Duke football, suddenly relevant

It's been said that in the entertainment industry, you're only as popular as your most recent hit.

A fickle public can turn on someone once perceived as a superstar in the blink of an eye, but in the ebb and flow world of major college sports, particularly football, maintaining a heightened level of success for an extended period of time is extremely difficult. And with the hopes and dreams of a frenzied fan base riding on your every move, it can often be a gut-wrenching experience not suitable for the faint of heart.

Consistency is of course the key, and the top programs, as long as they haven't done anything to evoke the wrath of the all-mighty NCAA, have a framework in place to ensure that only the cream of the crop in terms of prospective student-athletes lines up wearing their uniforms in their jam- packed stadiums on fall Saturdays.

Then there are some schools, that for reasons that at times are obvious while at others perplexing, simply can not compete on the same playing field.

Duke University is one of this country's finest institutions of higher learning, and while the men's basketball team is clearly the breadwinner when it comes to national prominence in athletics, the football team has been little more than an afterthought for quite some time.

Duke's football program, which is in its 100th year of competition, has participated as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference since its inception back in 1953, and the Blue Devils have won seven ACC crowns, which ties it with NC State for fourth-most all-time. Unfortunately, it's been 23 years since their last title, and the team's last non-losing season was almost two decades ago.

That is, until now.

More than 250 consecutive AP Polls have been announced without Duke gracing the Top-25, but the team recently won its sixth game of the season making it bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. As icing on the cake, that victory came against bitter rival North Carolina at home last weekend, its first over the Tar Heels since 2003. Its 6-2 mark is its third-best eight-game start since that first year of ACC operations.

Recent history shows that prior to David Cutcliffe being named head coach in 2008, Duke had amassed a dismal record of 6-45 under previous head man Ted Roof, and hadn't won an ACC game in more than three years.

With Cutcliffe calling the shots, the Blue Devils have shown improvement. But having finished no higher than fifth in the ACC's Coastal Division, there were those who wondered if Duke would ever become a major player in the conference. To those folks, the fact that Duke currently sits atop the division standings with a 3-1 league ledger is a dream come true.

Winning the Coastal crown and even adding to their victory total won't be easy for the Blue Devils as the toughest part of their schedule lies ahead. This week, it's a trip to No. 11 Florida State, followed by a home date with No. 14 Clemson, a trek to Georgia Tech, and finally a visit from Miami two days after Thanksgiving.

Duke hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since topping No. 13 Virginia, 28-25, on Nov. 5, 1994, and it hasn't knocked off a ranked foe on the road since downing No. 10 Stanford, 9-3, on Oct. 2, 1971.

With a huge win over a hated rival and his team eligible for postseason consideration, Cutcliffe couldn't be happier for his players or more grateful for the support they've gotten from the Blue Devil faithful.

"I'm still tickled for [the players]. I've never seen a group have more fun and they deserve it. A great win and an incredible atmosphere in Wallace Wade. All the Duke fans who came -- thank you, thank you, thank you. All the Duke students who came -- thank you."

The Blue Devils are averaging 35.0 ppg, which while ranking fifth in the ACC at the moment, would be the highest in school history if the season were to end today. Credit Cutcliffe with the up-tick in offensive production, as he has found the right guys to run his system, beginning with veteran QB Sean Renfree. A near-70 percent passer who has thrown 11 TDs passes and averages 256.1 ypg this season, Renfree has proven himself a capable game manager. Both WRs Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder have enjoyed tremendous seasons as well, the two combining for 102 receptions, 1,378 yards and 10 TDs.

Defensively, Duke has been consistent in allowing roughly a TD per quarter (27.8 ppg), and while the unit ranks in the bottom half of the ACC in most statistical categories, it is among the league leaders in sacks (19) and third-down conversion yield (.347). Safety Walt Canty (74 tackles) has been the Blue Devils' most active defender, DE Kenny Anunike has logged five sacks, and CB Ross Cockrell is tied for the league lead in interceptions with four.

Despite the pleasure he derived from last week's win, Cutcliffe realizes there is still much work to be done.

"We've known that the last half of our schedule is going to be difficult. We go to Tallahassee and play what I think is the most talented team in the conference. And then we got Clemson, maybe the second-most talented team in the conference and it doesn't get any easier as we go. We need an open date sometime soon and that's now only two weeks out thank goodness. I'm concerned about our injuries, but I'm not concerned about our emotions. I don't think we're going to come out of here satisfied. I think this team realizes that it can win if it plays well every time we get on the field."

The Blue Devils may not win another game this season, but with basketball slated to tip off in a couple of weeks, they've at least given the Duke community something to cheer about since Coach K's squad was upset by Lehigh in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March.