Florida State Seminoles: David Cutcliffe
The Seminoles received 56 of the 62 first-place votes as they enter 2014 looking to repeat as national champions.
Clemson and North Carolina were the only other ACC teams to be ranked, coming in at Nos. 16 and 23, respectively. For those keeping track, that means UNC is the only team from the Coastal Division to be ranked in the poll. This comes after Miami was chosen by the media in Greensboro, North Carolina, last week as the preseason Coastal favorite, in the same poll that saw Duke receive the most first-place Coastal votes. It is worth repeating again: This division race is wide open.
Notre Dame, which begins its football affiliation with the ACC this fall, checks in at No. 17 in the coaches' poll.
Miami leads the ACC contingent in the "others receiving votes" category of the coaches' poll, coming in at No. 34 overall. Right behind the Hurricanes? Duke and Louisville, at Nos. 35 and 36, respectively. Virginia Tech comes in at No. 40 while Georgia Tech is No. 48.
Half of the ACC's coaches vote in the poll: Frank Beamer, David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora, Jimbo Fisher, Al Golden, Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly votes as well. Shockingly, all eight of those coaches saw their teams receive votes.
All those years of BCS misery? Almost like they never happened. Losing bowl record last season? Forgotten. How about that losing record against power-five conference teams? Nope, not going to talk about that. Because the ACC is now home to the national champions, and everybody in the ACC did their best to remind us all over two days.
“Go Noles!” he shouted.
Anybody think Coach K shouted, “Go Heels!” when North Carolina won its national title a few years back?
The dynamic in football is obviously different. There are rivalries, yes, but there also is a brotherhood among these coaches, steeped in their determination to make the ACC shed its “basketball conference” label. They have all shared in the pain over the past 10 years, watching the SEC exert its dominance while the ACC was left to answer questions about why it was always a step behind.
They all promised their day would come, selling the league hard to anybody who would listen. Jimbo Fisher has been one of their loudest defenders, his stock line: “There is really good football in this league!”
People used to roll their eyes. But now, finally, there are believers. Finally, the national conversation has flipped from, "Who can take down the SEC?" to "Who can take down Florida State?"
Without a doubt, the ACC deserves this moment. Winning national championships should come with a shot of confidence and an infusion of new energy. So what if it felt like some of the coaches were reciting a list of carefully scripted, neatly orchestrated talking points? Talking points, by the way, that John Swofford recited in his Commissioner Forum media event, perhaps hoping to set the tone for the Kickoff.
Every league coach should revel in the victory. They should use those talking points on the recruiting trail. Do you want to play against the best? Well, the best is right here, in the ACC.
Now, one championship does not make a league, nor does it change the perception that the ACC is not yet among the top three conferences in the country. There has to be consistency. The SEC did not earn its reputation based on one national championship alone, or one team alone carrying the flag for the conference.
Everybody else in the league needs to step up their level of play. Everybody else in the league needs to start winning its elite nonconference matchups. A national championship, a BCS bowl win, and 11 bowl teams are obviously a terrific start. But it cannot end there.
All this bravado and swagger need to be translated into results on the football field. Confidence needs to be channeled into momentum. Having bragging rights now is great. But the ACC knows it has to find a way to hang onto those bragging rights, so that every year it can beat its chest just a little bit louder.
What? You thought the World Cup was the only thing going?
Two big stories to follow across the league. Unfortunately for the ACC, they fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. On the day the ACC officially welcomes Louisville , the league has to deal with the unwelcome news that North Carolina is once again under NCAA investigation. There is no doubt there is joy across Louisville and the rest of the ACC -- check the #Cards2ACC hashtag Twitter for all the welcome messages -- as the Cardinals have risen up from Conference USA players to the big leagues over a 10-year span.
It was just two years ago, even, that many thought the ACC was on the verge of implosion when Florida State boosters started chattering about the Big 12. But John Swofford found a way to not only keep the league together but make it stronger.
This should be a day for celebration.
But then there is North Carolina, living under the taint of scandal over the past four years. Swofford's alma mater was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons Monday, when the NCAA announced it would reopen its investigation into academic fraud at the university. The ACC will proudly tell you it has five schools ranked in the top 30 of the latest U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings. North Carolina is one of them.
