Duke broke through with its first-ever 10-win season and a highly improbable first ACC Coastal Division title last year. The biggest surprise of all is that the Blue Devils are just getting started.
Last season in Durham was epic. Duke, the noted basketball school, provided football fans in the region with a reason to celebrate. In 2012, the Blue Devils reached a milestone with the school's first bowl game in nearly two decades. In 2013, they reset expectations across the league and the country with a hellacious eight-game winning streak that included upsets of Virginia Tech for the first time since 1981 and Miami three weeks later. Without any warning, the balance of power was suddenly shifting beneath the Coastal foundation like a blue and white tectonic plate.
The inimitable leader of the Duke renaissance is head coach David Cutcliffe. He's succeeding in changing the culture in Durham among players and fans. Though it might seem otherwise, the Blue Devils have not been an overnight success story; they've arduously laid a ground floor drenched in sweat, patience and an unwavering belief in a righteous man who's shot straight with them from the moment he stepped foot on campus. Duke took its usual lumps in Cut's first five seasons in Durham, finishing below .500 and no higher than fifth place in the ACC Coastal Division each year. Progress, though, was constant, even if it had to be measured by an unconventional ruler.
Next on the agenda for Cutcliffe and his flock is to sustain excellence. Duke doesn't want to be Wake Forest, a program whose success is fleeting. No, Duke is striving to become the Stanford of the Eastern Seaboard by achieving perennial football success at an esteemed academic institution. With 17 starters back this fall, and a locker room gushing with confidence, the Blue Devils are poised to quiet those critics expecting 2013 to go down as a momentary blip on the college football radar.
The Blue Devils should be similar to last year's edition; the offense, even without coordinator Kurt Roper, will work to overcome defensive deficiencies, especially along the front wall. And special teams will be a hidden plus, thanks to the presence of P Will Monday, PK Ross Martin and return men Jamison Crowder and Devon Edwards. An occasional reprisal of Duke's 52-48 Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Texas A&M is almost a certainty with this team in 2014.
Duke was one of college football's feel-good stories of 2013, ascending to new heights under the leadership of a meticulous, hard-working coach who'd earned the trust and affection of his players. Might it have been a table-setter? Even better days are ahead for the Blue Devils who've got the talent and the mojo to add more bricks to the foundation in 2014.
What to watch for on offense:
Rotation discontinuation. You know the theory about teams with two quarterbacks really having none? Yeah, Cutcliffe doesn't subscribe to it. The Blue Devils did a brilliant job in 2013 of employing their two complementary signal-callers, Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. While Boone has the better arm talent, Connette was the more dangerous runner, especially in short-yardage situations. Unfortunately for Duke, though, Connette decided to transfer closer to his California home, where he'll finish his career at Fresno State. It was an underrated blow for the offense, which will miss the 27 combined touchdowns and different looks that Connette produced in 2013.
What to watch for on defense:
The development of the D-line. The Blue Devils have a number of concerns on defense, none bigger than replacing the production DT Sydney Sarmiento and ends Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx. Senior Jamal Bruce is set at the nose. On the outside, expectations are high for Dezmond Johnson and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, who've started games, but have yet to play to their full potential. It's time for both players to transform those flashes of ability into consistency off the edge.
The team will be far better if…
The defense forces more punts. While the Blue Devils made a lot of money plays a year ago, they also stumbled too often at the basics, like stuffing the run, wrapping up in space and avoiding silly penalties. Duke yielded 4.3 yards per carry to rank No. 11 in the ACC. The D has a singular objective in 2014—to get the ball back to the offense as fast as possible, and not by allowing the other guys to traverse the field in the blink of an eye.
There isn't much complaining allowed from the defending Coastal champs. Florida State from the Atlantic? No. How about Clemson? Nope. The Blue Devils get Wake Forest and Syracuse in interdivisional play. After starting out with a managable non-conference schedule with three of the first four games at home - only going on the road to face Troy and with Kansas the toughest home game - and then comes a stretch of four road games in teh next five, going away from Durham from September 20 to November 15. That means they have to deal with Miami, Georgia Tech and Pitt on the road, but the payoff comes late with thre final three games at home facing Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest.
Best offensive player:
Senior WR Jamison Crowder. Crowder was a key reason why the quarterbacks performed so well last fall, seamlessly replacing Conner Vernon as the go-to target in the passing game. While only 5-9 and 175 pounds, he's extremely quick, and he gets in and out of his breaks in an instant. The prototype of a next-level slot receiver, Crowder spreads the defense in order to help make TE Braxton Deaver and big receivers Issac Blakeney and Max McCaffrey more dangerous underneath.
Best defensive player:
Junior S Jeremy Cash. So much for needing a little time to get accustomed to new surroundings. Cash was a revelation in blue in his first year since transferring from Ohio State, bringing linebacker size and above average cover skills to the last line of defense. The 6-2, 210-pounder is about to become Duke's most important player in the secondary now that CB Ross Cockrell is out of eligibility. And Cash's knack for inching up to support the run will benefit a team that allowed more than four yards a carry in 2013.
Key players to a successful season:
Senior RB Josh Snead and junior RB Shaquille Powell. Somewhat overlooked in last year's offensive success was the fact that Duke ranked No. 5 in ACC rushing. However, second-leading rusher Jela Duncan was suspended for the year, and third-leading rusher Juwan Thompson has graduated. Snead and Powell will now shoulder the load after combining for almost 1,000 yards rushing and a gaudy average of nearly six yards per carry. With depth now compromised, both Blue Devils must also remain healthy in 2014.
The season will be a success if …
The Blue Devils win nine regular season games. See what's happening here? Cutcliffe has everyone, including his players, believing that mediocrity is no longer where the bar ought to be set. And why not? This 2014 edition might be better than the 2013, provided both lines can be patched up on the fly. Duke avoids Clemson and Florida State during the regular season, so there's not a game on the schedule that'll be considered beyond the reach in the fall.
Sept. 27 at Miami. Is Duke ready to defend its Coastal Division crown? This trip to Sun Life Stadium will provide the first clues about the Blue Devils' 2014 ceiling. Duke gashed Miami at Wallace Wade Stadium last November, 48-30, in a prominent statement rout. The ‘Canes will be out for redemption as both programs claw for an early edge in the chase for a spot in the ACC Championship Game.
2013 Fun Stats:
- Points per game: Duke 32.8 – Opponents 26.6
- Interceptions thrown: Duke 19 – Opponents 18
- Fourth-quarter scoring: Duke 120 - Opponents 44