Team: Duke Blue Devils
2011 W-L: 3-9 (1-7)
Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (15-33; four seasons)
Returning Starters: 13 (7 Offense, 6 Defense)
Another year of “we’re almost there” from Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, and yet another year without a bowl game. Lack of postseason games aside, however, it’s hard to argue Cutcliffe hasn’t at least improved the Blue Devils back to a respectable program. They no longer go 0-12 and 1-11, Duke now manages to win conference games. Beyond a blowout here and there, the team actually found itself with a chance to win the large majority of games in 2011, and could have easily lucked into a 5-7 record instead of the 3-9 they finished with instead. So how much rope does Cutcliffe get? His job appears safe, but when does the standard for success at Duke begin to change? As his recruiting classes begin to creep up into the top 60 or so, we at least start to find the answer for this year and beyond.
Returning eight starters from last year’s group, Duke’s offense promises to once again be effective. But it needs some sort of running game in order to truly take that next step. While the team was 28th in passing yardage in all of FBS, they were 115th in yards on the ground. They were also woeful in the redzone, converting just 72 percent of the time, from inside in the 20-yard line. This is where QB Sean Renfree can begin to provide more leadership most of all — punching the ball into the endzone. Despite a promised rotation with fellow QBs Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone, Renfree ultimately controls how much his counterparts are used and needed. Should be settle into a groove and show he’s effective at delivering the ball to Conner Vernon in the endzone, Perhaps he ends up giving both Boone and Connette a little more time on the bench this season.
At running back, there’s another potential platoon going on, but this one is very likely to never shake itself out. Lacking a true dominant back, the Blue Devils could possibly solicit equal contributions from Desmond Scott, Juwan Thompson and Josh Snead all at once. Based on last year’s numbers, Thompson may get the majority of the nods — especially as he did in the red zone last year. Though their red zone performance showed the team could at least handle running the ball in that area, it’s the open field where they can truly differentiate themselves and help this squad expand its capabilities on offense.
On defense, Duke managed to allow 31.2 points per game this year, and with safety Matt Daniels gone and a lack of a true pass-rush, it’s unsure whether that’ll improve for 2012. Last year’s squad only managed 17 sacks in 12 contests, but the defensive line is the only real place to find some depth. Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento are prepared to bring a more effective pass-rush, of course. But — and this goes especially for the oft-injured Anunike — can they? Plus, without any real help back in the secondary (as they had last year), would it work as well as hoped. Given the strength of the ACC‘s quarterbacks in 2012, this probably wasn’t the year to lose your major coverage defender, but we could end up seeing an effective, exciting group of d-backs led by strong safety Jordan Byas.
There are two severely unfortunate matters for Duke in 2012. First, as they continue to improve, the ACC also follows in kind, creating a running-in-place feeling for the program. But trust us, they’re getting better and the program’s been on a line of steep improvement overall. Second, and this is the biggest concern that we’ll be able to watch in real time, is that its biggest concern is also its biggest strength. Quarterback play — a trademark of Cutcliffe — should be the focal point of this pass-heavy offense. And yet, Renfree gets undermined when he should have the best chance to put his team in the endzone. No, Renfree is no all-world QB, but he’s also much better than the statistics indicate. Allowing him to show his stuff in these big situations would likely result in a better result for player and program. If Duke’s smart, they’ll try to get a better gauge of the “best quarterback” as the season wears on, and given that individual the best chance to lead them to victory.
A simple non-conference slate gives the Blue Devils three non-league wins, but that’s likely where the party ends again, at another three-win season. With all eight ACC teams on its schedule coming off seasons of six wins or greater, it’s hard to see much else coming of this season.
Prediction: (3-9) (0-8); no postseason