Duke has not been to a bowl game since 1994. However, a win over North Carolina on Saturday would be the sixth of the season for the Blue Devils (5-2, 2-1 ACC), making them bowl eligible just eight games into the season. Duke is no longer the laughingstock of the ACC, which is what supporters hoped for when David Cutcliffe was hired as head coach in 2008.
Considering the state of Duke football when Cutcliffe took the reins, the turnaround has been impressive. In the four seasons prior to Cutcliffe's arrival, the Blue Devils won a combined four games and lost an astounding 25 consecutive ACC games. Cutcliffe's initial Duke team won three of its first four conference games and came within one victory of a bowl appearance.
The 2012 Blue Devils are Cutcliffe's best squad thanks to 17 returning starters, including senior quarterback Sean Renfree (141-of-201, 1517 yards, 10 TD 6 INT), senior wide receiver Conner Vernon (45 rec, 625 yards, 5 TD) and senior defensive end Kenny Anunike (23 tackles, 6 tackles-for-loss, 5 sacks).
Duke got off to a fast start this season, winning five of its first six games. The only loss came on the road to No. 25 Stanford. The Blue Devils defeated Wake Forest for the first time since 1999 on Sept. 29 and followed it up with a dominating performance against Virginia. The back-to-back conference wins gave Duke five wins heading into a game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. last weekend. Duke ran out to a 20-0 lead, but surrendered 41 consecutive points and fell to the Hokies, 41-20.
There are five more opportunities for the Blue Devils to notch that elusive sixth win. However, it is possible that Duke will not be favored in any of its remaining games. Following this Saturday's game against the Tar Heels, Duke travels to No. 14 Florida State, hosts No. 19 Clemson, visits Georgia Tech and wraps up the season at home against Miami.
There are certainly no guarantees remaining for the Blue Devils, but a win is no longer certain for Duke opponents either. This is in large part thanks to the Blue Devils offense, which ranks 34th out of 120 FBS teams in scoring (35.29 ppg). Rushing is not a priority in the Duke offense and it shows as the Blue Devils rank 104th in rushing offense (111.14 ypg). However, the Duke passing attack is as potent as ever thanks in large part to the connection between Renfree and Vernon.
The defense is still the weaker of the two units, but has improved from a year ago when it ranked 92nd in total defense (425.42 ypg) and 90th in scoring defense (31.17 ppg). So far in 2012, the Blue Devils rank 64th in total defense (394 ypg) and 70th in scoring defense (27.43 ppg). While Duke has surrendered plenty of yards and points in 2012, the defense is capable of getting to the quarterback and ranks 3rd in the ACC in sacks (2.57 ppg).
"We're playing the biggest offensive line, probably the best offensive line, without a doubt, in the ACC and maybe the country, so our defensive folks are going to have to play extremely well. Giovani Bernard is a great football player that alone can beat you, but they can throw the football so you've got to be fundamentally sound. On the other side of the ball they still have big, great looking defensive linemen, a great linebacker, quality speed and size in the secondary, so they force you to be very good fundamentally." – Cutcliffe
"I think, first of all, David Cutcliffe has done a tremendous job there. You look at who Duke is now compared to before David got there and Duke is a very fundamentally sound, good, solid football team and he's got them truly believing they're as good as they are and that's a big deal. He's got them believing and as long as they're believing they got a chance in each and every game they play… He's got a group of seniors that have been with him the whole time, that have grown up in his system and understand what they're trying to do as a football team and so everybody there are his guys and they understand. They believe that they can be successful and you see that in the way they play." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora
Matchups to Watch
Duke's Conner Vernon vs. UNC's Secondary
Torry Holt. Peter Warrick. Calvin Johnson. Hakeem Nicks. There have been plenty of star receivers to come out of the ACC over the years, but none had more receptions than Duke's Vernon. With 243 career catches, Vernon is currently 11 ahead of second-place Aaron Kelly, who played at Clemson from 2005-2008. With five regular season games and a potential bowl game remaining, Vernon is poised to bolster his lead.
