Last dance? David Cutcliffe, Dave Clawson square off again

The Duke and Wake Forest coaches could be headed in different directions

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, once the ACC's poster child for overachieving coaches, has seen in-state peer Dave Clawson take Wake Forest to even greater heights while the Blue Devils struggle to stay relevant in the ACC. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

Two of the most respected coaches in the ACC will meet on Saturday when David Cutcliffe takes his Duke Blue Devils to Winston-Salem to face Dave Clawson and unbeaten Wake Forest.

Both coaches have found football success at small private schools often thought to be incapable of competing with the huge football factories in their league. That’s not all Clawson and Cutcliffe have in common: Both may be participating in their final Duke-Wake Forest game.

As impossible as it may have seemed a few years ago when Cutcliffe was the toast of the sport for winning at Duke — a place long thought to be incapable of competing in the sport — the Blue Devils’ most successful head coach in more than a half-century may be on the hot seat.

Duke may have hit a low point in the Cutcliffe tenure in its last game, a 48-0 loss in Charlottesville that saw the Blue Devils overwhelmed by Virginia. It dropped Duke to 0-3 in the conference this year, 1-12 in its last 13 ACC games and 2-16 in the last 18 league contests. It’s also the second time in the last five ACC games that Duke has lost 48-0 — Miami dropped that score on them near the end of last season.

Complaints from Duke fans have begun to crop up on social media, and, while the administration has steadfastly supported Cutcliffe, it’s possible Duke may consider a change following the year — or that Cutcliffe will choose to step down before the administration has to intervene.

A win over the undefeated Demon Deacons could help to turn the tide that’s beginning to build against Cutcliffe. And Duke’s players and coaches know what a victory could do.

“They’re very aware and that should be more motivation,” Cutcliffe said. “That should create a lot of energy. It’s a huge challenge, but with huge challenges come huge opportunities. Wake is not going to give you anything. What it means is that you’re going to have to go get it done.”

Meanwhile in Winston-Salem, Clawson has taken his Deacs past the heights that Cutcliffe reached a half decade ago. The Blue Devils won the Coastal Division and advanced to the ACC Championship Game. At the moment, the Demon Deacons appear to have passed Clemson as the best team in the entire ACC.

Wake is leading the Atlantic Division by a game and a half and is the ACC’s lone remaining unbeaten team. The Deacons are also the highest-ranked team in the conference, at No. 13 in the most recent AP poll. At 7-0 for the first time in 77 years, Wake is one of five unbeaten Power Five teams remaining. The Deacs are also 4-0 in the ACC for the first time in school history.

Clawson has built an intriguing and prolific offense. The Deacs are averaging 43.1 points per game, which would break the school record — set last year — by more than seven points. Wake’s defense, often the team’s Achilles’ heel under Clawson, has also improved significantly. The Deacons are fourth in the nation in turnover margin and rank in the top 25 nationally in sacks, interceptions, tackles for loss and fourth-down defense.

Back when Cutcliffe was the toast of the ACC, Tennessee came calling, giving Duke fans and administration some tense moments before Cutcliffe turned down the chance to return to the Vols as head coach. Now, Wake’s success is earning Clawson some attention in searches for major jobs across the country.

USC, which fired Clay Helton earlier this season, has been rumored to be considering a run at Clawson. LSU also reportedly has him on their list of candidates once Ed Orgeron leaves following this season.

Even if Clawson doesn’t land either of those two diamond-level coaching vacancies, the resulting domino effect when USC and LSU find their men could allow Clawson to check in on the gold or silver level. Online speculation has Clawson finding a seat everywhere from Penn State to Virginia Tech as coaches and programs play musical chairs following this season.

Admittedly, both coaches are still secure in their current spots, and the odds are against even one of them not being around for next season’s Wake-Duke game in Durham. But the chances of both moving on are still higher than they’ve been at any point in recent memory.

Both coaches have done the impossible, winning where no one thought they could. It’s the type of achievement they erect statues to commemorate. The question is: how soon will the sculptors be called upon to start work?