Duke shifts balance of power within state

First-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson isn’t entirely a stranger to his peers on Tobacco Road.

There was a transition period at Tennessee during which Clawson went to the same church as the family of current Duke coach David Cutcliffe. He’d speak with Cutcliffe occasionally, and he also knows NC State coach Dave Doeren from their time together at Mid-American Conference meetings.

Now Clawson is getting to know them all as opponents -- and he has some catching up to do.

Cutcliffe is heading into his seventh season at Duke. He's by far the veteran of the ACC’s North Carolina coaches, and it’s beginning to show in the win-loss column. Duke, which is coming off a school-record 10-win season and an appearance in the ACC title game, is now the team to beat in the state. The balance of power has shifted, as the Blue Devils are 5-0 against their in-state ACC opponents in the past two seasons, having defeated both Wake Forest and North Carolina twice, and crossover opponent NC State in 2013. With 17 starters returning, Duke should be a favorite to win the Coastal Division -- a long leap from being picked to finish last in 2013.

Stability is a major factor, as Doeren, Clawson and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora haven’t even combined for seven seasons at their respective schools. Doeren just put together his first full recruiting class. Duke’s relative staff stability (there has been some turnover at the assistant level) has lent itself to more success on the field and on the recruiting trail.

“We know a lot of people, and a lot of young prospects know a lot about us,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re very comfortable we’re here. At first when we came in, people wondered why we were here. Not only did they wonder if we were going to be able to get this done, they thought, ‘Well, as soon as they start showing better, they’re going to be gone.’ None of that has happened. I think that’s opened a lot of people’s eyes, honestly.”

Clawson replaced Jim Grobe and inherits a program that has had five consecutive losing seasons, including last year’s 4-8 finish. He had to piece together his first recruiting class on a shortened calendar, but said that he can draw inspiration from what Cutcliffe has managed to do at Duke.

“I think we’re similar schools with similar institutional missions, but you look nationally at the schools that are like us -- Stanford, Vanderbilt, Northwestern -- those are all schools that have had success on the football field and institutionally they’re very similar to us,” Clawson said. “You can certainly win. Jim Grobe proved that. Certainly it’s our job to get back to that level.”

Fedora has gotten measurably closer in his first two seasons, with back-to-back winning records in spite of taking over a program that was plagued by a two-year NCAA investigation.

In fact, the rivalry game between UNC and Duke now carries more weight than just bragging rights. Last year, Duke’s victory over North Carolina ensured the Blue Devils their first appearance in the ACC title game. This fall, it could determine the division winner. It’s quite a reversal of roles for two “basketball schools.”

“It’s something we embrace, that our basketball team has helped build the national brand we have,” Fedora said. “That enables us to walk into any school, any home, and those people immediately know who the University of North Carolina is. We embrace that. Coach [Roy] Williams is just an awesome guy and such a great sport about our program. We’re trying to raise the level of the success of the football program, and eventually we’ll get there.”

They’re a step ahead of the Wolfpack, who struggled through a 3-9 season in Doeren’s first season that included a winless run against ACC opponents. Still, Doeren and his staff had much better results in their first full recruiting class, which included 18 players from within the state.

“It’s very competitive, and you have all of the SEC schools who come up here as well,” Doeren said of recruiting against his in-state peers. “North Carolina football is very strong. It’s very diverse, a lot of good players who play at every position group, so we have a battle with Clemson on every kid, it seems like as well. Tennessee is strong here. There’s always competition for these guys, and I’m sure there will continue to be. That’s just how it is. But being one of the larger in-state schools, we have a lot of alumni in this state, there’s a lot of kids who grow up Wolfpack fans, and there’s a lot of areas in this state that are very red. We try to maximize those connections and networks that are out there to help us.”

Duke arguably had its best recruiting class since Cutcliffe was hired, but the Blue Devils only added three players from within the state.

“We would’ve liked to have more,” Cutcliffe said. “We got beat on some, but we got the ones we wanted. We’re going to start everything in-state, always. We’re going to know a lot about our state. We know it’s going to be competitive, and you throw East Carolina in there, you’ve got another school, and Appalachian State is playing at the FBS level, and you’ve got Clemson that comes and recruits it as an in-state area. It’s a war in here, but I like that. That gets your juices flowing. It lets you, as a coach, compete.”

These days, Cutcliffe is winning more than just the state.