Jacobs: Duke’s rise a challenge for ACC football

November 14, 2013 

The only time Clemson concluded an ACC men’s regular season atop the basketball standings was 1990. Students rushed the court at Littlejohn Coliseum on the last day of February after the 20th-ranked Tigers beat No. 5 Duke to clinch first place. Basketball players were applauded entering classrooms, and later showed off championship rings just like their football counterparts.

Come the NCAA tournament, however, no ACC club was seeded higher than third. That had never happened since seeding began in 1979. “People were saying, ‘Clemson wins the league, it’s a down year,’” complained Cliff Ellis, the Tigers’ coach back then.

Watching Duke football roll to seven victories in nine tries this autumn, with a legitimate shot at winning the Coastal Division title, brings to mind Ellis’ lament. The rise of the downtrodden can cloud perceptions of an entire conference.

“The process never ends, it’s from the bottom up,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of his team’s success, a comment that might well serve for ACC football as a whole. “You’re always building from the bottom up.”

Perhaps because Florida State is front and center in the national championship hunt – ranked second by the Associated Press this week for the first time since 2000 – and Clemson and Miami have appeared in the polls all season, talk hasn’t focused on deficiencies of the newly minted, 14-member ACC.

So never mind the ACC has no wins over teams ranked this week in the top 20, other than FSU over Clemson, a league rival. Forget that Duke is 3-2 in conference play despite suffering four turnovers in each of its two previous outings, victories over Virginia Tech and N.C. State.

The Blue Devils already have more wins overall than at any time since the 1994 team went 8-4. With three ACC contests left – at home against No. 24 Miami this Saturday, then at Wake Forest and North Carolina – coach David Cutcliffe’s squad has a good chance to match or surpass the nine victories last posted by a Duke team in 1941. That season ended with the Devils hosting the Rose Bowl at Wallace Wade Stadium at the dawn of World War II.

Coming on the heels of last year’s 6-6 regular-season finish, capped by a berth in Charlotte’s Belk Bowl, winning no longer seems foreign to a program that was 4-42 in the four years prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival for the 2008 season.

What Duke’s prosperity says about the ACC is unclear. When a historically weak Virginia Tech basketball program joined the conference in the mid-2000s and repeatedly finished in the upper division, critics pointed to the Hokies’ success as a sign of ACC decline.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the extent of Duke’s current break with modern precedent, a trend echoed recently at Wake Forest and at private schools in other power conferences such as Baylor (Big 12), Northwestern (Big 10) and Vanderbilt (SEC).

Almost from the advent of two-platoon football in the mid-1960s, the Blue Devils morphed into chronic, sometimes lovable losers who repeatedly found creative, often exquisitively painful ways to seize defeat in the face of victory.

But Cutcliffe, a product of SEC football, has methodically won over players, fans and the media with a no-frills, process-driven approach to building a program. The offense-oriented coach has built athletic depth, improved the kicking game, and fashioned an attack that balances the run and pass. The defense is creditable after years ranked at or near the bottom of the ACC.

The change in program attitude was evidenced in dramatic fashion against struggling N.C. State this past weekend. “We stayed a confident offense throughout the game even when things weren’t going our way,” said backup quarterback Brandon Connette, “because we know who we are.”

Rather than unravel after starter Anthony Boone threw three interceptions and Connette lost a fumble, the Blue Devils hung with the Wolfpack. Trailing midway through the fourth quarter, they rallied to score three touchdowns in a span of 26 decisive seconds, two on consecutive interception returns by defensive back DeVon Edwards.

The 38-20 victory was only the second in 21 November contests during Cutcliffe’s tenure.

“We have guys that have been raised in the system and the process,” Cutcliffe said afterward. “They’ve done it enough now. I think winning a year ago, you can’t underestimate that. They also know that they played really well at times in November and didn’t win. So the theme coming back in January was hungrier. It was, what can we do to finish better?”

Duke is among only three ACC teams – with Miami and Pittsburgh – that has a winning record (3-1) in games when it committed at least three turnovers, as it did against the Wolfpack. The resilient Blue Devils are the only conference squad that won games in which they both forced and yielded four turnovers.

A welcome byproduct of Duke’s improvement is the chance to rekindle a derelict rivalry with North Carolina.

For the longest time the rivalry was in name only. From 1990 through 2011, a period of 22 seasons, the Tar Heels won all but one meeting (2003) in the series. While the basketball competition between the neighboring schools was savored, celebrated, and balanced, the football Blue Devils had fallen so far off UNC’s radar, quarterback Bryn Renner was quick to name N.C. State, not Duke, as the team’s principle rival when asked this past summer. No Carolina basketball player would say the same.

Last October the Devils beat North Carolina, which finished tied for first in the Coastal Division. Now Duke has a chance to notch consecutive wins in the series for the first time since Steve Spurrier, like Cutcliffe an SEC product, directed the program to three straight wins over UNC from 1987 to 1989.

Meanwhile, the Heels are approaching bowl eligibility after a 1-5 start. If they stumble in upcoming games against Pitt or Old Dominion, their bowl aspirations will be on the line against Duke.

Last year, supported by both schools, the ACC deviated from the practice of concluding the regular season with a Duke-UNC matchup. Cutcliffe wants such scheduling to become permanent, an unfortunate idea if the meetings regain the status of a true rivalry.

Whatever the future holds, this year’s game falls on the Saturday following Thanksgiving and has potentially significant bowl implications. Only in 1994 did both schools go to bowls in the same season. Few could have predicted a similar result in 2013, when the ACC seems on the rise.

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