There's a common belief Duke football is on the rise, if only because head coach David Cutcliffe is a likable fellow and the Blue Devils have been downtrodden for so long. The school and, seemingly, the local media are investing heavily in the success of the program, or at least in its competitiveness in one of the weakest BCS conferences.
There are signs of improvement to justify the enthusiasm. The change in won-lost record over the past four years is encouraging, particularly when contrasted with the earnest fecklessness of Cutcliffe's predecessors, Carl Franks and Ted Roof.
Duke won 13 games in the nine years between Fred Goldsmith's departure following the 1998 season and Cutcliffe's arrival in 2008. That's an average of 1.5 victories per year. Included were three winless seasons (2000, 2001, 2006).
Duke already has 15 wins during Coach Cut's tenure, averaging about four per year. Clearly the Devils are more competitive, as the end results indicate. This year's team is 3-5 through eight outings. Games remain this month at Miami, Virginia and North Carolina, and at home against Georgia Tech, allowing time for further improvement.
Yet, two-thirds of the way through the 2011 season, there isn't much upward movement in key statistical areas that would indicate imminent escape from the gravitational pull of the program's chronic also-ran status.
Duke's offensive and defensive production has varied over Cutcliffe's four seasons at Durham, but arguably not to a significant degree. Compare performance by the Devils and their opponents in six major statistical categories - total yards, rushing yards, passing yards, first downs, turnover margin, and scoring - and no single area shows steady improvement compared to preceding years.
The bottom line is winning, and that's happened more often since Cutcliffe took the reins. Nor is the 2011 season over. Still, despite the talk of a new day for Duke football, you can argue there's little statistical evidence of a steady upward trend toward respectability.
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