Duke Football: Back on the Map

Duke Football.  These two words harness a much different respect now than what they did just several years ago.   Duke was not only the laughing stock of the Atlantic Coast Conference, but also one of the worst teams in NCAA Division 1 football.  They were terrible, losing most games before they even stepped out of the locker room.  There was no confidence.  They were outmatched in every aspect of the game: coaching, talent, size, fan-base, defense, offense, special teams.  You name it. 

Let’s keep in mind that from 2000-07, Duke won a measly 10 games.  Yes, that is 10 total victories over a stretch of 8 seasons.  Let us not forget that 3 of these seasons were winless and only 3 conference games were won over this stretch.  The program was at its lowest point in history and simply needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.  What coach would be capable of such a feat?  Better yet, what coach would be crazy enough to jump into the great mess of Duke football? 

David Cutcliffe, an Alabama native and graduate of the University of Alabama, was ready to take the challenge.  He previously had success as the former head coach of Ole Miss and Offensive Coordinator at Tennessee.  He didn’t have big shoes to fill, taking the place of Ted Roof who amassed a 6-45 record as head coach at Duke. 

The first few seasons were not sudden jumps, though I’m sure that's not what anyone expected.  Cutcliffe did manage to finish his first season (2008) with a 4-8 record, equaling the win total Ted Roof had seen over his final four seasons as Duke head coach.  The break-through came in 2012 when Duke finished a regular season bowl eligible (6-6), making it to their first bowl game since 1994.  The momentum carried into the 2013 season when the Blue Devils not only ended the regular season 10-2, but won the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division and earned an ACC championship game appearance.

What’s so different about the program under Cutcliffe?  Well the biggest reason is this team believes.  These players come out of the locker room with a new found expectation to win.  It doesn’t matter who they’re playing.  This was shown last season as Duke pulled off two top 25 upsets (#24 Miami, #16 Virginia Tech).   Cutcliffe has also done a great job recruiting guys that fit the system.  These players aren’t top national recruits or the most talented players in the country, but he pieces together the overall puzzle in a way that allows Duke to be competitive against some of the more prominent programs in college football.  This was especially shown in the back-to-back bowl game heartbreakers where Duke game out and roughed up two good teams early on, before faltering late (2013 Belk Bowl loss to Cincinatti 48-34, 2014 Chick-Fil-A Bowl Loss to Texas A&M 52-48).   With most college football experts not giving Duke much love pre-season, it’ll be interesting to see how the 2014 Duke season turns out.  This team is ready to shock the world again.

1st up: Elon

Duke football opens the season at home Saturday at 6pm against Elon out of the Colonial Athletic Association.  Duke is highly favored in this game.  This is for good reason as Elon finished 2-10 last year and only went 1-7 in the CAA. They have played ACC opponents each of the past 2 seasons, losing by a combined total of 132-0 (GT 70-0 in 2013; UNC 62-0 in 2012). Regardless of the final score, there is one thing I’ll be keeping tabs on for the first few games of the season.  That is Duke’s defense.

All-ACC LB Kelby Brown is out for the season with a torn ACL that he suffered in Duke’s first preseason game over the summer.  This is a huge loss for the Devils as Brown was ranked 3rd in the conference in tackles last season.  David Helton will be taking over his position at LB.  With the injury to Brown, and the graduation of S Ross Cockrell, the leadership role amongst the defense will need to be filled.  

Overall, I expect Duke’s offense to put on a show.  Look for WR Jamison Crowder to pick up right where he left off last season (96 Receptions, 1197 Yards, 7 TDs).  The running game will once again be a group attack, headed by Senior RB Josh Snead who led the Blue-Devils in yards per carry last season (6.1).  He will be backed by the talented Junior RB Shaquille Powell.  Snead tends to be the faster, shiftier runner of the two while Powell is more of a strong, up the middle back.  The third spot in that rotation will likely be split between redshirt freshman Joe Ajeigbe and freshman Shaun Wilson.  This running game will once again be big in opening up the passing game.  I don’t see Duke having any problems with Elon.

Prediction:  Duke 52 Elon 10