Yet, the university has admitted that sham courses were offered in its now disgraced African- and Afro-American Studies department. Both athletes and non-athletes benefited, a big reason why the NCAA shied away from the scandal in the first place. But the NCAA believes others who were reticent to speak up before may do so now. And then there are the recent comments from Rashad McCants, who claims he was kept eligible thanks to sham courses.
Bottom line: the NCAA had no choice but to take another look at some pretty serious allegations about academic impropriety. North Carolina is conducting yet another internal investigation, one that has yielded more than 1.5 million emails for review and now stretches back to the 1980s.
What does it all mean? Hard to tell at this point. Luke DeCock at the Raleigh News & Observer points out the long, and twisted turns that have taken North Carolina from agent scandal to academic fraud, noting the end appears nowhere in site. Meanwhile, the whistleblower at North Carolina who claimed some student-athletes were functionally illiterate, has filed a civil suit against the school.
It is yet another ugly day in Chapel Hill. But over in Louisville, the sun shines brightly on a promising future ahead. What a dichotomy.
As for the rest of the league ...
- Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is insured to the gills. As he should be.
- NFL.com says Miami really is Running Back U.
- Former Jackets standout Roddy Jones is pumped for his new Georgia Tech radio gig.
- Is David Cutcliffe the most underrated coach in America?
- How has Syracuse linebacker Cam Lynch gone from undersized to freak?
- No surprise here: Clemson and Florida State have the toughest nonconference schedules.
- Will Clemson receiver Mike Williams follow in the footsteps of DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant?
- Duke coach David Cutcliffe previews his tight ends for 2014.
- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has lost between 35-40 pounds in the offseason.
- Georgia Tech freshman Myles Autry has not yet met the school's admissions requirements.
- Louisville coach Bobby Petrino is starting the Petrino Family Foundation.
- Miami's quarterbacks remain hard at work while awaiting the arrival of Jake Heaps.
- Pitt's James Conner could play both ways this season.
- Here's the biggest reason for optimism in Syracuse.
- Get to know Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell.
- Virginia Tech announced former running back Kevin Jones will serve as special assistant to athletic director Whit Babcock.
We continue today with coach of the year.
Dabo Swinney, Clemson: So often, this award goes to the coach who does more with less. And while no one would suggest that Clemson does not have a talented roster, the fact is that the Discover Orange Bowl winners lose their top skill players from last year in quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, among others. Fair or not, outside expectations for Clemson aren't what they were going into 2013. The Tigers also face a brutally tough schedule early on, so if Swinney can have this group competing for the ACC title, he is sure to receive a lot of credit for keeping his program at an elite level.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina: If North Carolina can emerge as the Coastal Division champion, Fedora will have a legitimate argument for this honor. For one, he has himself a very big decision to make at the most important position on the field, as Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battle it out for the starting quarterback job. How Fedora handles what could be a delicate situation will undoubtedly have an impact on the kind of season UNC has. And if things work out for the Tar Heels in 2014, that would be a very nice answer to rival Duke's recent success, not to mention an impressive turnaround for Fedora in just his third year in charge.
Paul Chryst, Pitt: Chryst is also in his third year. And he also coaches a team considered to be a darkhorse Coastal Division title contender. (Hey, at this point, who isn't?) The schedule breaks right for the Panthers to have a chance at a strong season. And if that happens — in just their second year in the ACC, after losing key players like Aaron Donald, Tom Savage and Devin Street — you can bet Chryst will receive a ton of credit.
Others: No David Cutcliffe, you say? Well, he did win this award the past two seasons, so the chances of him pulling off a three-peat have to be very slim. (It's never been done before in the ACC.) If Louisville can contend for a league title during its first year in the ACC, Bobby Petrino will receive plenty of votes. Of course, teams that come out of nowhere tend to be pretty popular with voters, so NC State's Dave Doeren and Virginia's Mike London could be in play if either of their squads make huge turnarounds after winless league campaigns in 2013.
Jon in Atlanta writes: Hey AA, I agree mostly on your list. However, I rank coaches based on their ability to coach. I think (David) Cutcliffe is No. 1. Why? Because he took basically 2-3 star players and competed with teams full of 4-5 star players. That in my mind, is what coaching is. Getting your players to play above their level. Also, I would rank Paul Johnson higher. We have a great graduation success percentage. In a college, key word college, coach that is what you want.
