CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Duke coach David Cutcliffe walked off the field after the Belk Bowl on Dec. 27, he had no idea how important that double-digit loss to Cincinnati would turn out to be.
In the immediate aftermath, his team was devastated and demoralized — which turned into serious motivation for improvement.
Nearly one year later, No. 20 Duke returns to that same field, Bank of America Stadium, to play No. 1 Florida State in tonight's ACC title game.
In retrospect, it is a direct correlation to that loss, Cutcliffe said.
"We were irritated in that we felt like we were the best-prepared team in that game and didn't win," Cutcliffe said of the 48-34 defeat. "The theme, I would call it hungry. I would much rather have won it for those seniors and all of us.
"But if you didn't win it, we needed something good to come from it. And I think it did."
The Seminoles' road to the title game has been much different. They ended last season with a 31-10 victory against Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl and have continued to win. That included a three-week span starting in November during which allegations of sexual assault against quarterback Jameis Winston brought intense national scrutiny.
With Thursday's decision by the State Attorney's Office not to file criminal charges against Winston, Duke (10-2, 6-2 ACC) is the only remaining obstacle on the Seminoles' path to the BCS title game.
However, coach Jimbo Fisher and his players say they refuse to focus on anything but Duke.
"That's something on our team that we do a great job of; just taking it day by day, not getting ahead of ourselves," center Bryan Stork said. "We've just got to stay focused and take it, literally, one play at a time."
Said Fisher: "We're happy to be where we're at, but we also know that we're not thinking about (the national title game) right now. What we're thinking about is running through the finish line.
"When you run the 100-meter dash, being No. 1 at the 90-meter mark doesn't mean anything. We have to keep our form, stay true to form — and the way we practice and prepare I think we will — and be able to run through the finish line to be No. 1 at the end of the regular season and then go into the bowl games."
Tonight's game, in many ways, is the quintessential David vs. Goliath matchup.
FSU (12-0, 8-0) is the first ACC team ranked No. 1 in the BCS since the Seminoles in the 1999 season's final standings It has scored 40 or more against every opponent but one (37-7 against Florida in the finale).
Duke, a 29-point underdog, is 0-12 against top-ranked teams and 0-18 against FSU. It lost at home 58-55 to Pitt, a team the Seminoles beat 41-13 on the road.
"Duke football has been the underdogs ever since I've gotten here," redshirt senior guard David Harding said. "We embrace that role. We're working to change that, obviously. But we know that we have a great challenge playing the No. 1 team in the country, and we know that nobody is going to give us a chance to win.
"Really that's just business as usual for Duke football."
The odds favor FSU, but Fisher said Duke presents a challenge that will require its "A" game. Its two-quarterback combo of Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette have combined to pass for 2,905 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Cutcliffe said he has been honest with his players about tonight's challenge, but he knows they won't shy away from it.
"I don't think any of our guys are putting us down as 29-point underdogs," he said.
"We have smart guys — as you might imagine — and they're very aware of the challenge. What they see is the quality of the team on tape. It's not unrealistic to say that we've got to play extremely well. I've had the good fortune through the years to play some No. 1 teams in this profession. Some of them looked like No. 1 teams. Some of them don't. Florida State certainly is. So it's a huge challenge."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]