Luke DeCock

Reasons Duke football will make a bowl game this season. And reasons it might not

Duke's Cutcliffe: 'I believe in my heart of hearts, this team is the deepest, most talented team we've had at Duke yet'

Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe talks about the upcoming season for the Blue Devils during ACC Football Kickoff Media Day in Charlotte, NC, Friday, July 14, 2017.
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Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe talks about the upcoming season for the Blue Devils during ACC Football Kickoff Media Day in Charlotte, NC, Friday, July 14, 2017.

It has been more than seven months but the feeling of emptiness can still stop David Cutcliffe cold. He got off the recruiting trail last December, looked at his calendar and saw ... nothing.

“All of a sudden this dead period hits. I get on a plane to come home, and I have nothing to do tomorrow,” the Duke coach said. “It just hit me, so hard. There’s no bowl game. I mean, literally, nothing was on my calendar.

“I’m not going to forget that. I choose not to forget that. I don’t want anybody around here to forget that. Do I think it was an outlier to who we are? Yes. But I do know this: If you don’t correct it, if you don’t do things better, then those things don’t become outliers. That’s the responsibility that I have.”

For the first time in five seasons, Duke opened practice on Monday coming off a season that didn’t end in a bowl appearance, which doubles the stakes this time around. There’s every reason to believe Duke will be back in a bowl game this December. There’s also every reason to worry that it won’t.

It’s easy to write off last season as a blip, an aberration, a season sabotaged by a fragile Achilles tendon here, a snapped ligament there. And based on everything Cutcliffe has done at Duke to date, it probably is. (Duke still managed to beat North Carolina and win at Notre Dame in an otherwise disappointing 4-8 season.) But this season is pivotal, more than most, in determining the future direction of the program.

One sub-.500 year is a data point. Two is a trend.

“That is just a fire that motivates all of us,” senior center Austin Davis said. “A lot of us offensive linemen, we all live together, and yeah, it gets brought up sometimes, and we all agreed on it that we don’t plan on sitting home in December ever again. We don’t want that to happen.”

To do that, Duke will have to buck some wider trends. The Blue Devils’ resurgence came at a time when Wake Forest was bottoming out and North Carolina was reeling from NCAA sanctions and N.C. State wasn’t exactly a recruiting powerhouse. In the Coastal Division, Virginia Tech was down, Virginia was out and Miami was a mess. Conditions were ripe for Duke’s rise, not only within the division but among North Carolina high-school players – and college coaches say perhaps the biggest change in the in-state recruiting landscape over the past decade has been Duke’s ability to compete for players the Blue Devils couldn’t get before.

The four ACC schools will always have to supplement with out-of-state talent, but the foundations of their rosters have always been built within these borders, and the scramble for in-state players has never been more competitive. Even before you consider the perpetual incursions from out-of-state teams like Clemson, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia Tech – who often skim off the elite talent – in-state recruiting starts to feel like a zero-sum game. Or, at least, one that’s not robust enough for Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest all to sustain themselves at the same time.

And with a new cadre of coaches, the Coastal will only get tougher with each passing year.

So in that bigger picture, Duke’s failure to make a bowl game last season, when combined with Wake Forest’s rise to competitiveness and North Carolina and N.C. State both being consistent bowl-eligible teams, could be merely the first stumble of many on a long way down. Or it could merely be a single stumble, one that is forgotten in the wake of another season that ends in the postseason.

Either way, this season will point the way for the next, and the next, and the next.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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