Brent in Charlotte writes: Really do not understand your criteria about ranking the coaches in the ACC. What I don't understand is how Jimbo (Fisher) gets credit for what he has done lately (which is due to having a great roster of talent) but others like (Dabo) Swinney don't. Prior to last year, you were questioning how good of a coach Jimbo really was since he had all that talent and hadn't gotten "over the hump". Because in your next argument, you talk about (Frank) Beamer's body of work and Cutcliffe's one good season (and throw out his five bad seasons). I think Cutcliffe is a great coach as well but No. 2 in the ACC after one good season in a weak division? Your rankings are all over the map and do not make any sense as to what you are comparing them against. If it's body of work, then it's clearly Beamer. If it's turnarounds, then it's Cutcliffe and (Al) Golden. And arguably Golden since he won at TEMPLE of all places. If it's who is doing the best now, it's Fisher and then Swinney.
Neil in Leland, N.C., writes: Beamer, (Bobby) Petrino AND Cutcliffe ahead of Dabo? Are you serious? Cutcliffe is 16-11 the last two years with bad bowl losses to Texas A&M and Cincinnati. Beamer has been owned by Clemson the last two times out, losing by 61-13. Petrino inherits a Louisville team WITHOUT (Teddy) Bridgewater and several others, and has yet to coach a single game in the ACC. Dabo is 22-4 the last two years, two top 10 finishes, and bowl victories over two top 10 teams. Me thinks you might have something against Clemson or Coach Swinney. It's the only thing I can think of.
Chris Butterick in Nashville, Tenn., writes: Like your list and agree on Cutliffe and Beamer but would think with the quality of player Swinney has recruited, he could have done a better "coaching" job. He is entertainment but just not as good as he is rated -- would put him eighth or ninth and also move Petrino down with Swinney. Honestly, it is about his character or lack thereof, but what has he really done lately? Also might flop Golden and (Larry) Fedora. Thanks for the rankings.
Stevie in Simpsonville, S.C., writes: Seriously? Just when I thought you knew what you were talking about? Swinney below Beamer (who he beat) as well as Cutcliffe (admirable, don't get me wrong) but in a division that has artificially been pumped up as "competitive"? I say do away with the divisions, rotate the games fairly, and let the best teams represent a rising ACC. Yes, rising! That and how about a rule against UNC for these classes I wish I could have taken back in college.
Will Graham in Liverpool, N.Y., writes: Scott Shafer should of been higher because winning a bowl game and finishing third in your division of the ACC conference where nobody expected them to do either must warrant something.
Yungdungbeetle87 in Chamapaign, Ill., writes: I like the job that Shafer is doing at the Cuse. I realize his body of work as a HC isn't very extensive and that surely is part of the reason why his coach ranking falls near the bottom of the ACC. On the other hand, he has done a lot with comparatively little, recruiting seems to be trending upwards, and the program looks to heading in the right direction despite being in the stronger division. I think that he, among the coaches in the ACC, has a really good chance to move up on that list within the next couple of seasons. I think he could be the biggest mover on this list next year. Thanks for reading (I've never done one of these before).
Robert VT in Blacksburg, Va., writes: Hi Andrea, thanks for your input. However, I do not feel that Bobby Petrino should be ranked in the top 6 for ACC coaches, when he hasn't coached a league game yet. Nothing against Petrino, and I'm happy to see Louisville enter our league on July 1. Granted Petrino has demonstrated in the past his high football acumen, but I think he may be cast a little too high right now. We'll see!
John P in St. Louis, Mo. ,writes: As you mentioned in your article, I believe there is a fairly large qualifier to this ranking. Are you ranking the coaches as they sit today, or as a body of work throughout their entire career? Those two lists would have quite a few differences for me, with Beamer being Exhibit A. For a coaching career, it's hard not to throw him at No. 1 with what he has accomplished, but in May 2014 would I pick him first out of this list to be my coach? Not even close. With that said, I'll assume the rankings are as if I'm picking a coach to run my team tomorrow: 1. Fisher 2. Cutcliffe 3. Swinney 4. Petrino 5. Fedora 6. Beamer 7. Golden 8. Chryst 9. Johnson 10. Doeren 11. Clawson 12. Addazio 13. Shafer 14. London. Go Cards!
