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The Coaching Graveyard And The Duke Blue Devils

David Cutcliffe is a brave man for taking over a program that hasn't won big since the 1950s, and he's done an admirable job thus far. Can the tiny, incremental improvement continue in 2011?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Growing up, I didn't understand why a coach would want to take, say, the Alabama job over the Duke job. People have already won at Alabama, so why not win somewhere new? Every job is equal, right? And why would Steve Spurrier leave Duke for Florida, anyway? (Even at a young age, I had some stellar pro-underdog, liberal guilt going on.)

Now that I'm a little older, I understand the concept of the resume killer. In 2002, Ted Roof was a reasonably successful defensive coordinator; by 2007, he was a failed head coach. In 1999, Carl Franks was a reliable, long-time Steve Spurrier assistant; by 2003, he was a failed head coach. Fred Goldsmith? Same thing. In 1992, he was Sports Illustrated's national coach of the year at Rice. In 1996, he went 0-11 in Durham.

A great coach can win -- and potentially win big -- at a resume-killing job; a good one probably can't. David Cutcliffe likely isn't a great coach, but he's certainly a brave one. He left a seemingly comfortable post as Tennessee offensive coordinator to take over a program that has won seven or more games in a season three times since the Beatles came to America and has won either zero or one games five times since Y2K. And you know what? He's done a downright stellar job in his three years there.

The middle part of the last decade was really, really bad, even for Duke. Take a look at the table at the bottom of this post. The Blue Devils have actually improved their on-field product, at least slightly, in four of the last five seasons. Their lone year of regression was not severe. And yet, they went 3-9 and ranked 80th in overall F/+* last season. That's measurable improvement for the Blue Devils. And in a world where bowl bids are as plentiful as Duke-UNC basketball promos on ESPN in February, it is not inconceivable that Cutcliffe could deliver just that one day. If Vanderbilt and Indiana can do it, so can Duke, right? As long as you define success as "random Humanitarian Bowl bid," then Cutcliffe is well on his way to finding considerable success in the Research Triangle...

2010 Schedule & Results**

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 80
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Elon 41-27 W 28.5 - 36.2 L
11-Sep at Wake Forest 48-54 L 30.9 - 38.7 L
18-Sep Alabama 13-62 L 22.0 - 39.4 L
25-Sep Army 21-35 L 32.2 - 30.0 W
2-Oct at Maryland 16-21 L 26.5 - 17.2 W
16-Oct Miami-FL 13-28 L 24.4 - 29.6 L
23-Oct at Virginia Tech 7-44 L 6.5 - 31.1 L
30-Oct at Navy 34-31 W 30.7 - 24.6 W
6-Nov Virginia 55-48 W 35.2 - 36.0 L
13-Nov Boston College 16-21 L 21.8 - 32.5 L
20-Nov at Georgia Tech 20-30 L 26.6 - 29.9 L
27-Nov North Carolina 19-24 L 21.2 - 32.2 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 25.3 77 35.4 109
Adj. Points Per Game 25.6 76 31.4 97

In Cutcliffe's three seasons, Duke has already won almost as many games (12) as Carl Franks and Ted Roof combined for between 1999-2007 (13). Despite falling from five wins to three in 2010, Duke potentially got even closer to actually being a good team. The passing game was efficient, and the defense was better, if still far below average. (For what it's worth, they were above-average in the middle-third of the season, very much below average the rest of the way.) Duke won at Navy and actually had a passing shot at six wins, standing at 3-6 with three winnable games to close the season. Alas, they lost tight ones to Boston College and North Carolina, and that was that.

The main problem for Cutcliffe's Blue Devils overall is they've been just competitive enough to lose close games. They're 4-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less in the last three years; a .500ish record in those games brings Cutcliffe an extra win per season.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 64 62 58
RUSHING 67 92 45 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 57 37 75 108
Standard Downs 65 65 73 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 51 47 40 53
Redzone 58 94 36
Q1 Rk 79 1st Down Rk 61
Q2 Rk 39 2nd Down Rk 43
Q3 Rk 97 3rd Down Rk 75
Q4 Rk 19

"Competition, competition, competition." So says David Cutcliffe. He's looking for depth Duke has not had in a long time, and he set the stakes with his pre-spring depth chart (pdf). Returning starter Sean Renfree (3,131 yards, 6.7/pass, 61% completion rate, 14 TD, 17 INT)? Third-string, behind run-first sophomore Brandon Connette (125 yards passing, 321 yards rushing) and redshirt freshman Anthony Boone. Running back Desmond Scott (530 yards, 4.4/carry, -5.1 Adj. POE) and Josh Snead (221 yards, 4.9/carry, +0.8 Adj. POE)? Third- and fourth-string, respectively. Star receivers Conner Vernon (973 yards, 13.3/catch, 71% catch rate, 4 TD) and Donovan Varner (736 yards, 12.3/catch, 70% catch rate)? Second- and third-string. In promoting younger players like sophomore receivers Brandon Braxton and Corey Gattis, tight end Braxton Deaver and running back Patrick Kurunwune, Cutcliffe practiced what he preached, insisting that incumbents on average offenses are not automatically the best options on the table.

Of course, indications are that the starters, Renfree in particular, did just fine. Perhaps the depth chart gambit helped to motivate the starters more than build depth. We'll see.

