 2008.

Stokan knew the contract extension Cutcliffe signed in 2012 was set to expire after the 2019 season. With Cutcliffe being an Alabama graduate who worked for Bear Bryant as a student, the idea of him starting his final season against his alma mater intrigued Stokan.

Of course, Duke signed Cutcliffe to three contract extensions since then. Set to turn 65 next month, he’s under contract through the 2022 season.

“To be sure, there is no better fit for Duke University and its prestigious football program than David Cutcliffe,” Duke athletics director Kevin White said when the latest extension was completed in May.

The job of getting Duke ready to face Alabama on Saturday has been going strong since game contract was signed three years ago.

It was mentioned when convincing recruits to sign with the Blue Devils. Three of Duke’s last four classes have been ranked among the nation’s top 50 by 247sports.com. Prior to that, Duke’s two best recruiting classes under Cutcliffe were Nos. 52 and 54.

Even the players already on campus at the time knew they had to steadily build themselves up to get ready for not only the Alabama game, but also Notre Dame’s visit to Wallace Wade Stadium on Nov. 9.

“It was after my freshman season when we found out,” Duke senior defensive end Tre Hornbuckle said, “and we said we have to do whatever we can in these offseasons and the conditioning workouts to make sure that when we get to Bama we are ready.”

Duke played and won bowl games in each of the past two seasons, posting 7-6 and 8-5 records.

Facing Alabama without Daniel Jones

Stokan had hoped Duke would still have quarterback Daniel Jones to face Alabama.

“If Daniel was the quarterback this year they probably would be ranked preseason Top 25,” Stokan said.

But Jones left a year early for the NFL, where the New York Giants drafted him with the No. 6 pick in April.

Even as a major underdog while facing Alabama without Jones, Duke’s fans have bought plenty of tickets for the game at the 71,000-seat downtown Atlanta stadium.

“They are selling three times (the tickets) for this game for what they would have to sell for a bowl game,” Stokan said. “The support is there for Coach Cut and for football at Duke.”

So on Saturday, Duke football finds itself in a marquee game against an opponent that could very well be this year’s national champion.

“Studying them,” Cutcliffe said Thursday, “this is the best team I’ve studied since I’ve been at Duke. Their skill, their strength, their speed, their ability is deep and just outstanding. And then you throw in that they are better coached than anyone.”

Cutcliffe’s career has seen him win Coach of the Year honors in the ACC, SEC and on the national level. By making the program relevant, he’s done the job at Duke he was hired to do in December 2007.

Now, he wants to do more by turning Duke into a team that wins nine, 10 or more games in a season. Being invited to Saturday’s event, regardless of the game’s outcome, can help get the Blue Devils there, he said.

“There’s no question this was earned over 12 years here — people, players, all the players,” Cutcliffe said. “The trajectory of change here probably exceeds anybody out there. Maybe them, in the 12 years. Fittingly, it’s a challenge we need to face.”

Duke vs. Alabama

When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta

Watch: ABC

Listen: WZBZ-99.3, WDNC-620 Raleigh; WZBZ-96.5, WDNC-620 Durham; WHVN-1660 Charlotte

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.