Doug Levy in Radford, Va., writes: I get Fisher being up there based on winning a National Championship, but if you look at the body of his work, it may not merit the top spot. Cutcliffe ahead of Beamer just because he took Duke to the ACC championship game? Once? Yeah, it's Duke, but come on ... Name one coach on the list who has changed the way college football is played? There is only one: Frank Beamer. His approach to special teams play changed the game. His body of work is better than most in the nation, not just the ACC. Has he had a few down years? Yup, but who hasn't. Alabama, Texas, etc. have all had their slumps. Beamer is best.
Had he reached an elite level with that title?
The Sporting News has attempted to answer that question in its coaches rankings, released last week. Fisher ranks No. 10 among all head coaches on the list, the highest among all ACC coaches. But that still seems too low for a coach who has two ACC titles, an Orange Bowl victory, a national championship, a Heisman Trophy winner on his roster and a school-record 11 draft picks in 2013 alone. Especially when you consider how much work had to be done to get the Seminoles back into the national conversation.
At the very least, Fisher deserves to be ranked ahead of Chris Petersen, David Shaw and Brian Kelly. You could have a great debate on whether Fisher should be ranked ahead of Les Miles or Mark Dantonio, too. Very few teams rival the talent and depth Fisher has assembled over the last few seasons. If the Seminoles contend for another national championship, I expect Fisher to be ranked much higher when the 2015 version comes out next year.
As for the rest of the ACC, here is how the rankings shake out, with overall national ranking:
- No. 10 Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
- No. 16 Dabo Swinney, Clemson
- No. 18 David Cutcliffe, Duke
- No. 21 Bobby Petrino, Louisville
- No. 30 Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
- No. 31 Larry Fedora, North Carolina
- No. 32 Al Golden, Miami
- No. 53 Paul Johnson Georgia Tech
- No. 60 Paul Chryst, Pitt
- No. 65 David Clawson, Wake Forest
- No. 66 Steve Addazio, Boston College
- No. 68 Dave Doeren, NC State
- No. 83 Scott Shafer, Syracuse
- No. 102 Mike London, Virginia
I would make a few tweaks to this list. Swinney has done a great job at Clemson, but I would move Cutcliffe ahead for a few reasons. Nobody ever expected the Blue Devils to compete for an ACC title, but that is exactly what happened last year. Cutcliffe has taken this team to back-to-back bowl games, an ACC championship game and has won consecutive coach of the year honors while having to recruit to a tough academic school. Duke is not bringing in the kind of quality classes Clemson is; Cutcliffe is simply doing more with less.
I also would move Beamer up, but the question is where? Ahead of both Swinney and Petrino? Ahead of Petrino only? Should the last few years take away from all his accomplishments? I understand the Sporting News rankings are a snapshot of how coaches fare year to year, but Beamer should get credit for his long body of work. Beamer has won seven conference titles and made six BCS appearances, including one national championship game. Petrino has a great offensive mind and Swinney has put Clemson back into the Top 25 every year, but neither has come close to Beamer's career accomplishments.
I would also move Chryst down. Doeren did have a disappointing first year at NC State, but he also led Northern Illinois to an Orange Bowl appearance. Chryst is 13-13 overall as a head coach, though he had a rough deal handed to him to fix the Pitt mess he inherited. I feel pretty confident in the top 5. The rest? Flip 'em up, down and all around and you could make arguments to move just about everybody. Taking into account recent success (weighted slightly more), body of work and results at a power-5 job (weighted slightly more), the AA rankings would look something like this:
Send me your thoughts into the mailbag, and I will publish your responses this Friday. Let the debate begin!
- Athlon Sports ranks all 128 FBS coaching jobs. Did any ACC school crack the top 10?
- Phil Steele ranks the top players available in the NFL draft.
- Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is pleased the "hurry" will be allowed to remain in his offense.
- Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo reportedly worked with Duke coach David Cutcliffe this past weekend.
- Florida State fans invaded an FSU-UCF baseball game in Orlando to see Jameis Winston play.
- Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson has received help from the administration when it comes to admission standards for football players.
- Here is a look at Syracuse's spring depth chart.
- Andy Bitter breaks down the Virginia Tech quarterbacks.
