For two programs that have only faced off on the gridiron once in history, Duke and Kansas have a lot in common.
But during the past five years, the teams have gone in opposite directions in the world of college football.
Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, Kansas head coach Charlie Weis will face off against David Cutcliffe, who served briefly on Weis' staff at Notre Dame in 2005 before resigning amid health problems prior to the season. Weis—who became the Jayhawk head coach in 2011 after a long stint with the Fighting Irish, a season with the Kansas City Chiefs and one with Florida—was tasked with turning around a program that had tumbled to the bottom of the Big 12 after an Orange Bowl victory in 2008.
Although Cutcliffe's stint in South Bend, Ind., was short-lived, Weis said it comes as no surprise that the Blue Devil head coach has propelled a once-struggling Duke program into the national spotlight.
"I was looking for somebody [at Notre Dame] I could eventually turn the offense over to," Weis said. "I thought David was one of the best coaches out there. Not only was he well-schooled with the quarterback position, that was his reputation. What he has done [at Duke] is what I would expect him to anywhere. Just about anywhere he has gone with an ample amount of time, he gets things going the right way, especially offensively. He is a very good coach."
Cutcliffe isn't the only Blue Devil with whom Weis has a well-connected past. In 2004, current Duke athletic director Kevin White hired Weis as head coach when he held the same position in South Bend.
Despite the connections amongst the leadership on both sides, Cutcliffe and White find themselves ascending through the college football ranks as Weis seeks to alter the trajectory of his Kansas program.
A turning point for both programs came in 2009, the same year a Thaddeus Lewis-led Blue Devil squad was blown out 44-16 in Lawrence, Kan. One week earlier, the Jayhawks had won a road game at UTEP, 34-7. Since then, Kansas has gone a combined 10-39, has not won a road game and has not appeared in a bowl game.
That same year was a breakout campaign for Duke football and Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils went 5-7, at the time the program's best record since 1994. Although the team did not earn a bowl berth, the Blue Devils did win three straight ACC games, including two on the road. Duke has gone 24-29 in regular season and postseason games from 2010-2014.
Although Weis has only won four games in two seasons, Cutcliffe knows that the Jayhawks have become a better and more disciplined team in recent years.
"They have made strides every year and game to game," Cutcliffe said. "This team looks more like a Charlie Weis football team for obvious reasons. I know they can recruit their region and get into Texas. They’ll continue to get good football players, and they have added a lot of junior college players.... Their personnel is starting to show up."
Kansas has plenty of reasons for optimism this season, but in the team's 34-28 win against FCS opponent Southeast Missouri State last weekend, there were some areas of concern.
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After jumping out to a 24-0 lead against the Redhawks in the first quarter, the Jayhawks managed just 10 points the rest of the way and gave up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Weis, however, seemed happier about the win and used the scare as a teaching moment.
"Before you get into the details, obviously when you get off to a good start, our guys were caught off guard to start off with," Weis said. "The biggest motto you come out with something like that is that we cannot be complacent. We have to finish. The whole message has to be, before you get into the analytical parts of each play, just about finishing the game."
Quarterback Montell Cozart, who struggled in three starts last season as a true freshman, threw for 196 yards and three touchdowns in the win. He is expected to take on a bigger role this year as he deals with a depleted backfield that lost starters Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox during fall camp.
In their stead, junior college transfer Deandre Mann—who was expected to be a bench player a month ago—rushed for 121 yards on 15 carries, and true freshman Corey Avery added 91 yards and a touchdown. The duo is hoping to find some soft spots in a Blue Devil defense that is giving up 148 yards per game on the ground.
Weis believes his players can rise to the occasion Saturday and capture what would be a monumental road victory against Duke, one that could once again change the course of the Kansas program, this time in a winning direction.
"This is a good game for us to go on the road," Weis said. "We have not won a road game around here in an eternity. We are playing a nice solid team in Duke. They are very well-coached. We also think this is a good matchup for us. A lot of times football games are about matchups. Sometimes you go into a game and the matchup is not good. But I think this week their strengths play into our strengths and their weaknesses play into our weaknesses. That gives us a good chance."