Bowl games mean different things to different teams.

For some, they’re an extension of the current season. An opportunity to finish on a high note. Or as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney likes to call it, winning the closer.

For others, it’s an opportunity to get a head start on next season, both for the momentum a win could create and the extra practices leading up to the game.

For Duke, Wednesday’s Military Bowl game against Central Florida is all of the above.

A win against the Knights in Annapolis, Md., would be the Blue Devils’ 9th, tying the 2nd-most in school history. It would be a champagne toast to a season already worthy of celebration for rookie coach Mike Elko and his team.

At the same time, it also could serve as a springboard to even bigger things during 2023.

Because unlike virtually every other team still playing, the lineup Elko puts on the field during December will look very similar to what he will send out next September for the 2023 opener.

Duke doesn’t have a single opt out. Its entire coaching staff is intact and the majority of its key players are underclassmen who already have announced their intention to stay in the program.

As much as the ACC’ Coach of the Year award was validation for a job well done in Elko’s rookie season, the rate of retention is an even more meaningful pat on the back.

“I think the amount of guys that are returning, it says that they enjoy what’s going on around here,” Elko said last week. “Obviously they have a big commitment to each other. They have a big commitment to the university. But I think they’re excited about the direction of the program.

“That’s obviously what we want to be, where kids feel like they’re getting everything they’re getting out of their football experience at Duke until it’s time for them to go to the next level.”

It hasn’t always been that way.

The Blue Devils were in desperate need of a jolt after stagnating during their final 2 seasons under former coach David Cutcliffe. 

They won only 5 games combined in 2020-21 and were on a 13-game ACC losing streak when Elko arrived from Texas A&M, where he served as defensive coordinator under Jimbo Fisher. His impact was immediate and dramatic.

Culture has become an overused word in sports these days. And it’s easy to explain the kind of improvement Duke made this season on a change in its culture. But in this case, it actually was a factor.

Elko’s positive attitude was contagious and his players quickly bought into his preseason emphasis on strength and conditioning. 

The results produced were anything but a fluke. All 4 of the Blue Devils’ losses this season came by a single score and their 3 ACC defeats were decided by a combined total of 8 points. It was such a fantastic voyage that everyone was quick to sign up for a return trip next year.

The list of upperclassmen who have elected to stay for an extra year includes All-ACC defensive tackle DeWayne Carter, fellow defensive lineman Ja’Mion Franklin and center Jacob Monk. 

Combine them with a young core group led by quarterback Riley Leonard, top receiver Jordan Moore, 3 talented running backs and All-ACC left tackle Graham Barton and you have the makings of a team capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone on its schedule next year.

And that’s saying something, considering the Blue Devils’ 2023 slate will include games against Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame, along with all 3 in-state rivals.

But 1st things 1st. There’s still a game left this year.

“I think the kids are in a good mindset and they’re excited for the opportunity to go up there and put our best game on the field in Annapolis,” Elko said before taking his team up Interstate 95 to Maryland.

It’s always a crapshoot trying to pick winners in bowl games because of all the variables involved. The process has become even more complicated by the recent uptick in postseason opt outs.

Case in point, UCF.

The Knights will be without several key players, including top receiver Ryan O’Keefe and 2nd-leading tackler Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste. They also will be missing both of their coordinators after Chip Lindsey (offense) left for North Carolina and Travis Williams was hired by Arkansas.

Their motivation also might be in question after having their sights set on a New Year’s Six bowl before losing to Tulane for the American Athletic Conference title.

The Blue Devils, by contrast, are excited to be playing in any bowl after going 4 years since their most recent postseason appearance, a win against Temple in the 2018 Independence Bowl.

Winning this one means something to them.

Given their motivation, their stability, an offense that averages 33 points per game and a defense that is tied for 2nd nationally with a plus-14 turnover margin, you have to like their chances.