By Matt Crossman

ATLANTA -- Sweat beaded on their necks. Their matted hair looked like they had combed it with a rake. Fake grass, made of rubber, covered their shoes. Helmets in hands, they leaned in to listen. Duke football coach David Cutcliffe started off low. Players in the back could barely hear him. "You're going to fill your days as a student, as a young man, certainly as a football player, with either good or bad habits," he said.

As he talked, Cutcliffe stood in the end zone of Duke's indoor practice facility, which didn't exist a year ago. The outdoor field, visible through open double doors behind him, sat entirely in shadow as the sun set. A cold December practice had reached its end, and so had Cutcliffe's patience. He continued, his voice rising. "If your habits are great, you become great," he said.

Cutcliffe didn't yell, but he clipped his words, and the two times he said "great" were the two loudest words he said. He railed about attention to detail, and the lack thereof, that he had seen over the past hour. He used a word I can't repeat on a family website. "I don't think I saw anybody trying to be the best they can be," he said. "That's what's expected of Duke football every time we take the field."

When the harangue ended, the players scattered, off to shower, to get treated by trainers, to do whatever Duke football players do when there are no classes to study for and practice is over. Somewhere along the way, the improbability of what just happened sunk in: They just got reamed for lacking intensity in practice.

For a bowl game.

In late December.

At Duke.

It was the most unlikely chewing-out of the college football season. As Cutcliffe walked from the practice facility to the football offices after his post-practice tongue-lashing, he confessed that it was partially calculated. He wanted to light a fire in advance of the cold.

The Blue Devils won six games in 2012, which was surprising enough, and followed that with an even better 2013 campaign, despite losing their two best offensive players. Duke's 10 wins were shocking, unpredictable and years in the making. Duke had never won 10 games in a season, had not won 16 combined in back-to-back seasons since 1938-39, and had never played in consecutive bowl games before the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Tuesday night.

Cutcliffe has participated in two dozen bowl games as a head coach or assistant, and he knows that poor practices two weeks before the game lead to poor practices the week of the game, which in turn lead to poor play in the game. Considering his players were overmatched physically against Texas A&M and were predicted to lose by nearly two touchdowns, they could not afford to be undisciplined.

Two weeks before kickoff, Cutcliffe called the game a tremendous opportunity for Duke to recreate its own identity as a national football program. As he let himself imagine winning the game, he had excitement in his voice and in his eyes, in how he leaned in when he talked about it. He knew that a win would mean that the team finished the season ranked in the mid-teens, which would have meant opening next season about the same. That would be huge, because Duke does not open (or close) football seasons ranked at all, never mind in the mid-teens.

The Chick-fil-A Bowl was almost certainly the most-watched game in the history of Duke football. For many fans, it was the first time they saw Duke play football. Cutcliffe wanted his players to be ready when they stepped onto the national stage, and if he had to chew them out a little more harshly than they deserved to keep them focused, he was OK with that.

* * *

Everywhere Cutcliffe went in Atlanta in the days before the game, he faced the same question: How would the Blue Devils stop Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most dynamic players in the history of college football?

Cutcliffe and his defensive coaches knew that they had no real chance to stop Manziel. In his two years at Texas A&M, nobody stopped him. The best that Duke's defensive coaches hoped for was to slow him down, confuse him, limit the number of big plays Manziel created with his arm or legs or both. As those defensive coaches gathered in the team's football offices in Durham last month, they tried to come up with a scheme to do that.

But before they got to that: holiday cards. Cutcliffe had made a passing reference to the cards in the full staff meeting, and these guys have worked with him long enough to know that a passing reference equals an order.

What Cutcliffe meant but did not say was: Get those cards done. So they got to work. Quality control coach Patrick O'Connor put Christmas songs on Pandora, and based on the comments about his role as DJ, he failed at controlling the quality of music. "Silver and Gold" by Burl Ives was widely panned. "I can't write enthusiastic notes with this music on," defensive coordinator Jim Knowles joked, as he wrote, "Next year, you'll be bowling with us #4for40" to one recruit.

With the cards completed, Knowles stood in front of a dry erase board to lay out the team's plan of attack against Manziel. He didn't want to run any new or exotic defenses against Texas A&M, because he didn't want to mess with his team's confidence. A big change would have said to his players, What we've done so far is not good enough. But he planned subtle differences in how the defense operated.

