Likely Wins: These are the games that Duke is likely to win. Victory is not guaranteed, but the Devils have the upper hand going into the contest.
August 30th vs. James Madison
Cutcliffe might not outwardly agree with this opinion, but it is absolutely critical that the Devils start off on the right foot this fall. The stands will be nearly full, and the students always turn out for the home opener. They will come back for the second home game, if given a reason to do so. Winning will supply that reason. The task will be difficult as JMU is one of the best 1-AA teams around. Last season, they were within an eyelash of defeating three-time defending 1-AA champion Appalachian St. The Dukes will return most of their starters on both sides of the ball. Their veteran offensive line and quality skill players will test the experienced Blue Devil defense. The JMU defense is also nothing to laugh at either. Duke desperately needs a win here to build some positive momentum. In recent years, high hopes have been dashed quickly with flat, uninspired performances in season openers. Cutcliffe will not let that happen, but it is up to the players to perform with confidence that they have been adequately prepared and trained to win. If Duke plays with confidence and executes the game plan well, they will win this game. If JMU stay even or leads into the second half, things could get very dicey for the Blue Devils.
Winnable games: These are the games where Duke has a decent shot of coming out on top. It is unlikely that the Devils will win them all, but a 50% win rate in these contests is perfectly reasonable.
September 6th vs. Northwestern
Some Blue Devil fans are already chalking this game up as a win. Duke certainly proved they can beat Northwestern with their win in Evanston last year. The Devils will be a much better football team in 2008 so it seems logical that Duke should roll in this one. The Wildcats have other ideas. Remember, they played last year's contest without All-Big10 candidate RB Tyrell Sutton. The Wildcats also controlled the game flow last year, racking up over 500 yards of offense, but scoring only 14 points because of timely defense by Duke and also some self-inflicted wounds. Fate was on the Devils' side in 2007. Do not expect fortune to be as kind this season. The Wildcats are expected to challenge for a bowl birth in 2008. The Devils have won two football games in three years. There are no sure wins on Duke's schedule, even against the team they beat a season ago.
September 13th vs. Navy
There is an old saying that goes something like, "You make your own breaks". The Devils have been beset with some very bad luck over the past decade and most of it has been of their own doing. Last season against Navy was one instance where bad luck directly influenced their chances at victory. Three highly questionable penalties on what could have been the game-winning drive blew fortune Navy's way. Despite the misfortune, Duke still had a chance to force overtime, but the Middies made the plays when they had to and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. While the captain of the Middies ship might be different (Paul Johnson is now at Georgia Tech), the vessel will still look the same. Navy will continue to run Johnson's option-based attack that has worn the Devils out this entire decade. This is one game where Duke's increased emphasis on speed and conditioning over bulk will pay great dividends. The Middies should find Duke's defense more difficult to attack, and without Paul Johnson's feel for situational play-calling, the Devils should finally break through and beat Navy for the first time in quite awhile.
September 27th vs. Virginia
Most of the teams on Duke's schedule will be better in 2008 than they were a year ago. Virginia is one of the few that will not fit this description. They lost some great seniors, including All-American DE Chris Long. They also suffered some unexpected attrition of some key underclassmen, including their best returning defensive player, DE Jeffrey Fitzgerald, and two-year starting QB Jameel Sewell. The Cavaliers' defense should still be decent, possessing one of the best linebacking corps in the league, if not the country. Still, they will have some growing pains along the defensive line and will struggle to score points. Duke will be coming off a bye week and relative soft opening schedule. If Duke is 2-1 or 3-0 coming into that game, the Devils stand a very good chance of riding a wave of momentum to victory.
October 25th vs. Vanderbilt
This one is a tough call for two reasons. One, Vanderbilt should be competitive in the nation's best conference (SEC), and, two, the Commodores handled Duke in Durham the last time these two teams met in 2006. The reason this is a winnable game is because of talent. According to every major recruiting service, Duke has equaled or out-recruited Vanderbilt each year over the past 4-5 years. It is true that talent alone does not win football games. Talent development and schemes play a big role in team success. Now that the Blue Devils have a top-notch coaching staff in place, they will not be out-schemed by the Commodores like they have been in the past. All other things being equal, take the team with more talent. In this case, I think that team is Duke. The question is, are all other things equal?
November 1st at Wake Forest
The Deacs are expected to contend for the ACC championship so at first glance no one would think that they would have any problem dispatching the perennial ACC cellar-dweller. Despite Wake's recent success in the ACC, they have had quite a tough time beating Duke, the conference doormat. In 2006 which was Wake's ACC championship season, the Devils blew the game by getting the game-winning chip-shot field goal blocked. Last season, the Devils hung tough, but made some critical mistakes down the stretch that Wake capitalized on to provide the winning margin (which is what confident, well-coached teams do). Just like with Vanderbilt, the talent gap between the two teams is non-existent. The difference over the past few years has been preparation and execution, especially on special teams. The Devils must get over the mental hurdle of Wake recent dominance in this series (The Deacs have taken the last 8 contests). If Duke goes into the game truly believing they can win, they might just do it.
