When you’re known for one thing, any talents you have elsewhere can be overshadowed and go unappreciated. So it went with Duke University alum Richard Nixon, who achieved the highest office in the United States, but was also a very fine bowler.
It’s also that way for Duke as a whole: an iconic basketball school in North Carolina that also has a competitive and noted football team. At least that’s the case in 2023. The Blue Devils, the gridiron Blue Devils, are ranked 18th in the Associated Press Top 25 for NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) through three weeks.
Sports fans are accustomed to seeing Cameron Crazies decked out in blue for its iconic basketball program. But now, the football team is being treated to a “Blue Out” every time it runs on the field at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham. The Blue Devils are 3-0 and have won by an average of 26 points per game. Duke is not just winning games, it’s dominating. And without seven-footers in shorts.
Is this the greatest Duke football team ever? The best in the last 60 years? Good thing you’re here at NCSharp, because we answer both of those questions below.
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Best Duke football teams, ranked
#1 2013 Blue Devils (10-4, 6-2 in ACC, played in Chick-Fil-A Bowl)
The 2013 Blue Devils under head coach David Cutcliffe set a school record with 10 wins. They defeated two ranked teams, and played in the ACC Championship Game (though the Florida Gators bit them hard, winning 45-7). The high-point of this record-setting season was an eight-game winning streak, including six against ACC opponents.
In the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, the No. 22 Blue Devils battled No. 20 Texas A&M and QB Johnny Manziel. The game was a doozy: Duke led 38-17 at the half, but lost a heartbreaker when A&M returned an interception for a touchdown with less than four minutes to play, emerging with a 52-48 victory.
1960 Blue Devils (10-3, 5-1 in ACC, No. 10 in the nation)
This team, which won the ACC championship, finished 10th in the Associated Press final poll. That’s the highest a Duke team has been ranked to end the season since 1960. This is the only Blue Devil team to play in the Cotton Bowl, and it won it, defeating No. 6 Arkansas in a defensive struggle, 7-6.
Want to know how different football was in 1960? That season, Duke averaged 94 yards passing per game. Per game. Primary quarterback Don Altman attempted 104 passes all season. But in the Cotton Bowl, Altman stepped up his passing game, going 12-for-15 for 83 yards and a game-winning toss to wideout Tee Moorman late in the fourth quarter.
Altman, by the way, holds a special spot in Duke sports history. Not only did he serve as QB for the 1960 team that won the famed Cotton Bowl, he also was a letter-winner in baseball. In the spring of 1961, Altman pitched in the College World Series wearing a Duke uniform.
2015 Blue Devils (8-5, won Pinstripe Bowl)
Following a 6-2 start, Cutcliffe had his team in the rankings, peaking at No. 22 in the nation.
There was an early-season win over ranked Georgia Tech, and a huge road win against Virginia Tech, 45-43 in four overtimes. Alas, once the Devils got into the meat of their conference schedule, they lost four straight, two by one score. Still, this squad had mettle: in the Pinstripe Bowl played in the Bronx, QB Thomas Sirk used his feet, scampering for a 75-yard TD run, as well as a 5-yard score with 41 ticks left to send the game into OT. That’s when Ross Martin kicked the final field goal of his four-year career to win the bowl game, 44-41.
1989 Blue Devils (8-4, share of ACC title, ranked as high as 20th in AP)
By the late 1980s, the Blue Devils had not been in a bowl game since the 1960 season. A string of head coaches had misguided Duke to mediocre or hum-drum forgettable seasons for close to three decades. Then a new sheriff corralled the program and shifted the football culture on campus.
Steve Spurrier was not yet a household name when he arrived on Tobacco Road and set up his coaching headquarters in Durham as Duke’s coach for the 1987 season. He inherited a mess, to say the least. But by his third year, he had the Devils competing and beating ACC rivals. The ’89 Blue Devils ranked 18th in the nation in scoring, which was Spurrier’s specialty.
Following a 1-3 start, Duke went on a scoring rampage, winning seven straight, including a victory over No. 22 North Carolina State. In their win streak, the Devils averaged 37 points behind the running back Randy Cuthbert and wide receiver Clarkston Hines, both of whom were 1,000-yard players. In 1989 Duke won their first ACC title since 1962.
Spurrier’s high-scoring team was invited to the All-American Bowl, where it lost to Texas Tech. It was the final game Spurrier coached for the Blue Devils, as he took a job with Florida a few days later. With the Gators, Spurrier won a national title.
2023 Blue Devils (Top 20 ranking in AP College Football Poll)
The last time a Duke football team was ranked as high as No. 18 was 1994, when the Devils started 7-0. That team withered away to a 1-3 finish on the season. That’s why the 2023 team, even this early in the season, deserves to be rated higher.
The Devils defeated No. 9 Clemson to open this season, the first win by the Blue Devils over a top-ten ranked team since the 1989 team beat No. 7 (also Clemson). Riley Leonard has emerged as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate at QB, rivaling North Carolina‘s Drake Maye for top QB in the state.
Image Credit: Ben McKeown / AP images