- Frank Beamer and Tennessee coach Butch Jones will serve as co-grand marshals for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway this Sunday.
- UNC coach Larry Fedora and Duke coach David Cutcliffe have spoken out about a proposed NCAA rules change.
- Cutcliffe said he and many of his peers "felt blindsided" by the proposal.
- Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffer likes the quarterback the Hokies brought in.
- Several former Clemson players got in another NFL audition before their pro day.
- FSU has its recruiting eyes set on a middle-schooler, according to Fox Sports.
- Of course, FSU already has a top QB in its 2015 class.
- Pitt's new DB coach is looking forward to his return in the ACC -- and some more interceptions.
- Former Pitt players Tom Savage and Devin Street are getting ready for their NFL auditions.
ACC commissioner John Swofford told ESPN.com on Tuesday that there is “considerable support” for a nine-game league schedule.
“That’s an important decision we’ll need to make in the near future,” Swofford said, adding that the athletic directors make the final call after input from their coaches. “... Several factors come into play there. One is the college football playoffs, what serves us best in terms of giving our teams the best opportunity to be in the playoff, and what gives us the most opportunities going forward television-wise and how does that fold into any discussions about a potential channel. Those are discussions that will continue.”
Cutcliffe said he is in favor of staying at eight games because of the impact it could have on teams qualifying for the College Football Playoff.
“I’m a fan of the eight-game schedule for many reasons,” he said. “The changing of schedules and playing different programs and different teams, the variables are better. We’re all locked into playing Notre Dame, which becomes another game you’re locked into. I’m just not a fan of it. I don’t see the value in it, and it’s not going to get you in the playoff system, if that’s what everybody is saying. What’s going to get you in the playoff opportunity is to have no losses or one loss. I don’t care who you’re playing. If you’re at this level, all of us -- I’m sitting here looking at the 2014 ACC football schedule – I don’t see a team on there that if it didn’t win every game it played wouldn’t be in that four-team playoff. … I don’t think it makes any sense for our league.”
Cutcliffe said he’d like to think the rest of the coaches agree, but that he has heard some say they’d rather play nine games. The ACC also has to consider that four schools -- Florida State (Florida), Georgia Tech (Georgia), Clemson (South Carolina) and Louisville (Kentucky) -- all have a built-in SEC rival on their schedules, and the conference now begins its five-game agreement with Notre Dame.
Cutcliffe said he hopes the coaches continue to talk to their athletic directors about what’s best not only for the individual schools, but also for the entire conference.
“Until you get face to face and we’re all in one room and listen to each other,” Cutcliffe said, “I may change my mind if somebody makes some great sense, but I’m looking forward to Amelia Island, I think that is when we’ll start knowing.”
Cutcliffe said the coaches will also discuss officiating, and what other topics they think should be on the spring meeting agenda.
Best coach: David Cutcliffe, Duke. Cutcliffe, the AFCA’s National Coach of the Year, led the Blue Devils to a 10-4 record, including the ACC Coastal Division title and an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, where Duke and Texas A&M played in the most-watched non-BCS game of the bowl season. He guided Duke to final national rankings in the BCS standings (24th), USA Today/Coaches poll (22nd) and Associated Press poll (23rd). Duke’s 10 wins are the most in school history.
Best player, defense: Aaron Donald, Pitt. He became the Panthers’ first unanimous All-American since wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in 2003, and the program’s first defensive player to earn unanimous status since legendary defensive end Hugh Green in 1980. Donald led the nation in tackles for loss (2.2 per game), while ranking 10th in forced fumbles (0.33 per game) and 13th in sacks (0.83 per game). Of his 54 total tackles, nearly half have been behind the line of scrimmage (26.5).
Best moment: Winston threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left, leading Florida State to a 34-31 win over No. 2 Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
Best quote: "We’re the first team from South Carolina to ever win a BCS bowl." -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney after the 40-35 win over Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl, stirring the pot with rival South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
Best play: Florida State’s fake punt: It changed the national championship entirely. Trailing by 18 points, Florida State faced a third-and-4 when receiver Rashad Greene dropped a pass from Winston and the punt unit came onto the field. The Noles caught Auburn snoozing. Karlos Williams took a pitch and ran it for the first down, sustaining a touchdown drive and giving FSU new life.
