There are only a few weeks left in the regular season, and we have seen some top-notch performances across the ACC. Two stand out: Florida State in position to play for a national championship, and Duke aiming for the Coastal Division crown.
So who deserves ACC Coach of the Year honors -- David Cutcliffe or Jimbo Fisher? Heather Dinich and Andrea Adelson debate that topic.
Heather says: David Cutcliffe
Over the past five recruiting classes, Duke has added zero players to its program from the ESPN 300 and just one four-star prospect -- punter Will Monday.
On Saturday, those unheralded Blue Devils players -- athletes who made a commitment to turning around one of the worst football programs in the country -- have a chance to get one step closer to the ACC championship game. Last season, becoming bowl eligible was reason to celebrate. This season? Been there, done that. Duke is playing for more. The program is relevant in November. And right now it’s the best team in the state.
If that’s not a Coach of the Year performance, we need to redefine the award.
What David Cutcliffe has done in his sixth season at Duke is simply amazing. For the first time since 1994, Duke has won seven games in a season, guaranteeing the first winning season the program has had since then. Duke enters Saturday’s game against Miami on a five-game winning streak, including an epic upset at Virginia Tech two weeks ago. If Duke wins its final three games -- against Miami, at Wake Forest and at North Carolina – AND Georgia Tech loses on Thursday night at Clemson, the Blue Devils will win the Coastal Division.
Repeat: Duke can win the Coastal Division. Again.
Don’t forget Duke was a contender last year, too, right up until the next-to-last week of the regular season.
Instead of flopping after its sixth win, though, Duke battled back last week to beat NC State, 38-20. In order to truly understand how far the program has come, you have to understand where it has been. In his first five seasons at Duke, Cutcliffe won more games (21) than the program had in its 12 previous years combined (19). Even though Cutcliffe took the 2012 Duke team to the program’s first bowl game since 1994 and beat rival UNC for the first time in nine seasons, the perception of Duke still hadn’t changed. This was a team that was predicted by the media in July to finish last in the division. And yet here they are, bowl eligible and winning with defense.
Duke hasn’t lost since Sept. 21.
It’s hardly as if this is a veteran group. The Blue Devils have a first-year starting quarterback who broke his collarbone in the first half of the season. Duke has played the past six quarters with a secondary comprised of three true freshmen, one redshirt freshman, and a redshirt sophomore who hasn’t played a meaningful defensive snap since he was a senior in high school in 2010.
Redshirt freshman safety DeVon Edwards? The one who had a jaw-dropping day in the win over NC State with 10 total tackles, two interception returns for touchdowns and a 100-yard kickoff return for a third touchdown?
Yeah, he had zero BCS offers out of high school.
Doesn’t matter. Duke doesn’t need five-star recruits.
Not when it has the ACC’s Coach of the Year.
Andrea says: Jimbo Fisher
Jimbo Fisher has his team four wins away from playing for a national championship. If he gets there, that fact alone should be enough to crown him ACC Coach of the Year.
Now, there certainly are arguments to be made for Cutcliffe, who has done an absolutely remarkable job at Duke. Or for Boston College coach Steve Addazio, who has done a terrific job turning around the Eagles.
But the winning argument is for Fisher, on the precipice of playing for the most coveted trophy in college football with a team that was not even chosen to win its very own conference back in July.
That’s right, the Seminoles were picked to finish second in the Atlantic to Clemson for two main reasons: 1) There was no way they would they overcome the loss of 11 NFL draft picks. 2) There was no way quarterback Jameis Winston would be nearly as good as advertised. Given those two perceived knocks, Florida State started the season ranked No. 11 in the AP poll, just behind rival Florida.
But the ensuing months have proven the preseason logic to be illogical. Fisher has assembled one of the most talented teams in college football, a year after losing the most talent in school history. He has replaced great talent with superior talent and superior depth and now has a group of players who believe they can win a national championship.
That has translated on the field, where Florida State has been dominant, ranking in the Top 10 nationally in total offense, total defense, scoring offense and scoring defense. Florida State is beating teams by an average of 40 points per game, and now has the leading Heisman candidate in Winston.
All this leads to my main point. The ACC has not had a team play for a national championship since Florida State did it in 2000. There have only been two unbeaten, untied teams in league history -- 1981 Clemson and 1999 Florida State. My dear friend Heather wrote in September, “The odds of the ACC producing an undefeated team this year are as rocky as Virginia Tech’s new Hokie Stone helmets.”
Florida State could beat those odds. And believe it or not, Duke has had more winning seasons than the ACC has had unbeaten seasons. And Duke did have a shot to win the Coastal last year, too. But playing for a national championship, and potentially going unbeaten, is rarefied air. Alabama coach Nick Saban -- widely regarded as the best coach in the game today -- has only one unbeaten season in his entire head coaching career. Bear Bryant had two unbeaten, untied seasons in his entire head coaching career.
Playing for a conference championship is a big accomplishment. But potentially playing for a national championship, in a league that has been desperate for a contender, makes what Fisher has done more impressive.