Jimbo Fisher was a young assistant coach in the Southeastern Conference in the 1990s at Auburn when he saw what David Cutcliffe was doing as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator.
Cutcliffe coached a first-round pick in quarterback Heath Shuler and then mentored Peyton Manning. And after winning a national title in 1998 (over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl), Cutcliffe then moved on to Mississippi as head coach and groomed Eli Manning.
Cutcliffe went 44-29 at Mississippi before he was dismissed following a 4-7 season in 2004. But he cultivated a reputation as a quarterback guru and was respected for his offensive philosophies.
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“His ability to coach quarterbacks, be a dynamic offense and throw the football around, you always tried to watch a lot of tape of those guys when you were early in your career, watching what they were doing and how they did it,” Fisher said.
Fisher spent time at Auburn and LSU, and Cutcliffe at Tennessee and Mississippi. They have never worked together, but they have faced off on the field and often recruited the same players. There is a mutual admiration that goes beyond the normal coachspeak.
“Both of them have a lot of respect for each other,” said Florida State athletics director Stan Wilcox, who was an associate AD at Duke from 2008 until he left for Tallahassee in August. “Both of them were offensive coordinators and have had great quarterbacks that they have molded and mentored. It’s definitely going to be a battle of wits in a sense.”
And now Fisher’s Seminoles and Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils will face off on Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C., as No. 1 Florida State (12-0) faces No. 20 Duke (10-2) for the Atlantic Coast Conference title. The Seminoles are 18-0 against Duke all-time, including Florida State’s 48-7 win in Tallahassee in 2012.
Neither team was picked to win their division in July. Florida State was chosen to finish second to Clemson in the Atlantic Division. Duke was picked seventh, dead last, in the Coastal Division.
Florida State is running away from opponents and is a four-touchdown favorite to knock off Duke and play in the BCS championship game on Jan. 6.
The Seminoles are No. 2 in scoring offense (53.7 points) and No. 1 in scoring defense (11.0 points) in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They have been dominant from start to finish this season, including a 37-7 rout of Florida on Saturday.
“I’ve seen them on tape with common opponents, off and on this season,” Cutcliffe said. “And truly you already know that this is one of the finest teams in recent memory in college football.”
Duke has come from out of nowhere to reach the ACC title game. The Blue Devils opened 2-2 but have rattled off eight straight wins to claim the Coastal. They stunned Virginia Tech 13-10 at Blacksburg, Va., on Oct. 26, a game that put Duke on the radar. Two weeks later, they put up 48 points in a home win over Miami.
The Blue Devils haven’t had any trouble scoring this season, averaging 33.7 points per game. Duke has done it with a two-headed quarterback, as Anthony Boone has 1,695 yards and 10 touchdown passes while Brandon Connette has 13 touchdown passes.
“Three or four weeks ago, I’ve noticed them,” Fisher said. “You see highlights and you see the numbers and what’s going on. I said, ‘Duke has got a very good team.’ I know if they had a chance to win out they could be there (in the ACC title game). … I think it’s been a tremendous accomplishment. But if you know David, David always finds a way to get things done.”
Just the thought that Duke could be there — in a conference title game in football — was stand-up comedy a few years ago to many in the ACC. They were laughing across Tobacco Road at the longtime SEC football coach with the grandiose vision of what Cutcliffe could do at a basketball school.
Duke football hadn’t been relevant since Steve Spurrier left Durham for Gainesville in 1990. The Blue Devils were struggling to get close to .500, so a even bowl game was a dream.
In the summer of 2011, Cutcliffe had a goal that Duke would reach the ACC championship game in three years. Duke wasn’t close in 2011, going 3-9. But the Blue Devils then put together a respectable 6-7 season, which ended in a bowl loss to Cincinnati.
And it was the launching pad for the 2013 team.
“In the three-year (plan), I did put down there to play in the ACC championship game,” Cutcliffe said. “So we’re just making that right under the gun from when I did that.”
Cutcliffe knew the history. He had a plan. He built some strong recruiting classes. He made a goal. And he was right.
“Over the past five years, he really built that program,” Wilcox said. “It’s on track to where they knew it was going to be. … Duke has come a long way.”