1. CAN DUKE STOP THE GROUND GAME?
A season ago the Blue Devils struggled to contain the Green Wave’s ground game as running back Lazedrick Thompson ran through and over a number of would-be tacklers on his way to 124 yards on 19 carries. A year later and Thompson is listed as the starter and is one of the team’s top three returning rushers. All in all Tulane returns a staggering 90 percent of its rushing offense from 2014. Those three backs will also be running behind four returning starters along the offensive line.
The attrition rate is much different across the line of scrimmage where the Duke defense will be breaking in three new starters up front and two new linebackers. With five of the front six being new faces, the ability to stop the run against a veteran Tulane offense could be the deciding factor. Especially when you consider the Green Wave racked up 28 first downs and 231 yards on the ground a year ago.
But, Duke also presents a much different level of reistence than a season ago.
“I think we have more people in our defensive front than we've had,” said head coach David Cutcliffe. “I think we have more quickness.”
2. IS SIRK REALLY READY?
“Don’t confuse the role he’s played with the role he’s going to play as the starter” - David Cutcliffe on Thomas Sirk in 2015.
So far the Duke junior has developed the reputation as a change of pace signal caller who was far more likely to beat you with either his legs or a jump pass than anything else. But then again, that’s all Duke needed him to do with Anthony Boone slinging the ball around.
Now, a season later, Sirk will be asked to run the entire playbook. He’s been applauded by Cutcliffe throughout camp for his accuracy and command of the offense. But, he’s also unproven against live competition. Cutcliffe acknowledged as much, but at the same time, points to Sirk’s experience in the system.
“He's going into his fourth year in our system. He had a setback young with the Achilles tear, but he is really, I consider, an experienced player. He's played when the game is on the line and played a role for us a year ago, an important role. But he's ready to play. He's performed well not only this fall, but he had a tremendous spring. He's an accurate passer. He's got great vision. He's a big guy. I think our team is very confident in Thomas.”
3. ARE THE RECEIVERS READY?
Losing Jamison Crowder was a blow, but there is definitely more talent on the roster than when Crowder first arrived. But will there be consistency? Midway through the camp the Blue Devil coaches were openly challenging their young receiving group to make plays. At one point Cutcliffe seemingly took the gloves off - as much as he does publicly - by pointing out that talent must concentrate to perform.
Soon after a couple of position changes were made and some jobs were seemingly on the line. Ahead of the opener, however, it appears as though things have calmed down, but there will be new faces.
“Johnell Barnes, who has started for us, also, in the past has had a tremendous camp. I think we have a couple youngsters that haven't played, redshirt freshman Chris Taylor and freshman T.J. Rahming and Ryan Smith and then we're getting Anthony Nash back, who's a fourth-year junior from -- been out most of camp, but he's a big guy that can run.”
But it all starts with experience in the form of senior Max McCaffrey.
“[Max McCaffrey] had his best spring in camp, and he is a top-level receiver. What we have is an opportunity to have a really good receiving corps, and that's what we're looking for going into this game, led by Max and Johnell.”
4. SLOWING DOWN THE AERIAL ATTACK
Though the Green Wave rolled through the Duke defense a season ago, there were a number of mistakes made that ultimately determined the outcome. Perhaps the biggest perpetrator of those mistakes was starting quarterback Tanner Lee who threw three interceptions.
A year later and Lee is more seasoned and more confident. It’s the mantra that the player and his coaches are sticking to.
"I think the offense has improved by leaps and bounds," Tulane Coach Curtis Johnson said. "We talked about creating more tempo and I think we're doing that. We want to run the ball and I think we're going to get a lot better in the passing game."
It starts with Lee who passed for 1,962 yards, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions a season ago. He did so while completing 55.1 percent of his passes.
Duke will counter Lee with, arguably, the top secondary in the ACC. The Blue Devils return all three safeties and starting cornerback Breon Borders. In addition, Duke adds highly recruited sophomore Alonzo Saxton II as the other cornerback after former starter Bryon Fields was lost for the season.
A key for the Blue Devils will be to produce more takeaways than a season ago when Duke intercepted just eight more passes over the last 12 games.
5. JITTERS, NERVES, YOU NAME IT
Duke is the more talented football team. It’s also the less experienced squad, and that could play a role. The program is opening the season away from home for the first time in 10 years (the last time was against ECU in 2005).
“We haven't played since December 2014,” said Cutcliffe. “You've got new faces here and there. It's been a long time since you've really played a ballgame. I was glad we took the trip to Washington and let them see the game live. They don't even see football live really other than a scrimmage, which is not the same, so I just commonly have them in first games. I'm excited. There's excitement there, but there's always going to be concern.”
And there’s a lot of youth and a lot of players looking to make a name for themselves. It could lead to some broken plays, mistakes, and similar. Enough of those mixed in with a hostile environment could make things interesting, but…
Duke - 27
Tulane - 16