"We lost momentum in the game, it was 21-3," coach Jimbo Fisher said after the game. "I knew with five minutes to go if they got it back and scored, the game could be over right there before half. I knew we had the ball coming out the second half and we're here to win this thing. We weren't here just to show up and play well. And I thought that's what we had to do to gain the momentum of the game back, and it worked and we got it, went down, got the drive and then got back in the ballgame, and hopefully that's what changed the momentum of the game and got our confidence back.”
Best game: The VIZIO BCS National Championship. Florida State’s rally from 18 points was the largest in BCS National Championship history, as the Noles battled back from a 21-3 deficit with 5:01 left in the second quarter). The game wasn’t over until FSU scored the game winner with 13 seconds left.
Best regular-season game: Clemson 38, Georgia 35. At the time, this game packed a punch, not only because of the on-field thriller, but also because of what it meant for the league. The ACC finally had the upper hand against the SEC on the big stage in a season opener, and it set the stage for Clemson’s run at the national title. Not only was it a win for the ACC, but the seesaw game lived up to all of the preseason hype and was an instant classic.
Best ACC game: Duke vs. UNC. Cutcliffe was hoisted onto his players’ shoulders and carried off the field in celebration of the Blue Devils’ first Coastal Division title. It was a 27-25 win against their in-state rivals -- on the road -- and was highlighted by DeVon Edwards’ game-sealing interception with 13 seconds left.
Best awards: The ACC won more national individual awards than the other BCS conferences combined. The ACC is the first conference in history to sweep the Heisman, Doak Walker, Davey O’Brien, Outland, Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski awards in the same season.
Best stat: The ACC had three victories over nonconference opponents ranked in the AP top 10, as many as the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC combined.
Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own players, and ballots were worth three points for each first-team, two points for second-team and one point for third-team selections.
Winston was one of three unanimous first-team selections to the All-ACC team (named on all 13 possible ballots). He was joined by national rushing leader and fellow Heisman finalist Andre Williams of Boston College and Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award.
Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner Aaron Donald of Pitt was voted the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Duke’s David Cutcliffe was voted the ACC Coach of the Year by his peers for the second straight season, and Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller picked up ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
2013 ACC Coaches All-ACC Football Team
(Voting points in Parentheses)
QB—Jameis Winston, Fr.-R, Florida State (39)
RB—Andre Williams, Sr., Boston College (39)
RB—Devonta Freeman, Jr., Florida State (28)
WR—Sammy Watkins, Jr., Clemson (39)
WR—Rashad Greene, Jr., Florida State (31)
WR—Jamison Crowder, Jr., Duke (31)
TE—Eric Ebron, Jr., North Carolina (38)
T—Cameron Erving, Jr.-R, Florida State (31)
T—Brandon Thomas, Sr.-R, Clemson (23)
G—Laken Tomlinson, Jr.-R, Duke (26)
G—Tre’ Jackson, Jr., Florida State (23)
C—Bryan Stork, Sr.-R, Florida State (38)
DE—Vic Beasley, Jr., Clemson (35)
DE—Jeremiah Attaochu, Sr., Georgia Tech (29)
DT—Aaron Donald, Sr., Pitt (35)
DT—Timmy Jernigan, Jr., Florida State (33)
LB—Telvin Smith, Sr., Florida State (37)
LB—Denzel Perryman, Jr., Miami (30)
LB—Kevin Pierre-Louis, Sr., Boston College (28)
CB—Lamarcus Joyner, Sr., Florida State (38)
CB—Kyle Fuller, Sr., Virginia Tech (32)
S—Terrence Brooks, Sr., Florida State (33)
S—Anthony Harris, Jr., Virginia (22)
PK—Roberto Aguayo, Fr.-R, Florida State (28)
P—Pat O’Donnell, Sr.-R, Miami (31)
SP—Jamison Crowder, Jr., Duke (27)
When Duke went on the road in late October and shocked then- No. 14 Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils did so without converting a single third down. Quarterback Anthony Boone threw zero touchdown passes -- and four interceptions. And yet Duke rolled out of Blacksburg having snapped a 42-year losing streak against ranked teams on the road.
The difference? Duke was finally able to win a game with defense and special teams.
If Duke is going to have a shot at upending No. 1 Florida State on Saturday in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, it will need to be sharp in every phase of the game. It will have to rely most heavily upon what has become an opportunistic defense, and a special teams unit that has the ability to score and create good field position.
