Schedule Preview: Duke

Boone (USAToday/Zanine)

North Carolina will make the eight-mile drive to Durham on four days rest when it visits Coastal Division rival Duke in a Thursday night primetime clash on Nov. 20.

Overview: The 2013 season marked the first ever time in the history of the BCS that Duke finished in the final BCS rankings (No. 24). Head coach David Cutcliffe, who has an SEC pedigree having served as a longtime assistant at Tennessee and head coach at Ole Miss., seems to have finally made this program relevant in the ACC. Cutcliffe arrived in 2007 and after a 3-9 season in 2012, the program had shown signs of promise without the needed results. The Blue Devils, however, have taken massive leaps forward in each of the last two years. Duke won six games in 2012, and then shocked the conference last season by winning the Coastal Division and earning a spot in the ACC Championship Game. There was no shame in losing to eventual national champion Florida State (45-7) as Cutcliffe – the 2013 ACC Coach of the Year - and his team proved that this program was no longer the league’s doormat. And if you think last season was an aberration, the writers that cover the league respectfully disagree. Duke was picked to finish second in the Coastal Division, and trailed media favorite Miami by just 17 total votes. What’s even more intriguing is that the Blue Devils actually amassed the most first-place votes of any Coastal team (33).

There are some personnel concerns with Cutcliffe’s offense this fall. Gone are two of the team’s top three running options, two starting offensive linemen (led by preseason All-ACC selection Laken Tomlinson), and the offensive coordinator that helped coach Cutcliffe bring it all together. However, the engine of this offense, the passing game, is still very much intact. Duke returns its starting quarterback and top three receivers, including preseason All-ACC Jamison Crowder, who had the ninth-most receiving yards in America last year (1,360). Despite his small stature (5’9, 160 lbs.) and average speed (he runs the 40 in the 4.5-range), all Crowder does is produce. The offense also returns tight end Braxton Deaver (46 receptions, 600 yards) and wideout Max McCaffrey (26 catches, 282 yards), which should help to keep Crowder from getting blanket coverage. The man responsible for distributing the football to these receivers is senior Anthony Boone (206-of-322 passing, 2,260 yards, 13 TD, 13 INT). Boone had a breakout performance against Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, where he went toe-to-toe with 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel in a wild shootout on New Year’s Eve. Cutcliffe is first and foremost a quarterback guru (having groomed the Manning brothers in the SEC), and with Boone’s potential, this passing game should be just fine.

Six players (including two quarterbacks) had over 50 carries last season, but this season the main running back duties will fall on junior Shaquille Powell (344 yards on 62 carries in ‘13) and senior Josh Snead (651 yards on 107 carries). Powell was a four-star recruit out of high school, but the reality is that neither of these backs has yet to shoulder the major load in their respective careers.

In last May’s draft, cornerback Ross Cockrell became the program’s highest drafted player in over a decade when he was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the fourth round. The Blue Devils still have a trio of safeties (Jeremy Cash, Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards) that all had over 50 tackles last year that should help mask Cockrell’s departure. In addition to a sturdy secondary, this unit boasts one of the ACC’s best linebackers in red-shirt senior Kelby Brown. The middle linebacker was a force as a junior, racking up 114 tackles, one sack and two interceptions. Neither the presence of Brown nor a strong back four are going to matter if the defensive line doesn’t show significant improvement from 2013. On average, this defense allowed 174.1 yards rushing per game, thanks to a defensive line that was constantly getting pushed around up front. Players such as Carlos Wray, Jamal Bruce and Kyler Brown will need to improve to alleviate the pressure on the back end.

Quotables
“The big challenge each year is for seniors to help young people handle adversity because you're going to get it in football, and I thought our 2013 team handled adversity maybe better than any team I've ever been around because of pure leadership. So that's a challenge to the 2014 seniors. Let's see what you've got.” - Cutcliffe

Historical Outlook: It had to be particularly satisfying for Cutcliff and Duke that their victory over UNC in Chapel Hill last season was the game that locked up the Coastal Division title. Yes, UNC owns a tremendous advantage in the overall record (58-38-4), but the Blue Devils have won the last two in a row and have done a great job in making this a real rivalry game once more.

Notable Matchups: There are two ways to examine Duke’s schedule. Relatively easy non-conference games against Elon, Troy, Tulane and Kansas should give Duke a comfortable starting point (3-1 at worst) and make them a lock to appear in yet another bowl game. Repeating as Coastal Division champions is going to be a lot tougher. The Blue Devils play on the road at Miami, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, having lost to Pitt and Georgia Tech at home last season. Duke does avoid Florida State and Clemson out of the Atlantic.

 

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