November 8th vs. North Carolina State
Unbelievably, this will be the first gridiron meeting between these in-state rivals since Ted Roof's first game as interim head coach in 2003. Since there is not a single player or coach at either school who has participated in this rivalry yet, looking back on it for clues to this year's contest will not be helpful. The fact of the matter is these were two of the conferences' worst teams in 2007. State has an unbelievable 5-way competition for the starting QB job. An adaptation of an old adage seems to apply here: If you have five quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. The fact that there is such an open competition reflects that no one player has stepped up and seized the job. State's uncertainty at QB, combined with their offensive line struggles and lack of game-breakers at receiver, spells another uneasy season over in Raleigh. Tom O'Brien will get things straightened out eventually. But this season, the two teams should be fairly evenly matched.
November 29th vs. North Carolina
I usually do not like to put a damper on opposing fan bases preseason optimism, but some of the media hype surrounding UNC this summer has been borderline ludicrous. There is one prognosticator for The Sporting News that even suggested that UNC was a BCS dark-horse. Do these folks even watch football? Last year, UNC was a bad football team, completely dominated by a very bad Duke team whose kicking prevented them from taking out the Heels in Chapel Hill. Granted, UNC should be a much better football team this fall. They have loads of talents in their younger classes and those players will make significant jump from last year to this year. They also have some good wide receivers and a few promising running backs. All that said Duke will be significantly better as well. The Devils will be faster, better conditioned, and better coached. Whichever team makes the bigger step forward this fall will have the decided upper hand in this contest.
Anything is possible: These are the games where Duke will be a decided underdog, but an upset is not out of the realm of possibility.
October 4th at Georgia Tech
The hiring of Paul Johnson changes Tech from a team with spotty performance to a team that will bring their "A-game" every week. Some doubt that his option-based offense will work at the big-time college level. This is the same argument made at every stop Johnson has made so far in is coaching career, but the offense continues to work. Now, rather than playing with under-sized kids at Navy, he gets to work with high caliber D-1 athletes. The biggest benefit Johnson will see from this move is on the defensive side of the ball. The Tech defense should be quite stout this year. A team with a superb running game and a good defense will expose Duke's lack of depth on defense. Unless Duke jumps out to a big lead early, I do not like their chances.
October 18th at Miami
The big question mark for the Hurricanes is at head coach. Randy Shannon was a good to great defensive coordinator for the Canes before getting the head job. Then again, Ted Roof was a good defensive coordinator and he flopped miserably as Duke's head coach. Miami will le loaded with elite athletes and depth. But will they make the hallmark mistakes that poorly-coached, undisciplined team make? The Hurricane QB situation also bears watching. Will they struggle to find consistency under center? If both of the previous questions are answered yes, then the Devils have a chance. If the answer "no" pops up, the Canes talent and depth will prevail.
November 22nd at Virginia Tech
Judging by the recent past, this game should fall under the "un-winnable category". This is an unusual season for the Hokies, however, as they must replace heavy personnel losses on both sides of the ball. On offense, they will be sorely lacking in play-makers at the skill positions. Gone is last years' starting tailback (Brandon Ore) as well as the team's top four receivers. Sure, Tech has recruited talented replacements, but these players are unproven commodities. The killer for Duke in the recent past has been Tech's dominance at the line of scrimmage. This is where coaching comes in. Duke's new staff has both lines in much better shape to handle the physicality teams like Virginia Tech brings. Of course, one would be remiss not to mention the Hokies' vaunted special teams execution. To say Duke's special teams were poor last year would be a gross understatement. Duke must not allow Tech to dominate this phase of the game. If the Devils can play to a stalemate in the kicking game, they will actually be competitive in this contest for the first time since Tech joined the ACC. Duke must also put the recent past behind them and realize they actually do belong on the same field as the Hokies. If the Devils can play with confidence on the road, this one could be interesting.
Hide the Women and Children: These are the games that Duke would need to play perfectly to win, and even that might not be enough.
November 15th at Clemson:
The Tigers are loaded this year, and are the clear ACC title favorites. Under Tommy Bowden, they have been known to blow a game here and there. They were on the losing side of Duke's last conference victory in 2004, so anything is possible. This year, however, the Tigers should be very difficult to stop. They have one of the conference's most effective QBs in Cullen Harper, the best returning wide receiver in Aaron Kelly, and possibly the two best running backs in James Davis and C.J. Spiller. While this game will probably not be a complete blowout like Duke fans are used to from the Franks and Roof era, Clemson's offensive firepower and defensive skill will be way too much for the Blue Devils to overcome. Duke will have the heart and moxie to fight the good fight, but it would take a very unlikely set of circumstances for Duke to stay within two touchdowns. Down the road, the Devils will compete against teams like Clemson. This year, they just will not have enough.