He wrote "disguise" and drew a box around it. Under that he wrote:

Pink show Redskin play Patriots Field
Orange show Blue play Redskins Field
Brown show Giants play Minnesota Hub

In that gibberish, the coaches saw clarity. The color was the play name. The rest described what would happen when the Blue Devils ran that play. When "Pink" was called, the defense would line up to look like it would run a play called "Redskins," but then it would actually run "Patriots." "Field" and "hub" refer to defensive line alignments. The defensive coaches talked about "pink" and "orange" and "brown" and a dozen other words, strung together in ways that would make no sense whatsoever outside that office. Their code words have code words. When Knowles said, "Because of the disguise, it would all be banjos," everybody nodded in agreement.

Duke linebacker Kelby Brown told the coaches that he noticed during film study that as Manziel waits for the snap in the shotgun, he sets his feet parallel on running plays and staggers them on passing plays. The coaches' study verified that … mostly. It's not 100 percent, but it's close. The team has a signal for when it figures out what kind of play an offense will run: Coaches yell "bird" for passing plays and "rabbit" for running plays. Still, coaches doubted that would help much, because Manziel turns passing plays into running plays and then back into passing plays better than anybody in the history of the game. Manziel on the run behind the line of scrimmage is the most dangerous play in college football.

The coaches dissected video of Texas A&M's offensive plays against Auburn. If they were looking for reasons to be optimistic, they found none. The Tigers were headed to the national championship game, and the Aggies still rang up 41 points against them (and lost). Perhaps the only encouraging discovery was that Duke would be more prepared for Texas A&M's hurry-up offense than Auburn was. Duke's defense played every day against Duke's no-huddle offense and was used to lining up quickly. Auburn's defense gave up several big plays when players weren't ready at the snap.

Two weeks later, when Duke kept Manziel out of the end zone on Texas A&M's first three drives, it looked like the coaches' planning had paid off. The Blue Devils had indeed slowed him, but it didn't last. Manziel ran for 73 yards and a touchdown, threw for 382 yards and four scores, and he led the Aggies on six touchdown drives.

* * *

Eight former winners of the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award gathered in a hotel conference room in downtown Atlanta one morning during bowl week. Cutcliffe won the award, one of four such honors he has collected this season, and they were there to pay tribute to him. The Dodd Award, which the Chick-fil-A Bowl has taken over in hopes of making it the Heisman Trophy of coaching awards, goes to coaches who stress academic excellence and character. Longtime Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd preached the importance of those two traits, and so does Cutcliffe.

Nobody goes to Duke only to play football, and Cutcliffe coaches the team accordingly. He's a hardcore X's and O's guy and one of the most respected offensive minds in the country. But he reads widely on an array of subjects, and while interviews with him start off on football, they rarely stay there. Conversations veer from anecdotes about Peyton and Eli Manning, whom he coached at Tennessee and Ole Miss, respectively, to John Mellencamp, whose son is a walk-on at Duke, to his fondness for iambic pentameter and Dr. Seuss. Standing in the lobby of the team hotel in Atlanta, the day before the game, Cutcliffe called up on his phone and recited a poem he wrote for a Christmas party:

'Twas the night before New Year's, and all through the Dome
All from A and M wish they'd stayed home
The Devils were scoring, running and passing with ease
The defense was hitting, they were carrying off Aggies by the threes

Punts, tackles, blocks, runs and kicks
The kicking game was pulling out all of our tricks
The Dome with all of its levels
Had the crowd cheering for their beloved Blue Devils

Fifty points were hung on the Aggies with great care
Knowing the 4th quarter soon would be there
As the clock ticked to zero, it was a real story to tell
As the Duke gang loaded its gear to leave, you could hear them all yell
Johnny Manziel, go straight to …

"I might not be the only football coach who writes poetry," Cutcliffe said, "but I'm probably the only one who admits it."

Players, staffers and their families milled about in the lobby. He seemed to have a story about every one of them. He's a collector, of friends and experiences, and he likes to share what he collects. After one morning staff meeting, Cutcliffe grabbed a book off his shelf called The Heart and The Fist, a memoir by Duke graduate Eric Greitens. Greitens worked as a humanitarian, earned a doctorate at Oxford and then joined the Navy SEALs, because he had come to believe that preventing the suffering caused by war is as important as helping people endure it.

