DURHAM, N.C. – They're used to hosting top-ranked teams and defending national champions at Duke.
Just not in football.
A rare visit from No. 1 Alabama on Saturday gives the historically downtrodden Blue Devils a chance to catch the Crimson Tide napping and pull what would be the upset of the year.
"We have to take them seriously, because you can't take any days off," Alabama running back Trent Richardson said. "Every team is for real, and you don't want any teams to sneak up and mess up whatever opportunity we have. We have to go conquer another giant. They're a giant test and we have to go out and play ball."
It's been a while since anybody called Duke's football team a giant, but there are a few reasons why the Tide (2-0) — 24-point favorites in this one — could get caught overlooking the Blue Devils (1-1).
The first road game comes in a tricky spot on the schedule, nestled between an impressive win against Penn State and the SEC opener against Arkansas. And there's always a chance for a rusty performance from two key players who haven't seen the field yet, a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback and a difference-making defensive end.
The Blue Devils don't care. They seem to want 'Bama's best shot.
"I hope they take us as serious as any game they've ever played," Duke tight end Brett Huffman said. "It wouldn't feel good to play an Alabama team that was looking down on you or was taking you lightly. You want to play a team at their best. You want to play them with their best players. Because when the clock runs out, then you can see, 'This is how good we are. This is what we can do,' and if a team's taking you lightly, they don't have their players, you don't really know, and it's not a sense of accomplishment."
With two of the Crimson Tide's top players expected back, Duke may get its wish.
Defensive end Marcell Dareus, the defensive MVP of last season's national title game, is back after he was suspended two games by the NCAA, further strengthening a defense that hasn't given up a touchdown — only two field goals — and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 36 straight games.
Mark Ingram, the only Heisman winner in the history of the proud program, also is expected back after missing the San Jose State and Penn State wins with a knee injury. The Tide's ground game didn't seem to miss a beat with Richardson, who has rushed for 210 yards and three touchdowns and is coming off a career-best 144-yard performance against the Nittany Lions.
"We're hopeful that (Dareus and Ingram) will be able to contribute in a very positive way and make us better," coach Nick Saban said. "That's our expectation, and there is no reason for us to think any differently based on their attitude, how they've worked or what they've done to this point to be ready to be able to play."
On paper, this one looks like a mismatch. Alabama ranks in the top 16 in both total offense and total defense, its average of 3.0 points allowed leads the nation and hasn't lost a regular-season game since 2007. The Blue Devils, who despite their record clearly have been on an upswing since coach David Cutcliffe arrived for the 2008 season, still haven't beaten a ranked team since 1994 and are 0-10 against No. 1.
They allowed an FCS team to gain 400 yards and gave up 54 points to Wake Forest, and it's doubtful that the nation's ninth-ranked total offense can make up for a defense that ranks 100th or worse in three major stat categories.
"I have great respect for Alabama ... but I have concerns about Duke right now that I want to see," Cutcliffe said. "I hope that can produce a major upset win, but whether it does or doesn't, I'm looking to play a really good football game, not because of what it does to the program, long-term, but what this team in 2010 needs to do."
The connections between the coaches, from past to present, add another level of intrigue to the matchup of schools that met in the 1945 Sugar Bowl.
Cutcliffe, a Birmingham native, graduated from Alabama, got his coaching start under Bear Bryant and went 2-4 against the Tide as head coach at Mississippi from 1999-2004. While at Ole Miss, he was 1-4 against Saban, who was at LSU at the time. They'll meet again at a stadium named after Wallace Wade, who won three national titles at Alabama from 1923-30 before coming to Duke and leading the Blue Devils to two Rose Bowls.
"I think it's very appropriate that both schools play here," Cutcliffe said. "There's a lot of connections here, and let's hope that the game lives up to all the atmosphere."
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.