DURHAM, N.C. (AP) – Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan wants to set the record straight: His bowl always wanted No. 22 Duke.
Speaking Thursday during a news conference at the Blue Devils’ team headquarters, Stokan shot down rumors that he would have preferred another ACC team for his bowl.
He says he “understands there’s been some mention of politics” but adds that “there was no doubt in our minds” about Duke.
Stokan adds that “there was nothing that went on behind the scenes” about possibly choosing another ACC school – possibly Miami or Virginia Tech – ahead of Duke.
He said he told both athletic director Kevin White and coach David Cutcliffe on the eve of the ACC championship game in Charlotte that “if Clemson’s up in the Orange Bowl, which I thought they would be, that Duke was going to be our selection.”
The Blue Devils (10-3) will play No. 20 Texas A&M (8-4) on Dec. 31 in the Atlanta-based bowl, and it will cap arguably the best season in Duke history.
Duke set a school record for wins, beat two Top 25 teams in the same year for the first time since 1971, won eight straight games to put itself on the Chick-fil-A Bowl’s radar and captured its first Coastal Division title before being blown out by No. 1 Florida State in the league championship game.
In football, though, Duke doesn’t have the sustained track record or national drawing power that the Hurricanes and Hokies do. Until now, Duke hadn’t finished above .500 since 1994 and filling Wallace Wade Stadium has been a perpetual struggle.
But Stokan says on-field results count for something – and the Blue Devils beat both of those teams.
“We in our bowl game take great pride in letting teams play themselves into our game or play themselves out of our game,” Stokan said. “It’s not some cigar smoke-filled room where we’re sitting up making these decisions. It’s the players that are making the decisions. … Duke played (its) way into our game and (is) very deserving of being in our game.”
White said he was “never politically uncertain” about Duke’s bowl invitation and praised Cutcliffe – who last week won his second straight ACC coach of the year award – for taking the program from “irrelevant to relevant a year ago to, right now, pretty damn relevant.”
And with the selection process cleared up, the Blue Devils could shift their focus from the current Heisman Trophy front-runner to finding a way to slow the quarterback who won the award last year.
Duke, which was carved up by Florida State’s Jameis Winston last week in the title game, now must deal with the Aggies’ Johnny Manziel. Both Manziel and Winston are finalists for the trophy, which will be awarded Saturday night in New York.
The Blue Devils will start practicing for the bowl the next day.
“Everybody is going to tune in to see Johnny Manziel,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re all competitors. This is what you live for. You’re kidding me – Johnny Manziel? That’s how it hits our team. I think that’s good. … We know it’s a challenge, but you’ve got to be excited about that. We are excited about that challenge.”