Team: Duke Blue Devils
2012 W-L: 6-7 (3-5)
Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (21-40; sixth season)
Returning Starters: 11 (6 Offense, 5 Defense)
The monkey’s off their back, so to speak. Finally, after 18 seasons, the Duke Blue Devils returned to the postseason. And they could’ve had a winning season too, if not for some poor luck at the end of the Belk Bowl. But now the real work begins. It’s not all that difficult to win six games at the FBS level if you know how to schedule correctly. Doing so consistently, however, is the bigger challenge. David Cutcliffe has done a great job managing one of the toughest BCS jobs there is, and now he’s tasked with continuing that trend.
Of course, it would be easier to do so if he still had a couple of his program’s most important players: QB Sean Renfree and the ACC’s all-time leading receiver, Conner Vernon. Both graduated after last year, which means all new blood on the offensive end for a team that’s actually become quite proficient at picking up yardage through the air, finishing 31st in the country with over 289 yards per game. And surprisingly, that may not be a bad thing. In limited action last year, newly-minted starter Anthony Boone threw for 531 yards and five scores on 95 attempts, while adding two rushing touchdowns as well. While Renfree may have had the stronger arm of the two last year, Boone’s much more mobile and just may be able to take a bit more punishment than his predecessor could. Given the offensive line’s overall lack of size, it’s an essential trait for any Duke quarterback, but especially Boone, who’s just 6’0″.
At the skill positions, Boone will have additional help, but one less elite target to go to. Jamison Crowder nearly matched Vernon’s productivity last year, so there’s little concern about what he can do in the open field. But beyond him, there’s uncertainty. Isaac Blakeney and David Reeves both showed some glimmers of big-play ability last year, and will now have to step into much more prominent roles with Vernon and Desmond Scott now departed. Even if the passing game picks up where it left off though, there’s still the question of the running game. Last year’s was among the worst in the country, ranking 100th overall while completely vanishing from view for weeks on end. And yet, everybody’s back. So can we expect improvement? I actually think so. Jela Duncan, Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson failed to receive enough carries to truly establish success last year. That’s likely to change with a more green quarterback at the helm, especially one who’s more prone to carry the football himself. They won’t be stars, but there’s no reason to believe Duke can’t figure out a way to move the ball more effectively than last year’s effort. Even if it’s just by adding 5-10 carries per game.
Defiensively? Umm… Duke has a lot of work to do. At times marginal, and at others, just plain putrid, the Blue Devils’ defense was a persistent issue last year that gave way to playing from behind too much and passing far more often than necessary. The 2012 front seven managed to get a push at times (25 sacks on the year), but they’re replacing almost half of them. They also couldn’t stop the run whatsoever, allowing over 202 yards per game on the ground. So maybe it’s a good thing they’re starting over with new players? Kenny Anunike is really the only standout, though he’s never truly lived up to his potential. Now that he’s a senior, he’ll be called upon to do even more — especially with a secondary that will need all the help it can get.
As I’ve said before, last year’s secondary was a sham. They allowed 29 passing touchdowns, 8.9 yards per attempt (third-highest figure in the FBS) and overall found themselves ranked 104th while failing to really stop anybody. Here, a personnel overhaul might be welcomed, but there’s also zero depth. Outside of standout starting corner Ross Cockrell and inexperienced seniors Garett Patterson (CB) and Anthony Young-Wiseman (S), the depth chart features one sophomore and a bunch of freshman waiting in the wings. One injury in the secondary and they’re toast — though even if everyone stays healthy, it’s hard to totally buy in. The Blue Devils haven’t ranked outside the bottom 30 teams or so stopping the pass since 2009. Considering the roster as it is, I don’t see that luck changing in 2013.
Duke will be challenged in 2013 due to last year’s success. Though in term’s of this year’s schedule, it’s certainly not the worst group of games to test out a ton of new personnel. They miss the Atlantic Division’s top teams, and give themselves another back-loaded slate that could still allow for them to clinch bowl eligibility by mid-October. They won’t be as good as 2012, but they don’t have to be. At this point, the baseline for Duke is to make a bowl game. And I’m confident that despite a drop-off in talent in comparison to last season, they’ll once again be able to do just that.
Prediction: (7-5) (3-5); Military Bowl