Always the underdog, Duke readies for No. 1 Florida State

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 6, 2013 

  • Key numbers

    29 Points FSU is favored by against Duke.

    11 Opponents FSU has beaten by 27 or more points this season

    53.7 FSU’s points per game, second in nation.

    11 FSU’s points allowed per game, first in nation.

— There have been BCS-shattering upsets of heavyweight teams favored by four touchdowns.

Six years ago this week, 4-7 Pittsburgh faced the exact same spread Duke does against Florida State in the ACC Championship: 29 points. But the Panthers went on the road and shocked the system with a 13-9 victory at BCS No. 2 West Virginia. Pitt didn’t even go to a bowl, but the Mountaineers’ title hopes were dashed.

In October 2007, Stanford pulled the biggest Las Vegas points-spread upset of all time, going to undefeated Southern Cal and winning 24-23 with a backup quarterback. The Cardinal was a 41-point underdog.

In 2011, No. 2 Oklahoma State lost at Iowa State, a 27-point underdog. No. 3 Oklahoma had its 39-game home winning streak ended by Texas Tech in October of that year, a game in which the Sooners were favored by 28.

So there is precedence for a major upset, which is what it would take for the No. 20 Blue Devils (10-2, 6-2 ACC) to knock off undefeated No. 1 Florida State (12-0, 8-0) Saturday at 8 p.m. in Charlotte. But coach David Cutcliffe isn’t concerned with the past. He hasn’t mentioned any of that to his Blue Devils.

“I haven’t dug up any of those games, and I don’t really think I have to,” he said. “I think it’s irrelevant to what this team thinks about itself. What I have done is focus on what they should think about themselves, from a reality standpoint. I haven’t given them any false statements as to, ‘you’re this, or you’re that,’ I haven’t given them a false statement about Florida State. It’s a very deserving No. 1-ranked team in the country. I have played against teams that were ranked No. 1 that when I looked at them on tape, you knew they really weren’t the No. 1-ranked team in the country.

“With these guys, I told our guys, they’ve earned it. They’re good. Of course, why do I have to tell them, they played against them last year. (FSU won 48-7.) They know.”

Blue Devils believe

While it was just 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Cutcliffe had already had several productive hours. He just finished addressing his team at the end of their walk-through before conveying his message to the media.

“So what we’ve done is try to focus on what we have to do to compete with them,” he said. “That’s just the message they have heard over and over and over because somebody has done it before. It’s doable. It’s always doable. Everybody should know that. You’re going to play the game to find out. And we are a good football team. We’re capable of playing extremely well, which is what it will take. We’re not going to win if we don’t play extremely well. But you know what, that should be said just about every championship game, shouldn’t it? You’re not playing just anybody in a championship game.

“You go into a Super Bowl, and that’s the best football players in the world, I would think both teams realize that you have to play extremely well to end up a champion. How appropriate is that? That makes me smile. I hope that brings out the best in them. That’s when you really try to become your best. That’s the beauty of playing in a championship game. I want them to taste that, I want them to experience that, I want them to understand the fact is that you have an opportunity to call on your best. Isn’t that want every person wants? There are times of difficulty, of being a human, you’d like to think and look back on it and say, ‘I stood as my best during that time.’ Young people getting to experience that, that’s awesome, isn’t it?”

Ask the Blue Devils, why, exactly, they committed to Duke when it had no history of success – every class except the true freshmen committed to a team that hadn’t played in a bowl since the 1994 season – and they’ll provide a variation of the same general principle: They believed in David Cutcliffe.

Take Shaquille Powell, the only four-star recruit on Duke’s roster, a sophomore running back from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman. Until he received a laminated letter during his senior season offering him a scholarship, he didn’t even realize Duke had a football team. He had never seen it on TV.

“I just knew them for their basketball,” Powell said.

But a call from his lead recruiter, Matt Lubick (now the receivers coach at Oregon) intrigued him, due to Lubick’s energy. He persuaded Powell to take an official visit. And once he arrived, he knew Duke was the place for him.

“I got to meet all the different coaches, Coach Cut, (offensive coordinator) Coach (Kurt) Roper,” Powell said. “Just the way they were talking about the program, the players and their expectations made me think that these people really have a higher value and can really instill in me what I need to become a better football player and a better man. And they completely believe in this program. With all that confidence, it was like, this is the place for me, I need to go here.

“It’s hard to believe something that someone is telling you when you’ve only known them for a couple of months, like I did, but it was just the confidence, that he knew this is going to happen.”

Mismatch? ‘Anything can happen’

Cutcliffe spoke Thursday outside of Duke’s indoor practice facility, named after Bob Pascal, the Duke football alumnus, who gave $6 million in 2009 for the project. He believed in Cutcliffe’s vision, after one year and a 4-8 season. The $13 million project that was completed in August 2011 — a full two years before the mighty Seminoles in rain-soaked Florida would finish their $15 million facility.

FSU runs laps around Duke in money and history. Jimbo Fisher, who will be due for a raise shortly, makes a $2.75 million per year, not including bonuses, according to his contract extension signed in December 2011.

Cutcliffe, according to 2011 tax forms from Duke, makes a base salary of $1.39 million, though that does not reflect an extension he signed last year (as a private school, Duke is shielded from releasing contracts of university officials).

Florida State football brought the school $43.1 million in revenue last year, according the the Equity in Athletics report the school filed with the U.S. Department of Education in July. Duke football brought in $24.1 million in that same time period.

And then there’s the history. Florida State, national champions in 1993 and 1999, finished with at least 10 wins and ranked in the top 5 every season from 1987-2000. Duke, meanwhile, just won 10 games for the first time and is finally putting some distance between the present and its dreadful past, which included just 10 wins total from 2000-2007.

Florida State sports the Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback (Jameis Winston) and recruiting classes that have been ranked in the top 10 nationally every year since Fisher took over in 2010. A developmental program, as Cutcliffe calls it, Duke signed just one four-star recruit, Powell, but, has found other ways to identify playmakers.

All of that on the periphery: the line, the history, the on-paper matchup. None of it bothers the Blue Devils. And none of it is new. As tight end Braxton Deaver pointed out, Duke has been underdogs for “years and years and years.”

“We’re Coastal Division champions,” he said. “We’ve earned the right to be playing against this team. But I can understand. They are the No. 1 team in the nation. They are 100 percent expected to win this game, but I tell everybody all the time, anything can happen. Football is such a game where, on Saturday, when those lights come on, if things bounce this way, an interception here, a tackle here, anything can happen. Hopefully things bounce our way, but we’re going to bring it on Saturday. We’re not scared.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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