Plenty in common for Duke, UVa
That's the lightly traveled path two of the Atlantic Coast Conference's biggest surprises have taken to remain competitive in the tough Coastal Division.
Duke has as many ACC victories as its three instate neighbors combined. Virginia struggled outside the conference before remaining perfect in it longer than anybody else.
The Blue Devils and Cavaliers have plenty in common: The league's only teams left out of bowls last season opened with embarrassing losses to Colonial Athletic Association teams, but somehow have remained factors in the muddy Coastal heading into this weekend's meeting in Charlottesville, Va.
"You've got two good football teams that obviously have the opportunity to get a step further in the conference," Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis said Tuesday. "And I think you have two hungry football teams. ... Something like 'Clash of the Titans.' It'll all boil down to who wants it the most."
In a division in which four teams have been ranked, nobody expected much out of Duke and Virginia. But the Blue Devils and Cavaliers join No. 11 Georgia Tech and No. 14 Virginia Tech as the only teams with one ACC loss. No. 18 Miami is 2-2 in league play while preseason No. 21 North Carolina is winless.
And then there's this: If the Blue Devils (4-3, 2-1) or Cavaliers (3-4, 2-1) were in the more pedestrian Atlantic Division - where no team has fewer than two ACC losses - they would have first place all to themselves.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe doesn't have time to watch the standings. "That's y'all's job," he said.
But that both teams are in contention this late in the season shows how far both have come from miserable beginnings.
Virginia coach Al Groh came under fire at his alma mater during an 0-3 start that included a loss to potential BCS buster TCU.
And while the Cavaliers were opening the season with a 26-14 loss to William & Mary, the Blue Devils threatened to derail Cutcliffe's reclamation project by losing to fellow CAA team Richmond.
"They got off, like we did, to a slow start," Cutcliffe said. "But they have played special football as of late."
Both resurrected their seasons by getting back to what they do best.
Virginia's 3-4 defense held three straight teams to single-digit scoring while establishing itself as the toughest in the league to pass against, giving up an average of 151 yards through the air. That's one reason why the Cavaliers were the last unbeaten in ACC play before the Yellow Jackets beat them last week.
"They're just giving a lot more effort even than last year," Duke left guard Mitchell Lederman said. "They're competing every single play, giving a lot of effort, even within the plays, so I think that's a big deal for them."
Meanwhile, nobody in the ACC throws the ball better than Duke, with Lewis rolling up three straight 300-yard passing games in wins against North Carolina State and Maryland - its first consecutive league wins since 1994 - and a closer-than-expected loss to the Hokies.
Virginia coach Al Groh says the Blue Devils' resurgence is a reflection of their coach.
"David was very successful in a very challenging conference when he was the head coach at Ole Miss. And probably was unjustifiably released from that position," Groh said. "So he's a quality coach. Knows how to run a real good program. It was expected, and he had a positive attitude, but demanding standards. He's done a very good job with their team. We're very respectful of it."