Duke looking for more than bowl game

The outside perception of Duke football seems to hinge on whether coach David Cutcliffe will ever get the Blue Devils back to a bowl game.

For Cutcliffe, though, the picture is bigger, the goal more challenging than simply reaching that seemingly elusive six-win mark.

“Our whole emphasis is about getting there and consistently staying there,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s the change we’re looking for. It’s never been about that magic year for me. It’s about knowing we have a damn good program.

“Don’t think Duke is a flash in the pan,” he said. “Instead of losing to Virginia Tech by four, win by three. Instead of losing to Wake by one, win by 10. Then we’ll know Duke has changed.”

Will 2012 be the start of the turnaround?

As Cutcliffe prepares to enter his fifth season, more should be expected. Duke returns 41 players who have played significant snaps on both offense and defense, not just special teams. The primary ball carriers return, along with a three-year starting quarterback in Sean Renfree, and one of the league’s top receivers in Conner Vernon. The offensive line should be more athletic, and the defense still young but more experienced. Duke also recruited several players who could contribute immediately.

Although the team has progressed under Cutcliffe’s watch during each of the past four seasons, Duke has still failed to reach the six-win mark, coming as close as five wins in 2009, and settling back into the Duke stereotype with back-to-back 3-9 finishes each of the past two seasons. While fans tend to zero in on the final results, the players and coaches continue to believe the process is inching them closer to long-term success.

“It shows out there,” Vernon said. “I’m sure you can ask any team in the ACC that it’s shown, and it’s something that they can’t take Duke for granted anymore. Even though the win-loss column may not show it, you can tell teams are respecting Duke a lot more. It’s only going to get better.”

Cutcliffe has told them, though, that it has to be better than good. He said he still has concerns about his players being physical enough up front on defense, and being able to limit the big plays on defense while at the same time creating explosive plays on offense.

“We were a good team a year ago with a bad record,” Cutcliffe said. “We have to be better than good, because we’ve got Clemson and Florida State from the other side, which are obviously two of the more talented teams in this league. We’ve got Miami, we’ve got North Carolina. We’ve got Virginia Tech, Stanford. I could go on and on. We’re playing a really vicious schedule. That’s just part of the equation. You’ve got to play beyond good.”

It seems to be the fans need convincing more than the players. On paper, Duke still looks like Duke: 115th in the country in rushing offense, No. 108 in turnover margin, No. 93 in scoring offense and No. 90 in scoring defense.

There’s no shortage of motivation in Durham, but it goes beyond the numbers.

“If they know they’ve paid the price, if they know they’re prepared, they’ll believe,” Cutcliffe said. “Everybody kind of loses sight of what motivating people is. Motivating people, giving them confidence, is to make them earn it themselves. If they have invested enough into it, they’ll come out with fire. I think we’re already becoming believers. … We’ve got to go from believing to knowing we can win.”

When they finally do, then Duke fans will know things have changed.