Before the season, Cutcliffe gave a copy of the book to every player on the team, and he says he has given out hundreds of others. "If I had to pick a name of what I wanted our program to be, it would be the heart and the fist," Cutcliffe said. "I want kids [who] care, about each other, about the community, about other things, but are every bit as tough as anybody who comes down the pike. Anybody that talks trash, gets in your face. Tougher, I should say. Wouldn't that be the ideal football program? Think about that. The heart and the fist. You don't want just the fist. We've got too much of that in this country anymore. Bulls---, in-your-face talking."

He read from the book's dust jacket: "At the heart of Eric's powerful story lies a paradox: Sometimes you have to be strong to do good, but you also have to do good to be strong. The heart and the fist together are more powerful than either one alone." He stopped reading. "That's pretty good," he said. "I might use that on the team later."

* * *

The day before the game, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper met with his quarterbacks to go over the game plan one final time. The team had laid out the plan a week or so before: The Duke coaches figured they needed to win the battle along the offensive line to establish the running game. That would open the passing game for wide receiver Jamison Crowder, the team's best player. Roper, who will leave Duke to become Florida's offensive coordinator next season, wrote the first 10 plays of the game on a dry erase board. With names like "Trouble Geronimo Bubble," "Right Up Subway" and "Bridge B-Jet Washington," the language on offense is as impenetrable as the language on defense. "Tree east is going to set cluster trouble left," Roper said. More nodding.

The first 10 plays were designed to force Texas A&M defensive players to have to communicate with their sideline before the snap. Duke hoped to sow confusion early on -- the Aggies defense is inexperienced and mistake-prone. Also: not very good. Everything Duke tried on offense worked. The Blue Devils piled up 661 yards, the most all season and third-highest in school history. Quarterback Anthony Boone had 454 combined yards running and passing, only one fewer than Manziel. Crowder had 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown.

It wasn't enough.

* * *

Throughout bowl week, Duke players couldn't help but think of last year's Belk Bowl. That game was tied when Duke fumbled at the 5-yard line while going in for the winning score with 1:20 left. Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the next 36 seconds. Within days after that game, the players adopted "Finish" as their motto for the 2013 season. In the locker room, minutes before the Chick-fil-A Bowl, senior cornerback Ross Cockrell, the Blue Devils' most vocal leader, addressed his teammates. "We said on January 1st, we were going to finish every rep, every drill, every game, every class. We do it all. We do it all at Duke. We made sure we were going to finish. Right now, on December 31, 2013, this is our time to finish. Finish a whole-year run," he said. "I don't care who we're playing. That doesn't matter. All that matters is the family and brothers you have on this team and in this locker room."

When Cockrell was done, Cutcliffe took over, leading the team in reciting the "Our Father" and then a list of seven goals, including:

The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.

Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes our way, score.

Press the kicking game, for this is the winning edge."

Cutcliffe closed by echoing Cockrell. "Finish. Finish this season. Finish the fourth quarter tonight. Seniors, finish your Duke careers. All of us, finish 2013. This is where we're taking it out. We damn sure came to finish," he said, his voice rising toward the end. "Start well, finish better."

The players stormed out of the locker room full of energy. Hours later, they trudged back in, devoid of it. They had lost to Texas A&M, 52-48. Bruises covered their bodies. Their eyes were blank and hollow, numb with disbelief. They looked too exhausted, physically and emotionally, for tears or anger. They had just lost the most incredible game they had ever played in, in excruciating fashion, by giving up an interception return for a touchdown to surrender the lead late in the fourth quarter.

They led by three touchdowns at halftime and lost anyway.

They scored 48 points and lost anyway.

They gained 661 yards and lost anyway.

They announced to the college football world that they were a legit football team and lost anyway.

They were crushed, but Cutcliffe balanced the day's disappointment with the hope lurking just under the surface. "It really has never been about the ending," he said. "It isn't. All you young guys, it's not about what comes to an end. If we had won, we'd feel a lot better. But it doesn't change the path we took to get here. That's really, really important to your lives. That's why we put all of those other things in front of football."

"This is not an end," he said later, as players filed out of the stadium. "It's a beginning."

Matt Crossman is the author of more than 30 cover stories in national sports magazines. Read more of his work at mattcrossman.com and follow him on Twitter.