Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Cutcliffe's ACC title guarantee not looking so crazy now


Last week, the Duke Blue Devils, a program that had not played in the postseason since 1994 -- the year some of their players were born -- was up 20-0 at Virginia Tech and on the brink of bowl eligibility. But then, as coach David Cutcliffe put it, the wheels came off their wagon. The Blue Devils made some mistakes and the Hokies overwhelmed them, winning 41-20. "It was a shocking thing to go through," Cutcliffe said.

And, it looked like Duke was headed for more heartbreak Saturday night triggering more of the usual 'And that's why they're Duke' barbs against their arch-rival, North Carolina. The Blue Devils' 23-9 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, over a program they hadn't beaten at home since 1998, devolved into a 30-26 deficit with 3:12 remaining after UNC hit a long pass to Tar Heel receiver. A Duke defensive back had knocked the ball loose. Ross Cockrell, the Blue Devils' best defender, couldn't secure the fumble though. Instead, UNC star Giovanni Bernard scooped up the ball and took it into the end zone.

On the Duke sidelines, there was more shock. "I was thinking, 'Are you serious?'" said Kent McLeod, Duke's Director of Football Relations. "I'm sure a lot of the fans were like, 'Oh God, here we go again.'"

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Actually, not this time.

This time, senior QB Sean Renfree, one of Cutcliffe's first big recruits, led the Blue Devils on a 14-play, 87-yard TD drive, converting three third-and-long situations before culminating things on a clutch fourth-and-two pass to young Jamison Crowder. Duke fans celebrated by storming the field. Deservedly so.

At a time of the season where everything in college football seems so uncertain, here's something we do know: Duke, a program that had been the ultimate doormat in major college football for a generation, is going to play in a bowl game.

"It is a huge hurdle that we cleared," Cutcliffe told me Sunday morning.

The veteran coach who took over a program in 2008 that had gone 2-33 the previous three seasons, wanted his players to enjoy the big win. In the post-game celebration in the Blue Devils' locker room, Cutcliffe welcomed former Duke players and coaches' families inside. Each giddily took turns ringing the Victory Bell, awarded to the winner of the annual rivalry game.

"Today, though, I'm gonna congratulate them, but I'm also going to tell them, 'Don't be thinking about bowl games. It's one game at a time. There's a lot more we can do.'

"We have to change the mentality here and it's about competing for championships."

I suspect a lot of folks will snicker at that last part. Duke? Football championships?

Over a year ago, I talked to Cutcliffe in the offseason and he "guaranteed" that the Blue Devils would win an ACC football title. He said it would happen in the next five or six years. "Absolutely. One hundred percent guarantee it."

People howled then. Full disclosure: I like David Cutcliffe and have great respect for the guys on his staff. I kind of rolled my eyes when he guaranteed a league title too. Being decent and being good enough to win a league title are very different things. And, it is, after all, Duke football. The Blue Devils have been a punch line for years. In fact, as decorated a coach as Steve Spurrier is, the most significant line on his resume is that he once won a league title at Duke.

Since 2000, Duke has produced one Blue Devil who has been selected in the NFL draft. One. A seventh rounder selected 203rd in the 2004 draft.

McLeod, who is in the engine room of Duke's recruiting, says he's often asked by alums why the Blue Devils football program couldn't have a resurrection just like Stanford had of late. Thing is, if Duke football blossomed, it wouldn't really be a resurrection. Duke, unlike Stanford, has never been relevant in modern day football. Stanford's had down years. Duke's been abysmal.

"Since 1990, they've had like 70 guys drafted, we've had about 10," McLeod said. "They're just not comparable programs. They never really were what Duke was. When Cut took over, he took over the worst BCS team [from an automatic qualifying conference] in the country by far."

