(The 11th of 12 ACC team previews)
The best thing that's happened to Duke football in the post-Steve Spurrier era occurred on a winter day more than a month after the Blue Devils wrapped up a 5-7 season and weeks before they would start spring practice.
David Cutcliffe stayed at Duke rather than depart for the open gig at Tennessee.
Sure, Fred Goldsmith had a fantastic debut in 1994. But there is perilously little in the last 20 years to suggest the Blue Devils can amount to anything.
In that light, Cutcliffe sticking around is a remarkable vote of confidence and a reflection he really believes he can complete an overhaul of a woebegone program in the near future.
Maybe it won't happen this year. But after the progress of the last two seasons, it certainly looks likely.
The fact Cutcliffe blends savvy, wit, honesty, humor and charm into one package helps immensely. Duke's coach needs a lot of things to be relevant. Personality is one of the big ones, and Cutcliffe has it in spades.
That might not directly win games. But it will help sell --- both with recruits and the public.
Winning, of course, is the best elixir. The 9-15 record doesn't seem like much, but Cutcliffe has already managed more victories than each of his two predecessors did in more than twice as much time. At the very least, it's a start.
When we last saw them ... : The Blue Devils were busy going 0-for-November, falling from 5-3 to 5-7 to extend their postseason drought to 15 years.
Worse yet, Duke had to say goodbye to Thaddeus Lewis, a four-year starter and the school record-holder in total offense, passing yards and completions. Lewis, already an underrated commodity prior to Cutcliffe's arrival, blossomed into a sold (if overlooked) quarterback in two years in the former Ole Miss coach's system.
Although the final month didn't go well, the season still constituted progress for Duke. While Cutcliffe and his players wanted more, the Blue Devils did win three conference games. In the previous nine years, they had managed four league wins.
Biggest question: The easy answer is quarterback, where Sean Renfree will step in for the departed Lewis. But more realistically, Duke needs to figure out how to run the ball after managing a meager 63.5 rushing yards a game last season and also plug some holes on a defensive line that could turn out to be a bit balky.
It was during the spring that Cutcliffe wryly noted that quarterback, offensive line and defensive line were all questions facing his team. That's never a good formula for winning. But should the Blue Devils actually manage to develop a second dimension to their offense with sophomore tailback Desmond Scott and also hold up as a defensive front, their biggest issues will be handled.
Biggest asset: Receivers. Between Donovan Varner, Conner Vernon and Austin Kelly, there is not a dearth of capable targets in the passing game. All three guys hauled in at least 55 receptions --- or more than 4.5 a game.
That's going to make Renfree's adjustment to starting infinitely easier. Of course, he still needs to make the right decisions, but with Cutcliffe nurturing the preparation and plenty of options to choose from on the field, Renfree couldn't be stepping into a much better situation --- at least for that part of the offense, anyway.
Best case: Duke goes 3-1 in nonconference play, then poaches Wake Forest and Maryland on the road and somehow snags another victory (North Carolina?) to get to 6-6. Likely? Probably not this year. But a Duke fan can say with a straight face there's hope of going to a bowl game and not face accusations of being delusional. That's progress.
Worst case: Neither line is particularly good and Renfree struggles, in the process demonstrating just how good Lewis really was. The Blue Devils knock off Elon and Army like they should and maybe snag a conference victory, but overall it's a step backward as Cutcliffe continues to bring reinforcements into a growing program.
A 3-9 season wouldn't be dreadful by Duke standards, nor would it derail Cutcliffe's long-term plans. It also would siphon away some of the increased attention the Blue Devils have earned.
Where they'll be in three months: It's tough to see Duke in a bowl game. The Coastal Division includes three superior teams (Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech) and it's downright impossible to imagine the Blue Devils seriously testing Alabama.
So, can Duke win six of its other eight games? Probably not.
But the days of assuming the Blue Devils won't be a nuisance to anyone are through. North Carolina and Virginia, both of which visit Durham, could be vulnerable. Same goes for Maryland and Wake Forest, which will meet Duke on their respective home fields.
The tenor of the season hinges so much upon how Renfree fares. If he can play at close to Lewis' level, Duke will again have one of the ACC's top passing offenses. If he struggles, it will be nearly impossible to imagine Duke winning more than a few games.
The most likely scenario is a modest step back to 4-8. It's an understandable projection, given the exact holes Duke must fill. But Cutcliffe's already raised eyebrows this year for remaining in a coaching graveyard rather than leave for a school that's won a national title in the last 15 years. No one should put it past him from helping to uncork another surprise.