Tabbed as heavy underdogs, Duke out to stun Florida State in ACC championship game
On Sunday's BCS Countdown, ESPN's Rece Davis suggested Duke take the week off practice. On Tuesday, Tomahawk Nation's Bud Elliott joked the Seminoles could play laser tag all week and still "house" the Blue Devils. Vegas has Florida State listed as a four-touchdown favorite in the ACC title game. Even Dick Vitale cracked that Duke was in for a beating during the basketball team's win over Michigan earlier this week.
Seemingly no one is giving the Blue Devils (10-2) a chance against the 'Noles (12-0) on Saturday. But no one gave Duke a chance to make the ACC title game in the first place. No one, of course, other than sixth-year head coach David Cutcliffe, who envisioned his team playing on this stage all along.
“He actually told us during my Senior Day,” former Duke quarterback and current Buffalo Bills quarterback Thad Lewis said. “He said ‘the next couple years here, I feel bad for you guys, we’re going to be competing for an ACC championship and you guys are going to be at home watching. I just want you guys to know you’re a part of it, and I’ll do everything in my will to make sure you guys can come down and be there.’ That first bowl game most of the guys went, and now in the ACC championship I believe most of the guys will be there, too.”
That bowl game -- the 2012 Belk Bowl -- was the program's first since 1994. Now, the Blue Devils are set to play in back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history. Cutcliffe had to start somewhere, and that meant formulating a plan and establishing a foundation that was previously nonexistent under former headman Ted Roof.
Lewis was on campus during the tail end of Roof's tenure (2003-07), and things couldn't get much worse. Roof went 6-45 with the Blue Devils, including a combined 1-23 in Lewis' first two seasons. But the new mentality was evident from day one under Cutcliffe, who was an assistant at both Tennessee and Ole Miss and mentored quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning.
Change was necessary, and Cutcliffe didn't shy away from speaking bluntly.
“It was a difference in culture, attitude," Lewis said, "him bringing a swag in what he had from coaching in the SEC and bringing that to the ACC. We definitely saw the difference from day one when he got there. He used to stop the whole practice and tell us we were the fattest, slowest team he’s ever coached, and he was going to change that. No coach ever said that to us. From that day forward, I knew he was for real and there was going to be a difference around there in Duke football.”
Over Cutcliffe's first two seasons, Duke went 9-15, missing a bowl game in 2009 by losing its final four games to teams with a combined record of 33-19 (although one of those teams, North Carolina, later vacated its wins). The subsequent two seasons -- with Lewis and the rest of that senior class gone -- the team won three games each year.
Even if it seemed as though things weren't getting better on the surface, Cutcliffe could sense real change. He maintained a patient philosophy, and it slowly began to pay off.
The 2012 squad beat Wake Forest for the first time in 13 tries. The Blue Devils held an early fourth-quarter lead over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl before collapsing down the stretch. The loss hurt, but it didn't alter the course of Cutcliffe's vision, instead reinforcing the team was on the right track.
"As Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell said to me recently," Fox Sports Carolinas writer Lauren Brownlow said, "Cutcliffe is special because he sees things before they happen. He sees the way they're going to happen, and what it's going to take for them to happen precisely that way. The more the players saw it happening just as he said, the more they committed themselves to 'the process' and to Cutcliffe. Now, there's a whole different culture and set of expectations surrounding Duke football that the current graduating class helped build."
It'd be foolish to say Duke's expectation is to win the ACC championship on Saturday; Florida State is the top-ranked team in the nation and is averaging 53.7 points per game. That said, Duke has been an underdog in many of the games it's played, and the fact that we're even discussing the Blue Devils' chances to topple the Seminoles is somewhat remarkable.
This all feels so much like Wake Forest's run to the ACC title game in 2006 against Georgia Tech. One win led to another, that victory begat another, and the ball bounced exactly the way it needed to to nestle into the Plinko board cubby that read "Jacksonville." Trying to analyze that Wake campaign with any sort of advanced metrics, statistical breakdown or logic would be a disservice to the event itself. This was watching Jackson Pollock paint. The drips splattered viciously on the floor and we were left with beautiful chaos.
In a number of ways, it's only fitting that Jim Grobe is retiring the same week that Cutcliffe has led Duke to a league championship appearance. Grobe ran North Carolina for so long; seeing the Demon Deacons give way to the Blue Devils (all while NC State and North Carolina try to find their way in the world under Dave Doeren and Larry Fedora) feels right, even if the journey to the top is short-lived.
Those outside the conference may think it's cute seeing little ol' Duke in Charlotte playing for a BCS bowl. But Virginia Tech certainly didn't find it endearing losing to Duke on its home turf on Oct. 26. That's something the Seminoles have noticed in watching tape of the Blue Devils. Sure, they're smart kids. Sure, they're the plucky upstart. But they're also a disciplined, downright good football team.
"We watched this team on film," Florida State defensive back Lamarcus Joyner told SI.com this week. "The whole country don’t watch this team on film. We have to go and play them for 60 minutes between the white lines. The whole country don’t. We know what we’re going against, despite everyone giving us the favorite and everything. It’s a pretty good football team, and it’s the most intelligent team. It’s gonna be a bigger game than people expect it to be.” No one can blame anybody for believing Duke is going to get destroyed by Florida State on Saturday. History certainly points to that result. If somehow a miracle ends up unfolding, it'll be hard for Cutcliffe to act anything but surprised, even if he envisioned it all along.