Christopher Smith

Cutcliffe's Blue Devils A True Force

Created on Nov. 16, 2013 8:14 PM EST

Not so fast, Gus Malzahn.

Before Auburn's sports information department starts to spell out the coaches' last name for awards engravers, Duke coach David Cutcliffe is making a strong case for coach of the year.

In the biggest win for the Blue Devils anyone alive can remember, Cutcliffe's team beat Miami, 48-30, on Saturday to seize control of the ACC's Coastal Division.

It's a stunning development for a program known for its basketball. Duke fans usually have long since abandoned the gridiron in favor of Mike Krzyzewski's latest squad; instead they stormed the field at Wade Wallace Stadium.

True, Miami had lost its best player in running back Duke Johnson and back-to-back games, but still ranked in the Top 25 and were almost everyone's pick to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC championship.

In 2011, the Blue Devils won three games and went 1-7 in ACC play. Last season, Cutcliffe led Duke to a 6-6 regular-season record and its first bowl appearance since 1994. But that team included quarterback Sean Renfree, drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the seventh round.

Junior receiver Jamison Crowder is a darn good football player, but he's listed at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds and doesn't strike fear in Top 25 defenses. Other than Crowder, the Blue Devils have a quarterback by committee and a running back by committee. There was nothing to suggest before the season Duke (8-2, 4-2) was capable of this. In fact, the ACC media members voted Duke last in the Coastal Division projection before the season behind Pitt and Virginia.

The Blue Devils did lose to Georgia Tech and Pitt, falling to 0-2 in the ACC, and then squeaked by Troy, a middling Sun Belt team, to improve to 3-2. It appeared Cutcliffe would need a whale of a year to lead his program to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in its history.

Instead, Duke stunned Virginia Tech on Oct. 26, its first win against a ranked opponent on the road since 1971. The win also snapped a 47-game losing streak against ranked teams.

The team hasn't lost since Sept. 21. Games at Wake Forest and at North Carolina to close the season aren't automatic wins, but Duke should be favored in both.

Entering Saturday, Duke ranked 44th in scoring offense and 30th in scoring defense, which is good, but not typically division-winner good within one of the best conferences in the country. But Cutcliffe has made his team believe, and they've played best against Virginia Tech and Miami.

No one's expecting Florida State to get nervous about a potential Dec. 7 meeting in the ACC championship, but Duke has earned the right to be there and is more than a fluke. Cutcliffe could take his team to that game, lose big and still have a chance at an 11-win season in a bowl.

Miami (7-3, 3-3) is left to lament what once was a tremendous season. The Hurricanes defense has allowed 131 points in its last three games.

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