Many believed 2011 would be the year the Devils finally reached a bowl game. Duke returned starting quarterback Sean Renfree, as well as veteran wide receivers Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner, to a passing offense that ranked second in the ACC in 2010 (271.33 ypg). Despite poor play by the defense in 2010, fans anticipated Duke to get over the hump on the shoulders of Renfree and the offense.
The Blue Devils (3-9, 1-7 ACC) got off to an exceptional start by their standards last fall. Despite a loss to FCS opponent Richmond, Duke began the season with three wins in their first five games. Unfortunately, they dropped their final seven games, all against ACC foes, including a 37-21 defeat to North Carolina on Nov. 26.
Renfree (282-for-434, 2891 yards, 13 TD, 11 INT) performed solidly in Cutcliffe's aerial centric offense. Vernon (70 rec, 956 yards, 6 TD) and Varner (61 rec, 713 yards, 3 TD) formed one of the top receiving duos in the ACC.
Given Cutcliffe's history with the Manning brothers, it comes as no surprise that Duke's passing game has thrived since his arrival. The same cannot be said about the defense. In each of his first three seasons at Duke, the defense failed to rank in the top half of the 120 FBS teams.
Not only did Duke struggle to stop opponents (425.42 ypg) in 2011, but they were also unable to force opponents into mistakes. The Blue Devils forced only 12 turnovers and committed 21 of their own, good for the nations 12th poorest turnover margin (-0.75).
The ground game has also struggled immensely under Cutcliffe. Despite the presence of former four-star recruit Desmond Scott , the Blue Devils ranked 115th in rushing last season (94.08 ypg). Scott (70 car, 367 yards, 1 TD), fellow running back Juwan Thompson (110 car, 457 yards, 7 TD) and company averaged a meager 3.1 yards per attempt.
Like last season, the Blue Devils enter 2012 with a positive outlook and high expectations. Renfree returns along with Vernon, a preseason All-ACC receiver. The senior needs only 35 catches to become the ACC's all-time reception leader. The passing game is once again expected be one of the best in not only the league, but also the country.
While the running game is never going to put up huge numbers in Cutcliffe's passing spread offense, Duke's running backs need to be more efficient. Thompson and Scott return, but do not be surprised if freshmen Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell contribute as well.
If Duke is to challenge for a bowl game this fall, the defense must improve dramatically. The Blue Devils have to replace second team All-American safety Matt Daniels (126 tackles, 2 INT), but return nine starters. This fall marks the second season of Duke's relatively new 4-2-5 defensive scheme. With a year of experience in the system and a plethora of returning starters, the defense should tighten up.
Quotable: "He's a tough youngster and he's fighting hard and he has a huge fight in front of him… There's a lot of support of each other. None of us individually could have made it through this. It has been that hard. Every tragic situation you find that human nature is better than you think it is." – Cutcliffe on wide receiver Blair Holliday, who was critically injured in a July 4th jet-ski accident
Matchup to Watch: Without games against Maryland or Boston College in 2012, there is not a conference game Duke can point to and expect a win. Therefore, the Blue Devils must steal a conference game or two if they hope to reach a bowl game. The game that immediately sticks out is a Sept. 29 trip to Winston-Salem against Wake Forest. Duke begins the season with four consecutive non-conference games, three of which the Blue Devils are likely to be favored in. If Duke can follow a 3-1 start with a road win against Wake Forest, they will need only two wins in their final seven matchups to become bowl eligible. Of course, that is easier said than done. Duke has not defeated Wake Forest since 1999.
Drought Details: Duke currently holds the ominous distinction as the BCS program with the longest active bowl drought. The Blue Devils have not appeared in bowl game since their 34-20 loss to Wisconsin in the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl. Surprisingly, the current 17-year bowl-less streak is only the second longest in program history. Duke did not make a bowl game for 29 seasons between 1960 and 1989. A 7-6 victory in the 1960 Cotton Bowl against Arkansas is the most recent bowl win for Duke.
Sept. 1 Florida International
Sept. 8 @ Stanford
Sept. 15 North Carolina Central
Sept. 22 Memphis
Sept. 29 @ Wake Forest
Oct. 6 Virginia
Oct. 13 @ Virginia Tech
Oct. 20 North Carolina
Oct. 27 @ Florida State
Nov. 3 Clemson
Nov. 10 OPEN DATE
Nov. 17 @ Georgia Tech
Nov. 24 Miami