Duke has scored four times on kick returns (two punt return touchdowns and two kickoff return touchdowns), and freshman safety DeVon Edwards leads the nation in kickoff return average (32.7).The defense has caused turnovers in 11 of 12 games (including three in the red zone), and enters the ACC title game with 16 interceptions, nine forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. Duke is tied for fifth in the ACC with 21 takeaways and the 16 interceptions are the most in the David Cutcliffe era.
“A lot of guys have stepped up into new roles, and our D-line is really experienced now,” Brown said. “They’re doing a great job up front of allowing the linebackers to fly around and make tackles. That’s something, just old-school, 4-3 style defense, the way Boston College has always run it, a great D-line that holds up the line and that’s been huge for us. And I think we’re the most athletic we’ve ever been in the secondary. Even though we have some young guys back there, they have speed and they can tackle. It’s all kind of clicked from the front line all the way to the back.”
Duke, a heavy underdog, knows it has no margin for error. The Blue Devils have never beaten Florida State in 18 tries, and the Noles have won every game this season by at least 14 points. In 2012, Duke’s defense was steamrolled by FSU in a 48-7 loss, and many are predicting a similar result. Of all the times these two programs have faced each other, though, only one other time has Duke been ranked -- in 1994, when it was No. 16.
The numbers prove, though, that Duke’s defense is the best it’s been in over a decade.
Duke is allowing just 23.0 points per game, which would rank as the program’s best mark since the 1994 season (22.45 points per game). Duke has 22 sacks this season, and linebackers David Helton and Kelby Brown and safety Jeremy Cash are the top three tacklers in the ACC.
We have a very good offense who can put up points on anybody. We've just got to make sure that we limit people, and the best way to limit people is by making them drive the length of the field on you and not giving up the 50 and 60 yard passes.
-- Ross Cockrell, on how Duke's defense can find success against Florida State
Duke’s fourth-quarter defense has also been outstanding. It's allowing an average of just 9.1 points in the second half compared to 13.9 in the first half. Duke has surrendered only 3.1 points and outscored opponents 113-37 in the fourth quarter.
“Well, we run better on defense,” Cutcliffe said. “First thing you've got to be able to do is get to them to get them on the ground. You can't get them on the ground if you can't run. We run better. We'd better run better in this one because these guys have I think more weapons than anybody in the country.”
Starting with Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
“We don't have anybody that can line up and match up physically with Benjamin,” Cutcliffe said. “He's just a monster and with great skills.”
Against Florida’s stingy defense last week, Benjamin single-handedly outgained the Gators’ offensive output (212 yards to 193). He scored three touchdowns, and had nine receptions. Last season against Duke, Benjamin had three catches for 77 yards.
“Yeah, we've done a great job, I think, defensively,” said Ross Cockrell, one of the top defenders in the ACC. “But one of the things that we took away from last year was that you can't give up a lot of big plays, especially in the passing game, the deep passes that we gave up. We can't give up those kinds of plays and expect to win ballgames. We know we have a very good team. We have a very good offense who can put up points on anybody. We've just got to make sure that we limit people, and the best way to limit people is by making them drive the length of the field on you and not giving up the 50 and 60 yard passes.”
Duke’s defense and special teams have been good enough to win the Coastal Division, but they will have to be great to win it all on Saturday.
Cutcliffe received 62 of the 65 votes in balloting done by the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association. Boston College first-year coach Steve Addazio received two votes, and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher received the other.
This is the second straight ACC Coach of the Year award for Cutcliffe and the first time the Blue Devils have had a back-to-back ACC Coach of the Year winner since Steve Spurrier in 1988 and 1989.
"(I’m) very appreciative of our staff and all of the support people that surround Duke football," Cutcliffe said in a statement. “It’s the best group of people, including the entire Duke football family -- best group of people I’ve been around."
In other conference awards, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was selected the overall ACC Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year, while Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller was selected ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Winston was the choice of 56 of the 65 ACSMA members casting ballots for the overall honor. Duke safety DeVon Edwards received four votes, and Pitt wide receiver Tyler Boyd got two. Maryland cornerback William Likely, Miami wide receiver Stacy Coley and Fuller each received one vote.