Duke football slides into a national spotlight in its final game of this season on Wednesday, a place the Blue Devils hope to occupy into next season.
The Blue Devils face UCF in the Military Bowl, which kicks off at 2 p.m. on ESPN from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
The bowl schedule is arranged such that the Duke-UCF game will be the only college football game being played in that time window. The Liberty Bowl matchup between Kansas and Arkansas doesn’t start until 5:30 p.m.
That’s a rarity for Duke football and one it can cherish.
Consider the Liberty Bowl game won’t have a totally exclusive television window, with North Carolina and Oregon kicking off in the Holiday Bowl at 8 p.m. on Wednesday. The Tar Heels and Ducks will share their game time with the end of the Liberty Bowl and the start of the Texas Bowl, where Mississippi and Texas Tech kick off at 9 p.m. Wednesday from Houston.
“When we kick off, there’s going to be a lot of people watching us,” Duke coach Mike Elko said. “We want to play a certain kind of way.”
The Blue Devils (8-4) put themselves in position to play in such a prime slot by posting their most wins in a regular season since 2014.
A win would give the program just its third season with nine wins or more since 1941. That all this improvement is going in Elko’s first season as Duke’s head coach is noteworthy.
But now that the Blue Devils are here they want to make such things as winning records and bowl trips a regular thing.
That will be more difficult as soon as the 2023 season, however.
The ACC’s decision to eliminate the divisional structure with the Atlantic and Coastal divisions means Duke’s schedule will be far tougher next season.
This season, the only team Duke beat that finished with a winning record is Wake Forest.
The 2023 schedule includes eight teams that had winning records this season and nine that played in bowl games.
Duke plays at Connecticut in its 2023 season opener on Sept. 2. The Huskies went 6-7, losing to Marshall 28-14 in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.
Duke’s other nonconference games with dates set will be at home with Lafayette (4-7 this season) on Sept. 9 and Northwestern (1-11 this season) on Sept. 16.
But Duke is also scheduled to play at home against Notre Dame, which is 8-4 this season ahead of its Gator Bowl game with South Carolina on Thursday.
Duke’s four ACC home games will be against league champion Clemson plus N.C. State, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. All four have winning records and are making bowl appearances this season.
Duke’s ACC road games are at Louisville, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia. Of those four, only Virginia had a losing record this season.
So the road back to a bowl will get tougher for Duke next season, which is why playing well against UCF (9-4) is even more important.
Defensive tackle DeWayne Carter is returning for his redshirt senior season, rather than entering his name in the NFL Draft pool, with eyes on helping the Blue Devils navigate that tougher-looking schedule.
“Next year we’re going into a real tough schedule,” Carter said. “I mean, we have a lot of big-name teams on the schedule and we got a chance to make a lot of noise and continue to prove ourselves. I just want to be a part of that.”