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With Duke a heavy underdog against Miami and its first winless ACC season since 2007 thus a strong possibility, needed change to the football program will certainly occur in the coming days and weeks.
Just how that change will manifest itself remains to be determined.
David Cutcliffe has one season remaining on his contract as Duke’s head coach, a position he’s held since December 2007. When he arrived, Duke had won just 10 games over the previous eight seasons.
Under his watch, the Blue Devils achieved respectability, playing in six bowl games in seven seasons from 2012-2018 including an ACC Coastal Division championship in 2013.
But the program has regressed rapidly over the last three seasons, with the Blue Devils going 4-21 in ACC play and currently on a 12-game losing streak against league foes. Duke is 3-8 with an 0-7 ACC mark this season.
A staff shakeup, particularly on defense, would be the minimum move necessary. The 39.1 points allowed per game this season has Duke next-to-last among Power Five teams, ahead of only Kansas (42.9). The Blue Devils allowed 38.1 points per game last season while going 2-9.
Duke’s last winless ACC season was 2007, Ted Roof’s final season as head coach before Cutcliffe arrived. Miami is a 21.5-point favorite over the Blue Devils in Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. season finale at Wallace Wade Stadium.
A larger move to start fresh with a whole new coaching staff could also be in the offing, especially because retaining Cutcliffe with no contract beyond the 2022 season would complicate recruiting.
At age 67, Cutcliffe is not ready to retire, a point he’s reiterated often while also admitting he’s not done a good enough job putting the Blue Devils in position to win.
“I got more,” Cutcliffe said Monday. “I don’t know if I look worn out or look all that bad, but I got a lot of fire in me. I’m a young football coach. I love doing what I’m doing. Has this been fun? No. Has it been rewarding? Yes, because you find out more about yourself during these times. Here is the test. I’ve had to fight adversity all my life, and you don’t run from it. I mean, you just get better. It pays.”
Nina King, a Duke athletics administrator since 2008 who took over as athletics director in August, was present in the Blue Devil Tower media room when Cutcliffe made those comments during his Monday press conference. She hasn’t said much publicly about the state of the program but she faces a big decision.
Earlier this month, she said Cutcliffe was the man to coach the Blue Devils for the remainder of this season while also saying the on-field results weren’t acceptable.
“Listen, we are, as Coach Cut is, disappointed in what’s happening right now out on the field,” King said on Nov. 5. “Trying to figure out what are the answers, how to get this fixed and how to get this fixed quickly.”
For their part, Duke’s players have repeatedly backed their coaching staff — Cutcliffe, in particular — even as lopsided losses have piled up.
“He’s a guy we all look to in moments exactly like these,” Duke senior wide receiver Jake Bobo, a team captain, said after last Thursday’s 62-22 loss to Louisville. “He has the locker room 100 percent behind him. We know who he is. We know who he is as a football coach and more importantly, we know who he is as a man and as a human being. I think, in coaching, obviously I haven’t been around it a whole lot, but that’s the most important thing you can have, and he has it. He’s a guy that even if we don’t win any games, we’re going to follow that man.”
Bobo is among 26 players scheduled to be honored on the field prior to Saturday’s game as part of senior day festivities, with King and Duke president Vince Price part of the ceremony.
Bobo’s first season at Duke was 2018, when Daniel Jones quarterbacked the Blue Devils to an 8-5 record and an Independence Bowl win. Since then, the Blue Devils have experienced nothing but the losing that dogged Duke football prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival.
Off the field, Cutcliffe continues to lead the program in ways Duke’s administration appreciates and respects. According to the NCAA’s latest Graduation Success Rate report released in November 2020, Duke football’s 97 percent score ranked No. 1 among teams in Power Five conferences.
The only other ACC schools at 90 percent or better were Louisville (94), Boston College (90) and Virginia (90).
But the noncompetitive performances on the field over the last two seasons have become too regular to overlook.
While going, 1-16 in ACC play over that time, the Blue Devils’ average margin of defeat has been 25.7 points. They’ve suffered six losses over the last two seasons by 30 points or more.
Cutcliffe has turned down numerous job offers, including but not limited to multiple overtures from Tennessee, during his time at Duke to remain with the Blue Devils.
Thus he remains undeterred, saying he’s still equipped to, once again, lead the Blue Devils out of this rut and back to regular bowl appearances should he get a 15th season next year.
“I’m a firm believer in Galatians 6:9, ‘don’t grow weary of doing good for at a proper time you will reap a great harvest,’” he said Monday. “I’m not going to back down from that mentality. I want to invite anybody that wants to keep up with me to try to keep up with me. Come on.”