Time to Cut Down Cutcliffe: Duke Preview

Vanderbilt, despite a game effort, couldn't knock off Georgia in Athens for a second straight time. That's okay, however—there's no shame in falling to a formidable foe. What matters now for the Johnson Boys is this Saturday's duel with Duke. It's time for Vandy to get a piece of an old nemesis in Nashville.

Who could have possibly imagined before the 2008 season started that Vanderbilt-Duke, on Oct. 25, would have carried the weight it currently possesses? The Commodores will take the field knowing that their best chance for a sixth win and a non-losing campaign—two accomplishments that haven't graced a VU football season since 1982—are theirs for the taking. Saturday's encounter with an ACC opponent offers the Dores a golden opportunity to make history and shed the baggage of the past 26 years. Everyone in the VU locker room knows exactly what's at stake when the Dores put up their Dukes against the outfit from Durham, N.C.

On the other side of opportunity, however, lies the grim specter of failure that has loomed over the VU program for so long. An inability to dust off the Blue Devils—akin to past pratfalls such as the nightmare against Middle Tennessee a few seasons ago—will send a once-promising season tumbling into the tank.

The screws also tighten in this tussle between academic powers (Duke, by the way, lost to Northwestern earlier in the year; perhaps Vandy could play Northwestern in a bowl game—who knows?) when one realizes that the Blue Devils, unlike previous seasons, can actually play a little football. From 2005 through 2007, Duke won all of two football games. In 2008, the Durham Devils have already captured three contests.

The reason for this resurgence on Tobacco Road? Why, it's none other than the offensive whiz who repeatedly enabled the hated Tennessee Volunteers to vex and vanquish Vandy at the end of so many sad-sack seasons: David Cutcliffe. Yes, the Friend of Fulmer and former conquistador of the Commodores will be the man standing in the way of VU's milestone achievement. Just like old times, eh?

Yes, it's true that Cutcliffe won't have Arian Foster or Erik Ainge or (thank heavens) Peyton Manning to throw at Vandy's defense, but the fact still remains that Coach Cut will still be able to study the Dores with a considerable amount of expertise. Duke's familiarity with Bobby Johnson's schemes and styles will enable this non-conference opponent to have a pretty good feel for Vandy's methods. Besides providing a nice little storyline for writers, Cutcliffe's presence at Vanderbilt Stadium this upcoming Saturday will force the Dores to stay alert and play with precision.

Cutcliffe—not armed with the superior athletes in this football fight—will surely try to snooker Vandy with creative plays and wrinkles, the grab bag of gameday goodies Commodore fans know all too well. The biggest key, then, for the Johnson Boys is that they need to stay home, playing their assignments and reading their keys. As long as they remain fundamentally sound, Duke won't have the horses that can exploit the Dores, especially on downfield pass plays. D.J. Moore won't have to cover A.J. Green against Duke. He'll merely need to stay in position and trust that his teammates won't put him in a tight spot, compromising Vandy's positional integrity on defense.

On the offensive side of the ball, fundamentals will prove to be similarly significant in shaping the contours of this contest. Mackenzi Adams, for someone with his level of experience under center, should be well past the point of throwing balls on his back foot into the teeth of an opposing secondary. Yet, against Georgia, that's exactly what Adams did on a continuous basis, and it came back to haunt his team.

Against Duke, Adams and his offensive teammates simply have to avoid turnovers. There's no sense in trying to say something more nuanced or complex. The only way Vandy can give away this game—and with it, a shot at gridiron glory—is if the Dores fall cough up the pill. For all the improvements Duke has made in its first season under David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils lack the toughs in the trenches who can trade punches with Vandy's front lines. Simple ball security will--if attained by the Dores—make it incredibly difficult for Duke to find the number of game-changing plays it will need to spring the upset.

And so, the context is clear, the pigskin portrait perfectly painted for all the world to see: David Cutcliffe offers Vandy a familiar and worthy adversary in a must-win situation that carries enormous significance for the long-suffering followers of Commodore football. But as smart as Cutcliffe is, the Blue Devil boss doesn't possess the superior studs in the stable. Vanderbilt will decide who wins and loses on Saturday in Nashville… not Coach Cut. If Bobby Johnson's team brings the basics to the ballpark, win No. 6 will finally arrive… and the Commodores will avoid suffering the unkindest Cut of all.

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