The Miami, Fla. product is also just 217 yards behind Florida State's Warrick for the all-time ACC receiving yards record. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Vernon does not overwhelm defenses with his athleticism or speed. However, he runs precise routes and possesses tremendous hands, both of which make Vernon difficult to shut down.
"He's a good football player," Fedora told reporters on Monday. "First of all, he's played a lot of snaps and understands what David is trying to do on offense and he's very comfortable. He knows how to get open, he knows how to use his body, he's got good hands, he's a very intelligent player, he's got great football savvy, so it's a problem for you. It really is and so you start altering your game plan a little bit around him and making adjustments to make sure you've got him taken care of in the game plan."
The Tar Heels hope to hold Vernon in check this weekend and delay another record-setting celebration. The North Carolina secondary has been up and down so far this season. The Tar Heels lead the ACC in interceptions (10), but rank 6th in pass defense (227.29 ypg). Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro (13 rec, 164 yards) and Virginia Tech's Corey Fuller (5 rec, 143 yards, 1 TD) both torched the North Carolina secondary. However, Miami's Phillip Dorsett (3 rec, 33 yards) and East Carolina's Justin Hardy (4 rec, 25 yards) were both shut down.
Vernon is not as physically gifted as some of those receivers, but he does have one of the more experienced quarterbacks in the ACC throwing him the ball. Renfree is a three-year starter under quarterback-guru Cutcliffe and is completing over 70 percent of his passes this season.
Back-up quarterback Anthony Boone (46-of-76, 494 yards, 5 TD, 2 INT) was forced into action against Wake Forest and Virginia due to an injury to Renfree. The sophomore led the Blue Devils to victories in both games and split-time with Renfree against Virginia Tech last week. Boone played against North Carolina last year following an injury to Renfree. Overall, the Duke passing offense ranks 25th in the country and 4th in the ACC (291.29 ypg).
Duke's Ross Cockrell vs. UNC's pass offense
Bryn Renner threw for 194 yards against Virginia Tech and 214 yards against Miami, representing the junior quarterbacks lowest yardage outputs of the season. However, when the running game gains over 305 yards per game, which it did against the Hokies and Hurricanes, there is no need to emphasize the passing game.
The Tar Heels hope the running game and Gio Bernard in particular continue to thrive against Duke. However, Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson prefer to stay as balanced as possible on offense. That means North Carolina will not shy away from passing the ball and when Renner does drop back to throw he will need to be aware of Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell.
Cockrell ranks seventh in the country and leads the ACC in pass breakups with nine. The junior also has four interceptions, which is tops in the ACC and tied for third most in the country. Cockrell scored on an interception against N.C. Central and also ran a blocked field goal back 75-yards for a touchdown against Florida International.
Fedora and Anderson emphasize game management to Renner and the quarterback has clearly progressed from the gunslinger mentality early in his career. However, Renner is still prone to a questionable throw here and there. The interception inside Miami's 20-yard line was a perfect example. Renner occasionally gets away with poor throws, but against Duke, Cockrell is likely going to jump on any mistake by Renner to his side. Cockrell did manage to intercept a Renner pass in the regular season finale last year.
Cockrell will likely be matched up with various Tar Heel receivers throughout the night. However, senior Erik Highsmith (35 rec, 329 yards, 2 TD) will likely be the primary matchup. Look for North Carolina to consistently target leading receiver, tight end Eric Ebron (26 rec, 399 yards, 3 TD), as he is a mismatch for any Duke defender and can keep the ball-hawk Cockrell away from the play.
On the season, the Duke passing defense is second in the ACC, behind North Carolina, in interceptions with eight and rank 44th nationally in pass efficiency defense (120.96). This is a vast improvement over last season when the Blue Devils ranked 108th in pass efficiency defense (149.30) and intercepted just six passes all season.