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Avoiding the Blip

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Has David Cutcliffe begun a turnaround in football at Duke, or is this just a blip like 1994? The Blue Devils have two tough, but winnable games, a shot at the ACC championship game - and, yes, a bowl game - to answer that question.


January 2, 1995. Shannon Hoon and Dean Martin were still alive, the Dow Jones hadn’t yet crossed 4,000, and Mississippi had yet to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (yes, that amendment).

December 28, 1989. Robert Griffin, III was posing for the Heisman in his mother’s womb and Tango & Cash were kicking ass in theaters nationwide.

January 1, 1961. That’s just a long f**king time ago. Don and Peggy Draper were still together, though.

Those were heady days, my friends, and not just because the world had yet to be introduced to Road Rules and its endless successors that slowly squeezed the Music from Music Television. Those dates represent the last time that the Duke Blue Devils: 1) played in a bowl game; 2) played in a bowl game as ACC champions; and 3) won a bowl game, respectively.

Yeah, it’s been a rough go these last 51 years.

We've been down this road before, friends.

When I showed up on Duke’s campus as a naive freshman in the fall of 1994, I brought Fred Goldsmith with me from Houston. Fred was a nice enough guy. Fred enjoyed his bible and enjoyed telling us how much he enjoyed his bible, and he also managed to put two back to back 6-5 seasons together at Rice, their first winning records since who knows when. It’s Rice, right? But in Coach Goldsmith’s first season at Duke, he did the unthinkable. He went 8-0, and turned Duke, temporarily, into a football school. After being humbled against Florida St, Duke beat a ranked and favored Virginia team in Wally Wade on parents’ weekend that, in every Duke fans’ minds, put the ACC on notice. Duke was here to stay.

Well, after two heartbreaking losses to NC State and North Carolina (damn you, Octavius Barnes!!!) to close out the year, Duke tanked its bowl game to Wisconsin, and that was that. Duke opened the 1995 season getting 70 dropped on them by Florida State on the way to a three win season. In 1996, Duke went a big ole 0-fer and Goldsmith got canned after the 1998 season. The Blue Devils put up three more winless seasons and two one-win seasons after that, giving the Blue Devils the honor of being the worst BCS conference team in the BCS era. And it’s not close, Baylor and Indiana.

The Cutcliffe difference

Enter David Cutcliffe. I loved this hire from the beginning. Coach Cutcliffe was run out of Ole Miss at least a year too early. He was a known offensive quantity with skins on the wall (including 2 named Manning), but he also wasn’t a young up-and-comer that might better-deal Duke after a modicum of success if the right offer came along. In Cutcliffe’s first season, you could finally tell the adults were in charge again. Fewer stupid penalties, fewer lapses of concentration, and no f**king third down quick kicks! One of the most frustrating things about Duke football in the Franks and Roof eras was not only were the Blue Devils bad, they played dumb. One would think that Duke would at least be fundamentally sound, wouldn’t one? Even if Duke sorely lacked in talent, the Blue Devils shouldn’t beat themselves. But that was never the case under Franks and Roof, where Duke constantly found itself behind the eight ball due to self-inflicted gaffes that would give a Pop Warner coach an ulcer. Duke was showing up to gunfights with a knife and then promptly stabbing itself in the femoral artery.

This is why David Cutcliffe has already been given more time than Franks or Roof got. If Duke had gone 3-9 this year, Coach Cutcliffe’s job was safe. There has been real progression at Duke since 2008, in facilities, in talent, and in the product on the field. But most Duke fans understood that 2012 might not quite be the year Duke broke through to a bowl. The ACC has been its typical "above-average" heavy self, with a lot of good teams, one really good team and one top 5-ish team. And Duke seemingly had to play them all. No Boston College or Maryland on the schedule, with both Clemson and Florida State – back to back. So when Duke entered its game in Blacksburg at 5-1 against a down Virginia Teach team, you could forgive Duke fans if they weren’t fully in the tank for this team yet. Improvement? Yes. That mythical 6 win season? Maybe not. After all, at the time, Duke had exactly 1 win against its remaining opponents since the ACC expanded.

And, as expected, Duke couldn’t hang on against a down Virginia Tech team, which led the Devils into an earlier than usual meeting with the Tar Heels, a team Duke has beaten exactly once since Steve Spurrier left with heartbreaking losses of every possible variety strewn along the way. Duke looked to put the doubters to bed early, jumping out to a two touchdown fourth quarter lead when reality started to kick in. Carolina started moving the ball, then finally took the lead on the ultimate "Well, it’s Duke" play when Giovanni Bernard scooped up a fumble created on a great tackle by Duke’s Jordon Vyas. Seriously? But this Duke team wouldn’t succumb to tradition. Sean Renfree marched Duke down the field and hit Jamison Crowder on about as ballsy of a 4th down pass as I’ve seen in a while. Duke wins. Duke is going bowling.

But was the Carolina win the 1994 Virginia win all over again, where Duke subsequently falls on its face, and back to status quo, after a one year bowl blip? No one expected Duke to beat Florida St. or Clemson, but the losses were certainly reminiscent of past Duke teams, and past Duke problems. Unlike 1994, though, Duke has the opportunity to redeem itself and go into its bowl with real momentum, with two very winnable games against Miami and Georgia Tech. Even better – Duke controls its destiny in the Coastal Division and (gulp) has a very real chance of playing in the ACC championship game – which would give it a shot, albeit an awful long one – at that ACC championship we haven’t gotten in 23 years, and a…. um….. BCS bowl. Mayan calendar indeed.

What's on the line in these last two games.

Back to reality - not that Duke needs to validate this particular season any more than it has, but if it wants its fans to believe that things are changing permanently, a win on Saturday against Georgia Tech, who has struggled to stop anyone this year, is hugely important. The Yellow Jackets have put up some clunkers this year (hello, Middle Tennessee State!), but they just got done dropping 65 on the ‘Heels, which is certainly worrisome. And Vegas likes the Yellow Jackets after that. Big. Like giving 13 points big. So, we’ll see? I like Duke in this game, but perhaps I’m drinking the Kool-Aid here. Following the Georgia Tech game, Duke gets Miami, which is an even tougher game for Duke considering Miami’s strength, its passing game, plays right into Duke’s biggest weakness, it’s thin and struggling secondary. That’s where the conference championship dreams will likely end, unfortunately, but I hope I'm wrong.

If the Devils can split these last 2 games and secure an above .500 record for the season, despite what happens in the bowl game, it will lead to even more positive momentum for next year, when the schedule should be a little more manageable than this year’s killer ACC run. But still, Duke has finally broken that 18 year run of embarrassment. We can get into whether that pesky 51 year streak cited above can be broken this year once we know who the Devils are up against. But at last, this year, we know Duke will finally have that chance. What’s better, though, is that we also know that one bowl game isn’t going to be enough for Coach Cutcliffe. This is not the second-coming of Fred Goldsmith. Coach Cut is here to change minds and, laugh if you want, win championships. Here’s to 2012 representing the beginning of a real football program in Durham that the ACC will have to deal with going forward, and not another random blip of a season like 1994.