It's helped that the school has begun to put money into the program, spending millions upgrading the weight room, the training room and the practice facilities. Another big key was this staff's ability to dramatically upgrade the talent in the program through shrewd recruiting and development. In reality, the Blue Devils would likely get bypassed in the hunt for most of those physically imposing four and five-star looking recruits by the bigger schools. Sure, they landed a few of those prospects like powerful Laken Tomlinson, a now 320-pound starting guard who most of the Big Ten chased. But the bulk of this turnaround came from the staff targeting athletic kids like 205-pound defensive end prospects who have matured into 245-pound edge rushers and overlooked fleet-footed receivers like standout Conner Vernon and Crowder, an explosive 5-8 kid many deemed too small.

The Blue Devils now have skill players that would start for some Top 25 programs. The team also finally can hold up on the line of scrimmage. This season they are ranked No. 39 in sacks, No. 58 in rushing defense and No. 27 in sacks allowed. All more than respectable spots nationally. Two seasons ago, they were No. 113, No. 113 and No. 73 in those categories.

"Our O-line is now one of the strengths of our team," says McLeod. "And, we have a couple of kids who are redshirting that could play for us. Normally, we'd have had to start guys like that as freshmen."

Honestly, Cutcliffe's guarantee of a league title now doesn't seem so far-fetched. They are 3-1 in league play and lead the Coastal Division. He will challenge his players again. The difference between "average" teams and "good" teams is that good teams improve in the second half of the season because they have the willingness to practice with energy, intensity and focus when everyone is sore and beat up. His message Sunday, less than 24 hours after the most significant win in decades: "You have a choice, guys."

He's not worried about getting his players' feet back on the ground. He'll have them do the same thing he did at 6 a.m. Sunday: turn on the tape of Florida State, Duke's next opponent.

Asked what he was proudest of after studying the game film of the UNC win, Cutcliffe said it was seeing how his team won the physical battle against the Tar Heels. "Last night we were the most physical team on the field," he said. "And that's a real good feeling."

No doubt, it's also a sweet feeling for a staff loaded with guys who had worked with the 58-year-old Cutcliffe back in his Ole Miss days, where he led that middling program to a 44-29 record only to get canned after one losing season. He was fired one year after going 10-3 and finishing No. 13 in the country. It's worth noting that a bunch of Duke staffers turned down opportunities at bigger football programs to work for Cutcliffe because they believed in the guy so much and respected how he treats people.

"It is pretty incredible," said Cutcliffe. "I am truly blessed to be around this group of guys. The core has stayed together. I always believe you win in college football with great coaches and great organization."

Success now has a chance to breed more success. Becoming bowl eligible isn't just a coup for Duke's psyche, it's significant for physical development too. "When you go to a bowl game, you're essentially getting another spring ball," McLeod said. "That's how you develop your young guys and your program. Duke's never had that chance."

Random Stuff

 Collin Klein is now the clear Heisman leader, but you don't win it in October although you certainly can lose it during the second month of the season. Geno Smith, such a strong frontrunner until eight days ago, has seen his WVU squad get outscored 104-28 the past two weeks.

Klein is No. 2 in the country in passing efficiency, hitting on 71 percent of his passes with a 10-2 TD-INT ratio. Not bad for a guy better known as a runner. Last year, he ranked No. 77 in passing efficiency, connecting on just 57 percent and had a 13-6 ratio.

Teammates are comparing him to Elway now. It's actually not the first time Collin Klein's name was next to Elway's. Just go back to when the K-State QB was a high-schooler and ranked by ESPN as the nation's 60th best quarterback prospect -- one spot above Jack Elway, John's son. (The younger Elway signed with ASU, but gave up football not long after.) ranked him as the 21st best pro-style QB, while had him as the 106th best QB. Yeah, Example No. 4,413 on why we should take recruiting rankings with a few grains of salt.

 A footnote to Smith's interception-free streak being snapped. The culprit: K-State LB Arthur Brown, who by the way was also the first to pick off Robert Griffin III last year too.

