Duke driving bus in ACC Coastal Division, just like last year

Duke linebacker David Helton leads Coach David Cutcliffe and the rest of the Blue Devils onto the field at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, Sept. 18, 2014 for the Virginia game.
Duke linebacker David Helton leads Coach David Cutcliffe and the rest of the Blue Devils onto the field at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, Sept. 18, 2014 for the Virginia game. cliddy@newsobserver.com

It took a call from his younger sister for Duke quarterback Anthony Boone to find out the Blue Devils made their debut in the AP poll.

"I didn't even know," Boone said last week, when Duke was ranked No. 24. "It's one of those things where, obviously, we're getting a little more recognition, but, at the end of the day, we all know that rankings don't play for us on Saturdays."

This year, Boone has been trying to change his media consumption habits - there's less time reading ESPN analysis and checking Twitter ("If you stay off social media, you fall asleep a little bit earlier, too"). Still, he and his teammates are aware of the perception of the chaos in the ACC's Coastal Division, where it is still statistically possible for the season to end with a seven-way tie for first with each team 4-4.

"I know that they hear almost everything that is out there, not only from sources that we're all going to hear, media sources, but friends, classmates, family members," said coach David Cutcliffe. "And I just try to tell them honestly, from an experience standpoint, how I've dealt with it before. And I know they believe me."

At 7-1, 4-1 in the ACC, No. 22 Duke controls its destiny - win its remaining four regular season games (at Syracuse on Saturday and then at home against Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest) and the Blue Devils will win the division and return to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game. So, Cutcliffe tells it to them straight.

"I'm just very calm in my approach with them and say, 'Guys, I've seen it both ways. You get caught up in too much of this, and you lose focus of how hard the job is at hand.' The other side of it is I tell them the truth. Here is the carrot. It's out there. There is nobody else with one loss. If you like that, then here is why you have to focus on one game at a time."

For Duke to emerge at the top of the Coastal heap - a "weird" division, in tight end David Reeves' words - the Blue Devils just need to stay the course. Dating to last year, Duke is 15-3 over its past 18 games - among Power 5 teams, only Florida State, Michigan State and Auburn are better (Baylor, Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State are the same). But the nation isn't completely sold on the Blue Devils.

They didn't appear in the AP poll until Week 10, and at No. 22 in the college football playoff rankings, Duke is the lowest ranked, one-loss Power 5 team and behind eight two-loss teams, too.

The Blue Devils aren't helped by a weak nonconference schedule, and they haven't won with much flair - Duke was outgained in its ACC wins over Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pittsburgh.

But the key to Duke's success is simple: The Blue Devils don't beat themselves.

Sometimes, just for fun, Cutcliffe will go through football box scores without knowing the final score and try to predict which team won.

"I've always believed this," he said. "Football is an interesting game, and I think more games are lost than they are won."

In his box-score exercise, Cutcliffe will look at the obvious: turnovers, penalties, sacks allowed. But he'll also look at the number of runs, number of passes, rushing touchdowns, net punting yards and more.

Looking at Duke's season statistics, the Blue Devils rank first nationally in fewest turnovers (five total, three interceptions and two fumbles),19th in fewest penalty yards (39.3 per game) and first in fewest sacks allowed (four). The rushing offense has never been more productive under Cutcliffe, averaging 212.4 yards per game (34th nationally). If that pace holds, it will be the first time since 1976 that Duke has averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game. And that's up from the low-water mark of 63.50 per game in 2009.

"You want to make sure that you're not beating yourself because we do so much during the week as far as preparation-you don't to let that preparation not help you during the game," Reeves said. "That's the whole point of practicing like a game. You can have that confidence and feel comfortable on Saturday."

Comfort in the crazy Coastal can be scarce. Confidence, though, isn't in short supply in Durham.

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