DURHAM, N.C. – David Cutcliffe learned under Bear Bryant, helped bring a national title to Tennessee and developed the Manning brothers into Super Bowl MVPs.
And his biggest coaching accomplishment might be guiding Duke — yes, Duke — to the ACC championship game.
The 20th-ranked Blue Devils (10-2) play No. 1 Florida State (12-0) on Saturday night in Charlotte with a BCS berth on the line.
Not long ago, that would have seemed preposterous to those outside the program.
But not to Cutcliffe, recently voted the ACC's coach of the year for a second straight season.
He said the three-year plan he put together a couple of years ago had the Blue Devils playing for a league title by now.
"Once you experience these things, it's not the experience alone — it also creates a hunger," Cutcliffe said. "I've been through this, and when they start tasting this, they like it and once you like something a lot, you're going to defend it more. You hope that's what occurs."
When Florida State's Jimbo Fisher joined Auburn's staff in 1993, he says he couldn't help but notice what Cutcliffe was doing with Tennessee's quarterbacks.
Cutcliffe, an Alabama native who was a student assistant on Bryant's staff in the 1970s, built his reputation as a QB guru during nearly two decades with the Volunteers, helping shape Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning into NFL players. He was the offensive coordinator of the 1998 team that won a BCS title.
"His ability to coach quarterbacks and be a dynamic offense and throw the football around, you always tried to watch a lot of tape of those guys when you were early in your career," Fisher said. "Watching what they were doing and how they did it."
It worked again 10 years ago when — with Eli Manning taking the snaps — Cutcliffe's Mississippi team won 10 games, a share of the SEC West title and a Cotton Bowl berth.
Now he's led the Blue Devils to the best season in school history.
"Coach Cut is an unbelievable motivator, and he preached this dream of, 'I've been around winning my entire life,'" tight end Braxton Deaver said. "'I've been around Bear Bryant. I've been around these guys who know how to win.' And when he spoke to you, you really believed him. ... I think everybody just bought into that."
Cutcliffe also has shown an ability to adapt to the times and the players he has. After all, there are only so many Mannings.
So this Duke team is constructed a little differently: The Blue Devils use two quarterbacks who each have the ability to run and throw.
Anthony Boone is 10-0 as a starter and has completed at least 80 percent of his passes three times this season. Brandon Connette, who often enters in short-yardage situations or deep in the red zone, has a school-record 30 career rushing touchdowns and three times this year has accounted for five TDs in a game.
"They've created roles for each other, and they understand what each guy is going to do," Fisher said. "They're very tough guys to defend, and it gives them two different guys, and each guy is fresh."
The Blue Devils will need them — and everyone else on the roster — to be at their best to handle a top-ranked Florida State team that's favored by more than four touchdowns.
Without question, a victory would be the biggest of Cutcliffe's career — and now the challenge is to convince his players that can win when virtually nobody on the outside believes they can.
"They're young and they're human, and when you hear people kind of chuckle, that should create an edge," Cutcliffe said. "Now, an edge is never enough. You have to back it up with preparation.
"You get in a fight when you're a kid, you better have a little edge or you're going to get your little rear end whipped," he added. "So it's good, but you also better have a plan. You don't just go flailing away swinging, because they can knock you out with one punch. That's kind of the mentality we've got to have."
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