Last season, Duke reached its first bowl since 1994, snapped an eight-game losing streak to rival North Carolina and earned David Cutcliffe ACC coach of the year honors. Less than 12 months later, it all seemed a mirage.
The Blue Devils were 0-2 in the conference and trailing Virginia by 22 points on the road. Non-conference conquests of North Carolina Central, Memphis, Troy and Navy appeared more the product of sage scheduling than program progress.
A 19th consecutive losing league record seemed assured, a second straight postseason appearance doubtful, a Coastal Division title and berth in the ACC championship game preposterous.
But Duke scored 35 consecutive points at Virginia to ignite a superb stretch that has rocketed the Devils into first place and the national top 25.
Defeat Wake Forest on Saturday and North Carolina a week later, and Duke (8-2, 4-2 ACC) will not only author its first 10-win season ever but also play Florida State for the ACC title Dec. 7. Stumble against the Deacons or Tar Heels, and the 25th-ranked Devils could lose the Coastal on a tiebreaker to Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech.
"The job David has done is masterful," Duke athletic director Kevin White said. "I don't have words for it. It's just masterful. … This is such a partisan comment for me to make, but we've got the best coach in the country.
"This has been a ridiculously challenging project, and David came in December of 2007, so this is his sixth football season. You could see the program he was creating. I've used this bit of an offensive expression before, but I really felt like he was creating a program that was going to begin to spit out some pretty good teams.
"I thought last year would be a pretty good team, which it was, I thought this team would be better, and as I look to the future, we have a chance to get better yet. I think that's the way he's built it. … He's scary smart, he's passionate, he has a plan, surrounds himself with really good people."
Cutcliffe's sterling credentials have been well-chronicled. He was a student assistant under Bear Bryant at Alabama, tutored Peyton and Eli Manning at Tennessee and Ole Miss, respectively, and coached the Rebels to a 44-29 record that included a Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.
But Duke is not Ole Miss, and it sure as heck doesn't approach Tennessee or Alabama. So down was the program that last year's 6-7 record was rightfully acclaimed a milestone, season-ending, five-game losing streak — the Blue Devils fell to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl — notwithstanding.
That uptick was evidence not only of Cutcliffe's influence but also administrative support — think upgraded facilities and budgets — that enhanced recruiting.
Cutcliffe "had a vision and he had a plan," All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "When he was recruiting me, he sold me on that vision and plan, and I believed in him. You believe in a guy who's been there before, and he's been there with the greats."
But last year's late fade disturbed Cockrell and other team leaders, and they made "finishing" an offseason obsession. Finish weight sessions, drills, sprints and games. Finish the season.
That they have.
After the comeback at Virginia, Duke defeated then-No. 16 Virginia Tech, the program's first road victory over a ranked opponent since 1971. Returning home to face North Carolina State and Miami, the Blue Devils trailed against each before scoring the final 21 points against the Wolfpack, the last 24 versus the Hurricanes.
Early-season ACC setbacks to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, both at home, are a distant memory.
Led by Jela Duncan and Josh Snead, four Duke running backs average at least 5.0 yards per carry. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette has rushed for 12 touchdowns, receiver Jamison Crowder is all-conference material, and linebackers Kelby Brown and David Helton rank 1-2 among ACC tacklers.
"It's fitting we're in this position," Cockrell said. "We're not letting all the outside stuff get to our heads. We're in a good place right now. … People are just happy, walking around with Duke football shirts on and smiling. It's great to see."
The N.C. State and Miami games drew near capacity crowds to 33,941-seat Wallace Wade Stadium, and students rushed the field after the latter victory. White is not surprised.
"You can just sense it when you're around (David)," he said. "There's a reason they went to four bowls in six years in Oxford, Mississippi. It wasn't because he was an OK coach. … To be, in terms of financial support, a bottom feeder, and to go to the Swamp (Florida's home stadium) and win and to go down to LSU and win, and then come here and turn this around, I can't tell you there are any surprises in this for me."
Cutcliffe appears unfazed by Duke's success and the subsequent attention.
"I don't feel very hunted," he said. "We're still establishing who we want to be."