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Duke on brink of snapping epic bowl drought, but sixth win won't come easy

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Duke's 17-year bowl drought is the longest among BCS-league schools. (US Presswire)  
Duke's 17-year bowl drought is the longest among BCS-league schools. (US Presswire)  

Usually by mid-October, football season is a lost cause and fans at basketball-crazy Duke are gearing up for March Madness and staking out camping spots in Krzyzewskiville.

Not so this year. Something big could be brewing at a school with the longest bowl-game drought among BCS-league schools -- 17 seasons.

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Duke -- yes, Duke -- is off to its best start since 1994 and is one win from bowl eligibility after a victory over Virginia last week improved the Blue Devils' record to 5-1.

Some of Duke's current players were still in diapers when that 1994 team lost to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl on Jan. 2, 1995. Duke entered this fall with a 37-158 record since then, with not even one winning season.

It's been a long, frustrating wait.

"It would be huge for the program," wide receiver Conner Vernon, one of the stars in coach David Cutcliffe's offense, said of making a bowl game this season. "It's something the program has been waiting for a long time. It's something that this university has been waiting for a long time. But it's also something that the city of Durham deserves and needs. It's time to get back to where Duke football belongs."

With six games remaining on the schedule -- starting with Saturday's showdown at Virginia Tech -- Duke has plenty of opportunities to break a bowl-less streak that is the fourth-longest active streak in the FBS behind non-BCS schools New Mexico State (52 years), Kent State (40 years) and Eastern Michigan (25 years).

The last time Duke actually won a bowl game? You have to go back to the 1961 Cotton Bowl, when the Blue Devils trumped Arkansas, 7-6.

Cutcliffe, who mentored Peyton Manning as offensive coordinator at Tennessee and Eli Manning as head coach at Mississippi, is in his fifth year at the helm in Durham. He's built a potent offense with Vernon as the primary playmaker. The senior set the Atlantic Coast Conference record last week for receptions, hauling in 239 over his career.

The Blue Devils rank 30th in the country in passing offense, producing 288.67 yards per game, and are in a tie for 27th in scoring offense, generating an average of 37.83 points per contest.

But for Cutcliffe, who called his first Duke squad in 2008 the "softest, fattest" football team he had ever seen, the most noticeable upgrade has been improved work ethic and conditioning. From the time he was hired in December 2007 to when the team reported to practice the following fall, his players collectively lost 497 pounds.

"Our rules are that if you're going to play football, you're going to play it one way," Cutcliffe said. "That's just the way of life where I come from. It just didn't exist. Football wasn't important enough to them. And if you're a major college football player, you're going to have to make some sacrifices and I think that's been the toughest culture change. I think we're there now, because these guys know no other way."

Duke's only loss this season came against No. 17 Stanford in the second week of the season. In the squad's five wins, however, its average margin of victory is a robust 22.6 points per game.

"Coach Cutcliffe has done a great job there, just hanging in there with his message, just talking about his philosophy," Virginia coach Mike London said. "The players have bought in."

Bowl aspirations aside, Duke has its sights set on a bigger prize: a trip to Charlotte, N.C., for the ACC Championship Game. Coupled with a 2-0 conference record, Coastal Division rival North Carolina is ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions. Because fellow division foe Miami could also potentially face a bowl ban, Duke's seemingly improbable objective may be a real possibility.

"Our goal is the same goal it's been all year long and that is playing in Charlotte at the end of the year just like every other team in this conference," Vernon said.

Steve Spurrier, whose No. 3 South Carolina team is in national championship contention, was the head coach at Duke from 1987-89, eventually leading the program to a share of the ACC championship in his final season in Durham. If anyone knows the effort required to precipitate a turnaround at Duke, it is Spurrier, who twice earned the ACC Coach of the Year award and left the program with a 20-13-1 record after years of football futility.

"You have to recruit a little bit more of the academic-type players, but there's a lot of good football players that are good students also," Spurrier said. "So it's not easy, but you've got a chance to win six games or so and that should be a minimum goal for everyone -- to try to win six games and have a winning record, so I'm fired up and happy for them."

The remainder of Duke's schedule, however, isn't favorable. The Blue Devils will also face North Carolina, No. 12 Florida State, No. 16 Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami the rest of the way. But more so than an assembly of ACC challengers, Duke is also battling history. Since Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, the program is a combined 0-18 against its remaining opponents.

"When that sixth win comes, it will come," Vernon said. "But it's not going to be an easy one at all."

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