Monday night’s Clemson vs. Duke football game in Week 1 felt like a fever dream. The whole world was united to support … Duke? It was a perfect storm of attention, schadenfreude, and fascination which turned the Blue Devils into Loki for a night, the villain that’s impossible to hate.
The cognitive whiplash was still so wild. Duke basketball is universally reviled in March — so why is Duke football suddenly the people’s champ?
No. 1: We love an underdog
Favorites are for homers, underdogs are for the rest of us. It’s not a unique thing to this country, but around the world — we all love an underdog upsetting a juggernaut. On a micro level it creates the incredible drama we crave, and a week’s worth of hilarious banter about a team floundering so badly. But there’s something larger at play too.
There are few things worse in sports than a feeling of certainty. All the drama is sapped out of a sport when we can predetermine everyone who will make the playoffs or compete for a championship before the season begins. An underdog giving us a shock, especially in college football means two things:
- It keeps the dream alive that money, recruiting, and “the system” is still fallible and can’t always beat a lacking team in those same areas.
- If you’re a fan of literally anyone else, a top 10 team losing keeps your dreams alive.
It’s a perfect storm we see fairly often, but perhaps not as pronounced as watching a No. 9 Clemson team absolutely crapping the bed against Duke on national TV and losing 28-7.
No. 2: Watching Dabo Swinney be upset is really fun
Imagine your most obnoxious uncle started a TikTok account, and that account became sentient. That is Dabo Swinney. He’s perpetually one of the most disingenuous men in a professional where everyone is disingenuous.
Don’t get me wrong, Dabo’s personal story is legitimately incredible. Raised in poverty in Alabama, making the Crimson Tide as a walk-on, transitioning that into a coaching career that is only rivaled by Nick Saban in the last decade — it’s amazing.
Any good will that story mustered has been washed away by Dabo becoming one of the whiniest dudes in college football. A man who claimed he would quit if college players were ever paid, before the ink was even dry on his 10-year, $93 million contract. His feelings about his own players is the distillation of a man who would rather see people struggle like he did, rather than wish for the less fortunate to have an easier life.
“We try to teach our guys, use football to create the opportunities, take advantage of the platform and the brand and the marketing you have available to you. But as far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.”
In November of 2020 when FSU cancelled their game against Clemson after one of Dabo’s players tested positive for Covid, instead of understanding the desire to keep people safe from a pandemic that killed over 1,200 people PER DAY that month — he used it as a chance to take a shot at Florida State.
Dabo loves nothing more than confidently talk about things he doesn’t understand, and he has very definite opinions. It’s pathologically impossible for him to not have an opinion when he isn’t educated on a topic, a trait that’s all too prevalent.
So, when “Mr. Don’t Pay Players and You’re Soft For Caring About Covid” loses so spectacularly, and you realize he hasn’t really done shit without Trevor Lawrence or Deshaun Watson as his QB — well, that’s just fun.
No. 3: It’s really funny for Duke football to be good
Never underestimate the power of comedy. When you look at the history of Duke football their consensus “best” players either have photos in black-and-white, or are pencil sketches taken from cigarette pack trading cards.
Their only household name in the NFL right now is Daniel Jones, who looks like an accountant asked Zoltar for a wish and chose to be a football player. The man is good (perhaps not as great as Giants fans believe), but he’s the least football player looking football player in the NFL.
Jones is a distillation of Duke itself. It doesn’t look the part, you’re not sure if it’s really that great, but damn if it isn’t fun to watch.
They also have a sense of humor.
No. 4: They’re everything Duke basketball isn’t
This is where the rubber meets the road. Duke basketball is a multi-decade juggernaut that showed no signs of dropping off even after Coach K retired. They’re still great, we’ll still root for them to be bounced in the second round, because Duke basketball fans always have the expectation they’ll dominate by “playing the right way.”
Duke football doesn’t have that historical baggage. They don’t have a student section of self-described “crazies” who let loose like a venture capitalist at Burning Man. They might be the same fans, but there’s something fundamentally less obnoxious about Duke fans when they’re screaming into an open football field than the confines of Cameron Indoor.
That might change. Duke football is really good, and could be a legitimate sleeper pick to win the ACC this year. For now they’re still the plucky underdog on the come-up, and it’s okay to love them … for now.