DURHAM, N.C. — The past two seasons Duke football learned no matter the ground covered turning around the Blue Devils, a cavernous talent gap still separates two programs benefiting the most from the social media recruiting era.
A year ago the Blue Devils trailed eventual national champion Clemson 14-6 at halftime before the Tigers pulled away with a 35-6 victory.
Last weekend, in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff season opener in Atlanta, unranked Duke held No. 2 Alabama scoreless in the first quarter and trailed only 14-3 at halftime. But, ultimately, the Crimson Tide pulled away for a convincing 42-3 victory.
Cutcliffe, who has led Duke to bowl games six of the last seven seasons with an ACC Coastal title in 2013, has his Blue Devils (0-1) regrouping for their season home opener. Duke plays host to N.C. A&T (1-0), the No. 14-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision, on at 6 p.m. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.
On Saturday, the veteran coach in his 13th Duke season had good reason to throw up his hands in frustration as he left the field. He didn’t then or by Tuesday when he’d had time to review the video and met with the media.
“It’s college football, and it’s always going to be to some degree that way,” he said. “In the NFL, they take turns picking; there’s the draft so you have opportunities. That’s the most evenly matched football there is. I don’t spend much time thinking about it or worrying about who somebody else signs (in recruiting). You build a team that has strengths, and at times we displayed those strengths (against Alabama). But we obviously weren’t as well prepared as we should have been to play a team like that.
“I don’t have a problem like that. That’s part of competing. These guys go out and recruit hard and build a program. There’s an arms race. If you look at it, there are a lot of things that attract young people, particularly in this era when we’re all susceptible to marketing. We’re not going to beat that, so we focus on ourselves and continued to do that.”
Shiny bubbles are valued in college football recruiting; prestigious degrees not so much.
Social media makes it easier to communicate, but rather than recruits viewing expanded opportunities at more schools, the result has been funneling the top players to a handful of teams, mostly notably Clemson and Alabama. The same is true in college basketball with Duke and Kentucky.
Five-star and 4-star high school recruits meet at national combines and stay in touch. They build super teams, a model followed since the NBA’s LeBron James and Chris Bosh ganged up with Dewyne Wade with the Miami Heat in 2010.
There’s nothing new about kids from all corners of the country – including halfway across the Pacific Ocean such as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa leaving Hawaii for Alabama – have contemplated the notion of playing together.
In the late 1970s, basketball recruits Earvin “Magic” Johnson of Lansing, Mich., and Darnell Valentine of Wichita, Kn., met at USA Junior Olympic events and whimsically discussed playing together. Ultimately, though, they stayed closer to home – Magic winning a national title at Michigan State and Valentine starring at Kansas.
In modern football, Clemson and Alabama have split the last four national titles. Alabama is the only school to play in all five CFB fields, while Clemson is the only other program to qualify for four of the five.
It’s still early in the 2020 recruiting class, but Clemson is ranked No. 1 with five 5-stars and 12 4-stars in the Rivals.com ratings. Alabama is fourth with one 5-star and 16 4-stars.
Top billing is higher than usual for Clemson, but Alabama has finished in the top two four times – No. 2, 2019; No. 7, 2018; No. 1, 2017; No. 1 2016; and No. 1, 2015. Although Alabama was only ranked No. 2 in 2019 with a class topped by three 5-stars, the Crimson Tide’s 21 4-stars is six more than No. 1 ranked Georgia, a rising program that might be one of the few to break up Alabama and Clemson, and No. 4 Texas, another program with blue blood to challenge.
Why Alabama’s 21 4-stars isn’t enough for the No. 1 ranking is another question.
Cutcliffe isn’t calling for changes to level the playing field, but he does note the Clemson-Alabama stranglehold might please fans in the long run.
“I would think the TV people love it because all the fans are tired of if it and they want to expand the playoffs,” he said. “As soon as they expand the playoffs there is more money. When there is more money, more things are happen in college football, right?
“I’m just proud to be a part of it and don’t care about the money part of it. We’ve still got a great game. Young people learn great lessons from it. They learn to sacrifice, and they learn that toughness is part of life. Us that are older already know that. We’re just going to maintain the great parts of being a part of college football.”