Duke head football coach Mike Elko leads the Blue Devils onto the field. Sep 9, 2023; Durham, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Elko leads his players onto the field before the start of the game against the Lafayette Leopards at Wallace Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Duke University will always be a basketball-first school. In terms of national championship relevance, the Blue Devils are most famous for men’s basketball, women’s golf, and men’s lacrosse.

However, after this weekend, we might have to start reevaluating our preconceived notions of Duke football.

One of the biggest games of the 2023 college football season will take place in Durham, NC on Saturday, as No. 17 Duke (4-0) will host No. 11 Notre Dame (4-1).

If the Blue Devils pull off the upset, it would be their second victory this year over a ranked opponent, having crushed then-No. 9 Clemson 28-7 in their season opener. It also means that we’re going to have to start taking Duke seriously as a national title contender.

Laugh if you want, but the numbers are impressive.

The Blue Devils are tied for seventh in the country in average scoring margin (+26.3). Their closest victory was at home against Clemson. They haven’t scored less than 28 points and haven’t given up more than 14. Last weekend, Duke won at Connecticut 41-7, not surrendering a touchdown until 12 seconds left to play.

If another team had this résumé, there would be considerably more hype. Yes, Duke is ranked, but it’s still hard to see the Blue Devils getting one of the four covered College Football Playoff spots. A triumph over Notre Dame will change that.

For the first time, ESPN’s College GameDay will visit Duke, so the national spotlight will shine brightest at an unlikely spot. The Worldwide Leader in Sports usually doesn’t stop by Tabacco Road until basketball season. (Duke hoops has hosted GameDay a record 12 times.)

Second-year coach Mike Elko has expressed some concern.

“It’s our first time hosting GameDay with all the noise and the buzz around that,” said Elko, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in 2017. “I told the guys this morning we’re getting a lot of congratulations for GameDay coming here. I’d rather wait and get some congratulations for how we played the football game on Saturday night. Just trying to stay focused on the task at hand.”

No one could have predicted this. Duke was picked to finish tied for sixth with Pittsburgh in the ACC preseason poll. Favorite Clemson and runner-up Florida State were safer bets. The voters underestimated a program that won five of its final six in 2002 to finish 9-4.

Elko, the 2022 ACC Coach of the Year, has quickly made a name for himself. He’s 13-4 at a school that was 3-9 in David Cutcliffe’s final year in 2021. Cutcliffe, who spent 14 seasons in Durham, never won more than 10 games in a season. Elko, formerly the Texas A&M defensive coordinator, has exceeded expectations.

Elko has built a defense that can compete with anyone. Duke returned its entire starting defensive line, including defensive tackles DeWayne Carter and Ja’Mion Franklin. As a result, the Blue Devils rank fourth in the nation in points allowed (8.75) and 16th in total yards allowed per game (276.2),

Quarterback Riley Leonard, who gained national attention for his odd source of motivation, hasn’t been statistically overwhelming. He has just two passing touchdowns but hasn’t thrown an interception either. Leonard is also second on the team in rushing with 238 yards and four scores.

While Duke is technically an underdog, it’s also the first time the Blue Devils face expectations to perform at a high level. The Blue Devils are a victory away from making us all realize how great they can be.

“We’re a humble group,” Elko said. “The biggest thing is getting (our players) to understand that they should be confident in their preparation, confident in how they’ve trained, confident in the things they have done to put themselves in this position.”

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.