Earning a fifth straight trip to the post season won’t be without challenges for the 2016 Duke Blue Devils. Fresh off their win in the Pinstripe Bowl in December, head coach David Cutcliffe and company got a look at the upcoming season’s schedule on Tuesday.
The biggest changes from a season ago is the swap of Boston College for Louisville in the cross division portion of the schedule. Duke also gets their shot at the ACC’s somewhat adopted son, Notre Dame. It’ll be the first time competing against the Cardinals as a member of the ACC and the same is true of Notre Dame and their pseudo relationship with the league in football.
Out of conference games include a trip to Chicago to play Northwestern, a game against Army, and the annual Bull City Classic game against North Carolina Central.
Here’s our quick prediction of sorts…
Sept 3 v. NC Central
The Blue Devils are no longer in a position where a FCS team should pose a question as to the outcome of the game. Duke wins this one easily. WIN (1-0)
Sept 10 v. Wake Forest
The Deacons served as a streak buster for Duke at the end of 2015 as the Blue Devils jumped out to a lead and then held off a late rally. While Duke won that game, it was clear that the Deacons have gotten on the right track, but weren’t quite “there” yet. We’d look for Duke to once again keep the Deacs at arms length to start 2-0. WIN (2-0, 1-0)
Sept 17 at Northwestern
In 2015 Duke could not move the ball against the Wildcats. And, likewise, Northwestern had trouble moving the ball against Duke until finally breaking loose late in the game for a 19-10 victory. Some of Duke’s trouble came from inconsistent quarterback play that was either a byproduct or the catalyst for very conservative play calling (not to mention the Wildcat defense was very, very good in 2015). A year later and this could be the springboard for the season. Beating Northwestern won’t be easy, and Duke has some things to replace leadership wise on offense, but if QB Thomas Sirk (or one of the backups) can improve on facilitating the big play in the passing game, we’d like Duke to spring an upset. WIN (3-0, 1-0)
Sept 24 at Notre Dame
The Irish are deep and talented. And they gave the world Rudy. The first two factors will be enough to snap Duke’s three game win streak to begin the season. The latter provided TNT decent movie content on slow programming weeks. LOSS (3-1, 1-0)
Oct 1 v. Virginia
Mike London is gone. How will the new-look Cavaliers progress and/or differ from the group that Duke has found success against in recent years (2015 excluded)? If Duke is going bowling in 2016, you have to look at this game as one of the potential “must wins”. Especially with the back side of the schedule. WIN (4-1, 2-0)
Oct 8 - Army
Oddly enough, Duke contains the option offense about as well as anyone. And Duke is more talented than Army. But the Blue Devils lost Jeremy Cash among others on the defense. Overall the defense should be better (deeper too) overall, and this will be a chance to prep for Georgia Tech. WIN (5-1, 2-0)
Oct 14 - at Louisville
The Cardinals have a strong offense capable of lighting up a scoreboard. But Louisville also has to play Florida State and Clemson in the first month of the season. In this game the Cardinals will be coming off a bye and will likely be too much and too rested. LOSS (5-2, 2-1)
Oct 22 - OPEN
Duke is no longer a program that worries about BYE. This will be all about the team getting healthy and preparing for…
Oct 29 - at Georgia Tech
Duke has beaten Georgia Tech for two straight seasons. Much of that is because Duke has seemingly figured out how to deal with option offense. Two weeks prior the team will have gotten a look at the option against Army. We’d look for the Blue Devils to once again have a plan for the option and to get a third straight win to attain bowl eligibility. WIN (6-2, 3-1)
Nov 5 - Virginia Tech
Duke stunned the Hokies in Blacksburg last year in overtime. By avoiding Florida State and Clemson, the Hokies will have a shot to push toward the top of the Coastal in Justin Fuente’s first season at the wheel. We’d look for a close game, but would expect the Hokies to be favored. LOSS (6-3, 3-2)
Nov 10 - UNC
A short week turnaround against North Carolina’s explosive offense and the painful memories of the last two seasons don’t inspire a lot of confidence that Duke can reverse a two year drought of ringing the Victory Bell. LOSS (6-4, 3-3)
Nov 19 - at Pitt
A season ago the Blue Devils seemed poised to battle Pittsburgh in Durham. But after the Miami game thef…err…unfortunate replay mistake by the league, the team seemed totally lost. The game against the Panthers came after the game against the Hurricanes and then the debacle against North Carolina. Pittsburgh just capitalized on a listless group of Blue Devils and won comfortably. And their running game could/should be a lot better with the return of James Conner. LOSS (6-5, 3-4)
Nov 26 - at Miami
Duke had Miami beat last year in Durham. After starting the season 5-1, we’ve got Duke losing four out of five to limp into the final game of the year. We believe that Miami will improve with a new coaching staff, but at some point the football gods have to find a sense of balance between right and wrong. For that reason alone, we’re picking Duke to end the season on an uptick. And for ESPN to reply the “controversial” ending from last year’s game over and over leading into this final week of the season. WIN (7-6, 4-4)
All told we’d expect the various national outlets, experts, and similar to pick Duke to finish with a +/- of five wins entering the season. The front half the schedule sets up for a decent start, but the final month of the year is brutal by any stretch of the imagination. And for Duke to exceed the (likely) national projections the following questions should be answered:
1. Replacing the leaders…not just the seniors, but the guys who seemed to step up and make plays whenever the opportunity arose. Guys like Shaquille Powell in the backfield, WR Max McCaffrey, and Jeremy Cash were always having their names called, but don’t forget about the continuity brought to the offensive line by Matt Skura and Lucas Patrick.
2. Can the passing game take more shots down field? Much of this will be on QB Thomas Sirk and new offensive coordinator Zac Roper, but both will need to find a reliable pass catcher to replace McCaffrey. Incoming freshman Scott Bracey will probably be in line to play early, but Duke will need a lot more from some of the other options including Chris Taylor and Trevon Lee - each of whom will be entering their third year in the program. It’ll also be interesting to see the debut of former four star tight end Daniel Helm.
3. Defensively, the front four should be better and with more depth. But can Duke generate anything close to a pass rush either from the end or with the interior getting more of a push?