 Cool anecdote: Mizzou's star WR TJ Moe shared via Twitter after I asked if Bill Snyder -- now 31-13 on the road against ranked opponents -- is the most underrated great coach in football history. (Snyder is. I don't even know who you'd say would be close given what he's done for that program and what it was before he arrived. Twice.)

Said Moe: "Coach Snyder gave me a handwritten letter of encouragement after last year's game. There's a reason his guys play so hard for him."

 After throwing seven TDs against TCU in a 56-53 win on the road, Seth Doege has a chance to get into the Heisman race if Texas Tech can knock off K-State this weekend. Doege was sharp against a good defense, lighting up the Horned Frogs despite missing three of Tech's best receivers.

 Florida hammered Steve Spurrier's team 44-11 in the Swamp. I imagine there are a lot of folks in Texas who wouldn't mind having Muschamp and the toughness he's instilled back into the UF program running the show in Austin, although I suspect that would make for some very awkward moments with the Longhorn Network and that kind of access. No matter, I'm sure Florida feels fortunate to have him in Gainesville. I figured Muschamp would prove to be a good hire. I never expected he would have this team playing this well this soon though. And, he was also spot on when he told colleague Tracy Wolfson before the game that the Gators are not back until they win a championship.

As strong as the Gators have been, the player who may deserve the spotlight more than any other after Saturday was punter Kyle Christy, who averaged over 54 yards on seven boots. Not one kick was shorter than 50 yards.

 Step aside, Geno. New INT-free streak in the crosshairs is A.J. McCarron, who's at 249 and counting. His 16-0 TD-INT mark, coupled with the Tide's No. 1 ranking, lands him a spot in our Heisman Top 3 this week -- although the Bama player that impressed me most this week was freshman WR Amari Cooper. In fact, as freakish as the Vols receivers are, the most impressive wideout on the field at Neyland was Cooper, who went for seven catches and 162 yards -- most ever by a freshman in school history. Another difference-maker for an offense that is looking very dangerous despite changing coordinators and its top four receivers from last season's national title team.

Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Amari Cooper. (US Presswire)  
Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Amari Cooper. (US Presswire)  
"We think he's an outstanding player," Saban said of Cooper. "He's just a freshman, and he's gotten better and better every week. He has learned to be very consistent in how he plays. He plays fast and hard. He had one big play in the game that was called back, but we thought he made a great play on that. We need explosive players on offense, and we're extremely pleased with the way he's progressed through the season, and we think he had a very good day today."

 In four SEC games, all losses, Tennessee has allowed 173 total points and 2,104 yards == an average of 43 points and 526 yards per game. Last year at this time, the Vols were No. 48 in total defense. This season, they're down to No. 95.

 Stat of the day: After beating No. 21 Cincinnati, Toledo moves to 5-1 against Top 25 teams at home. The Rockets' lone loss was against Boise State last season.

They beat the Bearcats 29-23 despite only scoring touchdowns via special teams and defense. New coach Matt Campbell, a 2002 graduate of Mount Union, is off to a terrific start at Toledo.

"If you would have told me that our defense would hold the explosive Toledo offense scoreless in terms of touchdowns, I would feel pretty confident that we would win the football game," said Cincy coach Butch Jones. "But Toledo made the plays when they needed to, so hats off to them."

 Worst upset pick of the weekend: Touting Cal to knock off Stanford in large part because the Cardinal had been so shaky on the road this season. Then again, maybe since Stanford didn't really have to travel that far, I should've re-thought that gem of an idea.

Lots of folks know about Stanford's defensive standouts Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas, but teammate Ben Gardner has proven to be quite a force too. The Cardinal held Cal, a team with as deep a staple of explosive running backs as anyone on the West Coast, to three rushing yards on 28 carries and just 217 total yards. On all those rushing attempts, the Bears didn't have a carry go for more than four yards the whole day. Worse still, the Bears managed to convert on just one of 14 tries on third downs.

