Duke football enters uncharted territory of high expectations

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe had the luxury of time to build a program at Duke, and he has. Now he has new challenges in dealing with preseason expectations.

When college football analyst Phil Steele’s renowned season preview magazine came out — complete with predictions — a few weeks ago, there were some surprises. As there always are.

But perhaps none of the surprises were bigger than Steele picking the reigning ACC Coastal Division champion — a Duke Blue Devils team that returns most of its key pieces from last year, mind you — to finish tied for last place with Virginia.

Duke linebacker Kelby Brown didn’t read that. He doesn’t read most preseason predictions. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the assembled ACC media, in Greensboro for ACC Kickoff earlier this week, picked Duke last.

"Duke football is used to it. Went 3-9 for two years, went 6-7 for a year and now we’re 10-4. I don’t expect two seasons to change people’s opinion," Brown said. "To be honest, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve never really read those things anyways."

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has been slowly building a program in Durham, and — seemingly just as slowly — changing the way Duke is perceived.

Brown is right in that it won’t happen overnight. It’s difficult to change what’s comfortable, and the media has predicted Duke to finish last in the Coastal Division every year since the league went to a division format. The media picked Duke to finish last in the league the five years before that, meaning Duke was picked to finish last in its division or in the entire league for 13 of the last 14 years.

Difficult to blame the media for that, either. Duke did finish last or next-to-last in every season since 2000, so their predictions were either totally accurate or a spot off — until last season, when Duke, picked to finish last, punched its ticket to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game.

Maybe, though, Brown underestimated the media’s capability to adapt.

This year, Duke was picked to finish second in the Coastal and received the most first-place votes of any team in that division. It was the Blue Devils’ highest projected finish since 1995 (sixth out of nine teams). That year, Duke finished eighth.

So now, Duke is in the extremely rare position of having to back up legitimately earned preseason hype.

Cutcliffe isn’t too worried about that part of it. The ballots were in when he met with the media on Monday, and he understood that while preseason polls were ultimately meaningless, particularly in the muddled Coastal Division, it’s a symbol of how far Duke has come.

"As I look at preseason votes, you know who I’m happy for are former players because I think it’s meaningless to this team. The 2014 team has got to go prove itself. But I think the significance is all of these young men that have come through there since we’ve been there that have played such a big role in every year getting better and working as hard," Cutcliffe said. "So I know in my heart how proud those guys are of the fact that they helped move this to the point where we could be picked second."

But he admitted it matters in places other than the pride in his heart for his former players, too. It matters on the recruiting trail, particularly considering Duke played in two bowl games over the last two years where they were the only game in town. And last year, the Blue Devils put on an absolute show against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, even in a losing effort, proving to any who may have doubted them that they were for real.

"There’s no question we’re seen differently. I would say that not just the (improved) record, but probably the impact of being the only college football game on television two years in a row — the Belk Bowl, the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, people everywhere watched that game," Cutcliffe said. "We got the same response all over the country: ‘Wow, we didn’t know y’all were good.’ I think people got to see, even though both of them were losses, people got to see that we have a good football team."

And, as Cutcliffe accurately pointed out, nowadays, the most recent thing is the only thing. And the only thing a lot of football fans and spectators know is that Duke football is very good. That extends to recruits, teenagers growing up in this age of immediacy.

Cutcliffe is as level-headed as they come, but dealing with a program that’s slowly becoming accustomed to success as opposed to failure is a new challenge. And that extends to the recruiting trail, as he’s had to be careful he recruits the types of players that fit his program.

Higher-profile recruits have and will continue to show interest. But Duke has built its success recruiting a certain way.

"Is it harder to coach a guy that’s been told he’s good by so many people before he’s really at an age he can handle that? You’d better believe it is. I’ve always said, maybe it’s best to sign a bunch of two-star players that are really four-star athletes," Cutcliffe said. "If we hold true to our values, players can get better, but they’ve got to be certain kind of people. We’re watching that closely."

Duke didn’t take much time off after its bowl game loss, going into spring football in February and finishing before many teams nationwide had even begun. Cutcliffe did this by design, wanting to avoid injuries and devote more time to strength training in the off-season.

It’s been interesting, Cutcliffe said, to watch his locker room slowly morph into one where none of them knew what success was into one where none remember what failure was. That transition is not complete — Duke’s last 3-9 season was in 2011, so there are seniors who remember — but it’s very nearly there.

That mix of players who remember the failures and were determined not to repeat them with players who have known nothing but bowl games and success has been crucial to past success. Now, it’s a matter of the current players who do know what that success takes teaching the incoming players how to go about their business.

"The biggest danger is in changing who we’ve been. We are a good program because we have great habits. What we want to become is a great program with great habits," Cutcliffe said. "I’m kind of watching our young people that have known nothing but success. We’ve got guys going into their third and second years that think this is just what you do here every year, and I’m anxious to see if that’s a good thing or if that’s something we’re going to have to challenge them with.

"But I think being true to our habits, being true to what we believe in helps you become a champion, and we’ve got to maintain those same habits."

Cutcliffe understands as well as anyone that last year’s 10-4 record could have turned into something else.

A bad break here or an injury there and Duke would have been in the middle of the pack in the Coastal, or worse. He saw it happen firsthand in many of Duke’s previous seasons, when a potential 6-6 record turned into 3-9 because the Blue Devils lost some close games or had some key injuries, or all of the above.

You have to be lucky and good, after all. But all Cutcliffe knows how to do is keep on the same path. And why not? He knows it works. So he evaluated last season, as good as it was, the same way he would have one of the 3-9 seasons when he knew the program was on the right track, even if the record didn’t show it.

"Just as we did when we were 3-9 and we didn’t punch a panic button, we looked at all the things we were doing well — which was many, believe it or not — and then we looked at the things we weren’t doing as well," Cutcliffe said. "I think you have to disregard record every year when you study yourself in that regard or you’re kidding yourself. There are a lot of things that we think win football games that we measure all of the time, but we teach winning in everything we do. … I think that that’s where our program is getting stronger. I really do.

"I think that they’re challenging themselves to win at all of those marks, and I hope and believe this team has the experience, the mentality and the ability to do some of that."