Duke football quietly among ACC's elite

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For the third straight year, Duke is going bowling. Last Saturday, the Blue Devils edged Virginia with a late touchdown, improving to 6-1 on the season. Their impressive record and bowl eligibility this early in the season are great accomplishments, but the Blue Devils have their eyes set on bigger goals. After last year's Coastal Division title, the bar has been significantly raised for this Duke football program.

Heading into Week 9, they're the Coastal's team to beat and all they want is another shot at Florida State in the ACC title game. If it weren't for a Week 5 loss to Miami, the now 24th-ranked Blue Devils could even be in the conversation for a playoff bid. This is nothing short of remarkable considering where they were as a program just a few years ago.

When David Cutcliffe took over as head coach in December of 2007, Duke hadn't finished a season ranked in the AP Poll since 1961. Furthermore, they hadn't even reached a bowl game since the 1994 season. During the span of 1999 to 2007, Duke's win-loss record was 13-90. With multiple coaching changes, losing was the only thing that stayed constant for the Blue Devils. A huge overhaul was needed, and that's exactly what Cutcliffe has provided.

Before being hired by Duke, the offensive-minded coach built up his reputation as Tennessee's offensive coordinator and then as the head coach of Ole Miss. He helped the Vols win a national championship and took part in the grooming of future Hall of Famer, Peyton Manning. At Ole Miss he recruited Peyton's brother Eli and led the Rebels to five winning seasons in six years.

After a rocky first four years at Duke, the 2012 season was a much needed step in the right direction. They finished the regular season at 6-6 and went to the Belk Bowl where they lost a close contest to Cincinnati. Improving on 2012, last season was the true breakthrough Duke had been longing for. After starting 2-2, Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to eight straight wins and a Coastal Division title.

The streak consisted of monumental wins at No. 16 Virginia Tech and bitter rival North Carolina in the regular season finale. After nearly upsetting 'Johnny Football's' Aggies in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Duke finished the season ranked 23rd in the final AP Poll and Cutcliffe was named ACC Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season. A winning culture had finally been established.

This season's success has furthered the turnaround of Duke's football program. The Blue Devils rolled through their non-conference opponents to start the season with a 4-0 record. After a loss in Miami started conference play on the wrong foot, Duke responded with a statement win at No. 22 Georgia Tech, who was previously undefeated.

Veteran quarterback Anthony Boone has been steady, allowing the diverse rushing attack to succeed. Duke effectively spreads carries across five different backs, averaging 218 rushing yards per game in the process. Senior Josh Snead and talented freshman Shaun Wilson are leading the way on the ground, combining for over 750 yards and six touchdowns so far. Most importantly, Duke leads the ACC in turnover margin with only five turnovers and 13 takeaways.

Great ball security on offense contributes to a defense that allows just 15 points per game, which currently stands as fifth-best in the nation. There's no denying that Duke's schedule has been favorable, so maybe there's a lot more to be seen as this season progresses. That being said, it's still an impressive feat that Georgia Tech is the only team to put up over 17 points on the Blue Devils this season. There isn't necessarily one area on either side of the ball where this team really thrives, but they win games by being solid all across the board.

While no game is a sure thing in the ACC, Duke's remaining schedule gives them a great chance to run the table into the conference title game. Their toughest test could very well be this weekend in Pittsburgh against a team who's desperately trying to stay afloat in the Coastal race. Duke's coaches and players are well aware of the possibilities for this team after a terrific start.

When asked what it meant to become bowl eligible, Cutcliffe replied, "It wasn't even on my mind... We have young people now that expect to compete for an opportunity to play for a championship. They prepare for it."

While it's definitely far fetched, if Duke wins out and beats Florida State in the ACC Championship game they have a legitimate argument to be in the playoff conversation. Quite the turnaround for a program that hasn't won a bowl game in over 50 years. Whether or not you want to believe it, Duke's football program has emerged as one of the ACC's finest.

Ted Gioia is a junior at Syracuse University with majors in Finance as well Television, Radio, and FIlm. Born in North Buffalo, he is an avid Bills and Sabres fan. You can follow him on Twitter @Ted_Gioia
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