And then there are those other times when they look like those same old Blue Devils.
They're preparing to face struggling Memphis this week and appear on track to open 3-1 for only the second time since 1994.
But one question persists: Which is the real Duke team?
"We have a whole season to find out," cornerback Ross Cockrell said Tuesday.
If the Blue Devils have learned nothing else over nearly two decades of futility, they know not to take anything for granted and not to count victories prematurely - not even against the Tigers (0-3), who are breaking in a new coach and have lost 34 of 39 games since 2009.
Duke knows how that feels. The Blue Devils' last winning season - and last bowl appearance - came in 1994, and since then they've endured seven 10-loss seasons.
"When you're in the shoes we're in," Cutcliffe said, "I hadn't seen one yet that's not a must-win for us."
Duke sandwiched two of its most impressive performances around arguably the worst of the Cutcliffe era.
The Blue Devils certainly looked like a bowl team in a 46-26 romp against FIU, a game they led 44-14 in the final 2 minutes. They had little trouble dispatching crosstown foe N.C. Central of the Championship Subdivision last week, rolling up 54 points - the second-highest total under Cutcliffe.
In those two games, Sean Renfree had three touchdown passes of at least 30 yards and Duke was opportunistic in finding ways to score on a blocked field goal, an intercepted 2-point conversion pass, a punt return and an interception return.
But what happened in between was nothing short of a complete meltdown. Stanford had its way with the Blue Devils, who fell behind 23-0 and never recovered in a 50-13 loss.
Third downs have been a problem all year - Duke has converted just 9 of 42 chances on third downs, ranking ahead of only Wyoming among Bowl Subdivision teams.
The running game has never gotten on track, with the Blue Devils ranking 111th in the nation with an average of under 95 yards.
But those issues have been constant, showing up in both wins and losses. The difference between the victories and the Stanford debacle was focus, running back Josh Snead said.
"We had a lot of mistakes in that game against Stanford - I guess you could say we weren't as focused," Snead said. "We had a great first game, a little hype. You win a game, that game is behind us, on to the next game. We came out a little unfocused, but we're back on track and we're ready to go."
Duke freshman safety Corbin McCarthy underwent surgery Monday to repair a labral tear in his left shoulder. He will miss the remainder of the 2012 season.
McCarthy saw action in the first two games and compiled four total tackles.