All we know is, Cutcliffe is a quarterbacks coach, and this is a quarterback's offense. Duke was 50-50 between the run and pass on standard downs, and they were nearly all-pass on passing downs. Though completely lacking in big-play threats, Renfree found a solid connection with efficient receivers Vernon and Varner; Vernon is particularly impressive -- you will rarely find a receiver catching over 70 percent of his passes and still averaging over 13 yards per catch. He wasn't a big, big-play threat, but he's a nice weapon, and he pulled down second-team all-conference honors last season.

Even in a passer-friendly offense, however, it still helps to be able to run the ball; Duke could not. Unless competition, competition, competition raises the level of everybody involved -- both the shoddy run blockers on the offensive line and the average-at-best backs -- the offense will still be one-dimensional to a damaging degree.

Other tidbits:

  • It's worth noting that most of the skill position players listed above are still underclassmen. Renfree's a junior, Scott a junior, Snead a sophomore and Vernon a junior. Only Varner and tight end Cooper Helfet (380 yards, 11.2/catch, 58% catch rate) are seniors. They've got a couple more years to figure everything out.
  • It's also worth noting that four starters return on an offensive line that at least protected the passer reasonably well. The offense still has a ways to go, but at least they're young. And if Cutcliffe's pre-spring shenanigans are any indication, they could get even younger any day now.
  • They have a left tackle named Teddy Force, which is pretty fantastic.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 78 80 87
RUSHING 65 73 55 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 107 91 108 84
Standard Downs 66 48 76 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 104 105 103 108
Redzone 111 99 114
Q1 Rk 80 1st Down Rk 55
Q2 Rk 61 2nd Down Rk 110
Q3 Rk 98 3rd Down Rk 80
Q4 Rk 91


To their credit, Duke's defense has improved incrementally in each of Cutcliffe's three seasons at Duke. To their detriment, they obviously still have a long way to go. They couldn't hurry a quarterback to save their lives (they had 12 sacks for the entire season, the same number as Marshall's Vinny Curry and three fewer than Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers), and as a consequence, their pass defense numbers were terrible, offsetting an at least mediocre run defense. They were decent at leveraging teams into passing downs, and they were absolutely brilliant at letting teams off the hook. They gave up a ton of plays despite a formation -- 4-2-5 -- designed to increase speed and prevent such big plays.

The pass rush was a focus of spring practice, for obvious reasons. Ends Patrick Egboh and Wesley Oglesby, who combined for 11 TFL/sacks on a defense starving for such plays, are both gone. In their place are a smorgasbord of young, likely undersized talent. There's 220-pound redshirt freshman Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, who had a lovely spring ... 235-pound Justin Foxx ... 230-pound Dezmond Johnson ... 245-pound Jamal Wallace. The run defense will not benefit from having these players on the field, but sacrificing some standard downs success for the occasional sack probably wouldn't be a bad idea.

If the pass rush is better -- which is far from guaranteed -- the secondary might not be a disaster. Cornerback Ross Cockrell (48.5 tackles, 3 INT, 7 PBU) returns, as do all sorts of safeties. Matt Daniels (69.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 7 PBU) is the best play-maker of the bunch, though three others registered at least 20 tackles last year. In fact, if the pass rush still stinks, I suggest a move to a 2-2-7 formation with this amount of safety experience. I mean, why not? Call it the Jackée formation, and you're all set!

Other tidbits:

  • What is it about second downs? There are so many teams whose second-down ratings are completely different than first or third downs. I don't get it.
  • The loss of linebacker Abraham Kromah could hurt. He was a nice attacker (88.0 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks) for a defense bereft of them. Kelby Brown (41.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, an odd 4 FR) returns, but in terms of pure play-making ability, Duke is severely lacking. Of course, that goes for most of the front six, doesn't it...

Duke's 2010 Season Set to Music

We're in a Pat McGee Band mood this morning, so ... "Can't Miss What You Never Had"? No, that's mean. "Maybe It's Time"? Love that song, but no, it's not time. We'll be motivational this lovely morning and just go with "Don't Give Up."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors


Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 79
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 66
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -10 / -10
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +2.4


Again, I ask ... are you an optimist or a pessimist? Both have material when it comes to Duke. Good news: the Duke defense has improved every season, the Blue Devils return a healthy number of starters, the turnover margin was, in theory, unsustainably bad in 2010, and Duke's YPP margin suggests they were rather unlucky. All good things! Of course...

...the turnover margin could be sustainably bad if the defense doesn't learn how to force some turnovers, the recruiting has trended in the wrong direction in the last couple of classes, Duke still can't win close games, and ... if you're the type to never bet against a trend, then "zero bowls in the last 16 seasons, two in the last 50" is a pretty strong one. The ACC's Coastal Division is not necessarily the most difficult place to build a six-win team -- Virginia still has work to do, and obviously Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina didn't light the world ablaze last season -- but Duke probably still isn't there, especially considering they face Miami, Virginia and North Carolina on the road in 2011. (Hosting Stanford and traveling to Florida International in non-conference play is also quite a chore.)

David Cutcliffe's performance in Durham has thus far been quite admirable. If Duke can keep making slight improvement this season, then the experience and depth that he has been building on offense could lead the way to a decent run in 2012. But probably not before then.




* F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

** For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.