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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Every college football season, there's at least one team that surprises people. This year, that might be Duke. They have won 10 games - that's the most in school history for a football team that's often overshadowed by their basketball team. But now, the Duke football team is heading to the ACC championship game, and North Carolina Public Radio's Jessica Jones reports.

JESSICA JONES, BYLINE: After Duke beat the University of North Carolina last weekend to make it in the championship game, lifelong Duke fans Larry Goss and Bobbi Harris hugged each other at a sports bar, with tears in their eyes.

LARRY GOSS: I never would've imagined. I mean, you know, I've been following them for years. This is just unbelievable.

BOBBI HARRIS: Duke football is the season of perpetual hope for me. I've always thought we could do this. Next Saturday we can win, 'cause we can do this.

JONES: Tonight, Duke faces top-ranked Florida State. It's a journey few fans expected. Harris attributes Duke's rise to coach David Cutcliffe, nicknamed "Coach Cut," who was hired six years ago.

HARRIS: That's leadership, honey. That's Coach Cut a hundred percent.

JONES: Cutcliffe came to Duke with a great reputation. As coach of the University of Mississippi, he landed star quarterback Eli Manning. But Cutcliffe faced an uphill battle in Durham. He inherited a program with only three winning seasons in a quarter-century. Alumni showed up for tailgate parties but left at kickoff. Cutcliffe says when he arrived, he didn't expect much.

DAVID CUTCLIFFE: After watching that first workout, I was thinking about when we would get the first win. You know, it went to that. We've believed in the process, and the program has been far ahead of each team we've had.

JONES: There were setbacks. The year after Cutcliffe took over, Duke attorneys won a lawsuit by emphasizing how bad the football team was. Recruiting was tough, but the new coach convinced players things would get better. Junior Josh Snead is a running back for the Blue Devils. He attended high school about an hour away.

JOSH SNEAD: Before Coach Cut came to see me, I really had no idea about Duke having a football team. So, you know, coming in he was like, well - you know - we're trying to get guys that can come in and help change this program.

JONES: Snead is part of a wave of high school players recruited from within the state. Now, the Blue Devils have more North Carolinians than UNC's team does. Alumni have contributed enough money to renovate Duke's Depression-era football stadium. And students are excited, too. Zach Chartash is a senior.

ZACH CHARTASH: There's no one I know going to the game that expects us to win. But that doesn't mean they're not going. And that would've never happened before. So people are excited about the game.

JONES: Chartash says he knows his fellow students will continue cheering on Duke's football team, no matter whether it wins or loses

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, N.C.

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