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By Steve Phillips for theACC.com
The 2013 season saw Duke post the school’s first-ever 10-win football season, capture the ACC Coastal Division title and earn a second-consecutive bowl bid for the first time in program history. Some viewed the Blue Devils as a novelty act, a likeable bunch of fellas who caught lighting in a bottle.
How long, they asked, before they returned to being a reliable tenant at or near the bottom of the division standings, an afterthought diversion until the first basketball game of mid-November?
The answer: a resounding “not this year.”
Duke makes Saturday’s road trip to Syracuse already bowl eligible at 7-1 and still atop the Coastal Division with a 3-1 conference mark. The Blue Devils own the No. 22 spot in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings (where they are joined by fellow ACC members Florida State at No. 2, Clemson at No. 21 and Georgia Tech at No. 24). Duke also owns a No. 22 ranking from the Associated Press and is ranked No. 20 in the Coaches’ poll.
More magic? Another “feel-good” story?
Not according to head coach David Cutcliffe, who didn’t buy into such talk last year either.
“I’m not a real believer in luck or being charmed,” Cutcliffe said. “I am a believer in hard work and putting yourself in a position to be fortunate. Good fortune happens to people that do position themselves well. We just have been trying to position ourselves and take these games one game at a time. I think part of the real secret to success is just trying to figure out how to win that day. That’s where our focus has to be.”
Duke has its share of individual stars. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder now ranks second on the ACC’s all-time receptions list and stands second in the league this season with 49 catches for 636 yards. Linebacker David Helton is the ACC’s leading tackler so far with 87 through eight games.
But a glance at the conference team stats shows the Blue Devils to be a collective model of consistency. Duke ranks third in the ACC in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Blue Devils rank fifth in team rushing yardage despite having just one individual among the ACC’s top 10 rushers (freshman Shaun Wilson is seventh at 66 yards per game).
It reflects Cutcliffe’s commitment to balance and in-depth preparation. And to the simplest of concepts, like mistake-free football. The Blue Devils’ turnover margin average of plus-1.00 per game leads the ACC and is tied for 11th-best nationally.
“I’ve always believed this and I heard it when I was young: Football is an interesting game – more games are lost than they are won,” Cutcliffe said. “I have always liked to go through and look at box scores before I know the score. It’s just a little thing that I’ve always done, to see if I could figure out who won. That was kind of my way of finding out what seemed to be the best ways to win games.”
“Unforced errors is the way you would say it in tennis. In football, you have to work hard to avoid them. You’re going to have mistakes. We’re not going to go crazy over a turnover, because the (opposing) defense can cause a turnover. You just can’t afford to have unforced errors.”
Duke hopes to keep working the blueprint effectively enough to ensure a second-straight appearance in Charlotte at the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game come Dec. 6. Cutcliffe seemed hopeful as he spoke with reporters following one of team’s practices earlier this week.
“I thought there was a hunger there that made me happy,” Cutcliffe said. “I hope we can continue that.”