Tudor: Start is key for Duke

August 30, 2011 

The biggest problem for David Cutcliffe at Duke has been an inability to make the most of what the schedule has been perfectly willing to give him.

The most glaring missed opportunity came last year when what could have been a 3-1 start - with wins against Elon, Wake Forest and Army - got reversed.

Losses to Wake Forest (54-48) and Army (35-21) almost immediately ended all hope of a breakthrough ride.

The 2011 schedule offers nearly the same opportunity, with early games against Richmond, Tulane and Florida International.

If the Blue Devils can negotiate an attainable 3-2 start - the other two games are against No. 7 Stanford and at Boston College - Cutcliffe's fourth team can reach the imposing midseason stretch of games with at least some hope of a break-even finish.

Cutcliffe said recently that the "worm has turned" and that an end to 16 straight losing Blue Devils seasons is within reach.

If so, that ever-elusive worm simply has to turn early and often.

For all of the stability and optimism the affable Cutcliffe has brought to one of the overmatched programs in college football, the Blue Devils still have to prove they can win games against equal or less-talented opponents, regardless of where those games are played. It's the old "journey of a thousand miles begins with a single" win you're supposed to win.

Much of the crowd along the trek is rooting for Duke to make that turn.

The school doesn't have many ticket-buying customers. But at a time when many aspects of the college game seem to be mindlessly tossed into gutters coast to coast, the Blue Devils are a potential reminder of a period when football players were interested in cracking a few blocks as well as a few books during the semester.

In a league virtually void of quarterback experience, Duke will begin 2011 with Sean Renfree at quarterback, two top-flight receivers and a decent blocking front.

This is a team that could find a way to finish 6-6 and get to a bowl without having apologize for the means taken.

But that won't happen unless the Blue Devils can beat Richmond, Tulane and Florida International. Lose those three, and the worm will not have turned so much as one millimeter, which is Dukespeak for less than an inch.

ctudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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