"Their defense is as good as any defense we have played in this conference for years," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford. "They are very experienced, very physical and very multiple. They do a great job. We knew going in that it was going to be a dog fight. You know they are going to get theirs, and we didn't have enough on our side to keep it going."

Cal now needs to beat Washington, Utah and upset one of the unbeaten Oregon schools to get bowl eligible, which may be what it takes in hopes of saving Tedford's job.

 Matt Barkley was nearly flawless Saturday, connecting on 19 of 20 with six TD passes. In the process, he passed Matt Leinart, another Mater Dei High product, to become the Pac-12's all-time TD pass leader.

Is Barkley back in the Heisman race? Perhaps. Seems like every other top offensive candidate aside from Klein has come back to the field. However, Bay Area columnist Jon Wilner notes that 16 of Barkley's 22 TD passes have come against Colorado, Hawaii and Syracuse. In games against the decent opponents USC has faced -- Cal, Utah, Washington and Stanford -- he has a 6-5 TD-INT ratio.

Barkley, though, will have plenty of opportunity to win back skeptics since Oregon and Notre Dame are both coming to L.A.

 Things keep looking worse for rookie coach Ellis Johnson and Southern Miss. USM began the season 0-6, but things figured to ease up some as the Golden Eagles moved to the easier half of their schedule. OK, maybe not. The second half of the season looked just as bleak as the first half did after 2-4 Marshall came to town and rolled up 629 yards of offense and blew out USM 59-24. It was the most points Southern Miss has given up since allowing FSU to get 61 in 1987.

"I'm surprised, disappointed and we're back to point zero," said Johnson. "We're going to have to start all over and find out who wants to play ball. Obviously they weren't well prepared from a football standpoint and that's my fault. We've got a situation where some guys will have to decide whether or not they want to play football. There's no way we could perform in some of the areas that we did the way we did. I just felt like when some guys, when they really got challenged, some guys backed off. It's my job to figure out why, but right now, I have no answer for it."

 Gene Chizik's job has to be in serious jeopardy after back-to-back losses to Vandy and Ole Miss. In the process, Auburn became the first team ever in the AP poll era to start 1-6 within two years of winning a national title, noted Birmingham writer Jon Solomon. Yeah, that's a first no coach covets. It's similar to ending up in the discussion for Worst Coach to Ever Win a BCS Title.

If I had to guess, I'd say Auburn will have a new coach in 2013. Powerful people down there will be prone to push the panic button because they're embarrassed by who they're losing to now.

The latest Tiger defeat had a familiar subplot. A few weeks ago, when Auburn was thumped by Arkansas, a Hog DE (Trey Flowers) who is from Alabama and didn't get recruited by either of the big state schools, had 3.5 sacks vs. the Tigers. Against Vandy, it was another Alabama kid, RB Zac Stacy, who burned the Tigers, running for 162. It has been that kind of year for Auburn.

 Troy rallied from being down 37-21 midway through the third quarter to beat FIU 38-37. The loss drops the Golden Panthers to 1-7 and 0-4 in Sun Belt play. Mario Cristobal had chances to leave FIU for bigger jobs in the offseason. It was no stretch to think that he'd have a crack at even bigger jobs after this season, but with the way things have gone this fall, that doesn't seem likely now.

 Flash back to Sept. 8: In Week 2, the Cavaliers beat Penn State to go to 2-0. Since then, UVA has lost six straight, including at home against Wake Forest on Saturday, while the Nittany Lions have bounced back to win their fifth in a row.

 Favorite story of the day: The leadership of Daniel Rodriguez. The Clemson WR led the Tigers down the hill hoisting the American flag on Military Appreciation Day against Virginia Tech. The 24-year-old, who grew up a Hokie fan, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal with Valor.

For more on Rodriguez' story, click out this piece by CBS News.

"It was just a lot of emotion," Rodriguez told reporters after the game. "It was a great honor to do that and see the reaction out of the crowd. It means a lot to me and this day will really stand out."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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