DURHAM, N.C. — This is how far David Cutcliffe has lifted Duke’s once hapless football program: The Blue Devils climbed two spots in the AP Top 25 poll without playing a game.
Duke (5-1, 2-0 ACC Coastal) returned from its bye week to prepare for Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech and learn it is ranked No. 23 after cracking the writers poll a week earlier at No. 25. The Blue Devils also are No. 21 in the USA Today coaches poll.
“It feels really good to be in the Top when I think about going back to my freshman year,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Britton Grier. “It was a struggle then. We were 3-9. It shows we have kept getting better as a program. At beginning of the year we preach we’re trying to build a winning tradition here and to keep getting better every year.”
Duke has earned a ranking for the third straight season for the first time since a six-year stretch from 1952 to 1957. The Blue Devils have been ranked or earned votes for 33 of the past 34 weeks while compiling records of 10-4 in 2013, 9-4 in 2014 and standing one win shy of bowl eligibility for the fourth straight season with six games remaining.
“I tell young coaches all the time, don’t ever forget how to count to six,” Cutcliffe said a bit whimsically at his Tuesday media session. “That’s extremely important and always will be.”
But that’s not to suggest the Blue Devils are content with a bowl game. As they returned from a bye week to their football routine on Sunday, the Coastal race has taken on a new look by mid-season.
Duke started the year picked in the middle of the pack of the Coastal with defending champion Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech the preseason favorites. But over the weekend North Carolina routed Wake Forest 50-21 and Pittsburgh defeated Georgia Tech 31-28.
Duke, Pittsburgh (5-1, 3-0 Coastal) and North Carolina (5-1, 2-0 Coastal) are the last unbeaten teams in the Coastal. Pitt joined the Blue Devils in the rankings this week at No. 25 and North Carolina has 17 votes among “others” to equal No. 29. In all, five ACC teams have a ranking or votes topped by No. 6 Clemson (6-0, 3-0 Atlantic) and No. 11 Florida State (6-0, 4-0 Atlantic).
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech (2-5, 0-4 Coastal) has lost five in a row and Virginia Tech (3-4, 1-2 Coastal) three of four, although two of the defeats were in conference play.
Duke starting right tackle Casey Blaser said it’s too early for the Blue Devils to look ahead to games Nov. 7 at North Carolina and Nov. 14 at home with Pittsburgh, but he said the reshaped race served as reminder not to take anything granted. Virginia Tech is coming off a 30-20 loss to Miami, but the Hokies still have a tradition that includes 22 straight bowl trips and the advantage of playing at home in 65,632-seat Lane Stadium.
“In the Coastal Division, the (preseason) predictions haven’t gone right,” said Blaser said. “You always have to be worried you’ll be the team that falls down.”
The fear for teams that still have Virginia Tech on their schedule is the Hokies will come alive in the second half. The season was knocked off its rails when starting senior quarterback Ricky Brewer suffered a broken collarbone with the Hokies leading Ohio State in what was ultimately a season-opening loss to the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes.
Backup quarterback junior Brenden Motley subsequently struggled, especially in a 35-28 loss at East Carolina, but he has improved. Brewer will be playing his second game after missing five against Duke.
In the Miami game, Motley, the better runner, started and carried 11 times for 26 yards and completed 14 of 23 passes for 136 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Brewer was 3 of 4 for 165 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions.
How Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer plays his quarterbacks this week remains to be seen.
“Whichever quarterback they go with we have keys and they have tendencies,” Duke junior safety DeVon Edwards said. “We know what we have to do. We just have to be aware of when it’s a running quarterback or when Brewer comes in they may open up (the passing) more and try to spread us out.”
Since the ACC went to two divisions and an ACC championship game in 2005, Virginia Tech (four) and Georgia Tech (three) have won seven of 10. Duke won in 2013, but the 2007 and 2008 titles were claimed by Boston College, which now resides in the Atlantic since the ACC expanded to 14 teams in 2013.
Virginia Tech may not become a Coastal contender this year, but the Hokies still stand between Duke and their Top 25 stature for another week.