Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. The good news: Last season wasn't it
It's easy to assume that was the peak. With a senior-laden offense in head coach David Cutcliffe's fifth season, Duke scored a couple of close wins and eked out bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994. It was a neat story -- and they damn sure made the Belk Bowl worth watching -- but the Blue Devils' late-season slide (they were 6-2 and finished 6-7) likely signaled that they would soon be going back into hiding for another 20 years.
For all we know, that's exactly what will happen. Cutcliffe has done a wonderful job in Durham just to get to this point. In six years, his Blue Devils have won at least four games three times; they had pulled that off just twice in the 13 years before his arrival. The Duke job is really, really difficult, and Cutcliffe's done his best. If his legacy is a single Belk Bowl bid, that's still better than the legacies of the last two guys and most of the coaches who have taken the job in college football's modern era.
If there's an encouraging note here, though, it comes in the F/+ progression chart below. Duke wasn't actually any better in 2012 than in 2008, 2009, 2010, or 2011. They didn't really do anything special other than go 2-1 in games decided by one possession. (They were 6-13 in such games from 2008-11.) In terms of on-paper production, they have been one of the more consistent programs in college football lately. With some luck and decent experience levels, they could potentially be expected to make the creep to six wins again at some point.
2. The bad news: Last season wasn't it
Yes, Duke indeed figured out a six-win recipe last year, one that could be replicated at some point. And no, they really weren't very good in 2012, ranking 81st in the F/+ rankings after ranking 78th, 68th, 78th, and 75th, respectively, in the four preceding seasons.
For better or worse, that's Duke's ceiling moving forward, as well. Cutcliffe has recruited at a pretty low level for a BCS-conference squad -- again, Duke's a really hard job -- and while he has concocted a pretty interesting system on offense (one that has ranked 53rd and 50th, respectively, in Off. F/+ over the last two years), he has yet to figure anything out defensively. Duke has gotten worse on defense in each of the last four years, and while experience should be enough to end that streak in 2013, it won't turn the tide all that much.
Cutcliffe has done a solid job. He really has. If things break well, the Blue Devils could hold steady on offense, improve slightly on defense, pull off close wins against a Georgia Tech or Pittsburgh, and threaten to reach .500 again this year. But six wins is probably the most they can expect this year … and most years heading into the future.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 3-10 | Final F/+ Rk: 81|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Florida International||46-26||W||35.7 - 31.8||W|
|8-Sep||at Stanford||13-50||L||27.2 - 35.9||L|
|15-Sep||N.C. Central||54-17||W||22.6 - 48.2||L|
|22-Sep||Memphis||38-14||W||32.4 - 11.2||W|
|29-Sep||at Wake Forest||34-27||W||27.5 - 36.4||L|
|6-Oct||Virginia||42-17||W||28.4 - 30.1||L|
|13-Oct||at Virginia Tech||20-41||L||28.8 - 46.8||L|
|20-Oct||North Carolina||33-30||W||35.9 - 24.1||W|
|27-Oct||at Florida State||7-48||L||25.5 - 35.2||L|
|3-Nov||Clemson||20-56||L||21.3 - 45.1||L|
|17-Nov||at Georgia Tech||24-42||L||24.3 - 26.9||L|
|24-Nov||Miami||45-52||L||24.5 - 46.8||L|
|27-Dec||vs. Cincinnati||34-48||L||42.2 - 43.1||L|
|Points Per Game||31.5||44||36.0||109|
|Adj. Points Per Game||28.9||58||35.5||115|
3. Breaking down
Duke's record was probably going to slide late in the season, no matter what. The Blue Devils' schedule was back-loaded, with Florida State, Clemson, and Miami all coming up in the final four games. They likely knew how important the Wake Forest and North Carolina games were to the six-win cause, and power to them for pulling those games out.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Opponent 31.8, Duke 29.5 (minus-2.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Opponent 34.4, Duke 30.2 (minus-4.2)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Opponent 38.5, Duke 23.9 (minus-14.6)
That said, even with the scheduling upgrade, Duke still faded pretty significantly down the stretch. After playing somewhere near (but not quite at) average over the first two months, this team was pretty poor on both sides of the ball late in the year. Injuries on defense and minimal options on offense took their toll, and the result was a pretty impressive collapse: a name-your-score loss to Florida State (as in, FSU could have scored however much it wanted to), an even greater defensive stumble against Clemson, a no-offense loss to Georgia Tech, and a fun shootout loss to Miami. Including a 21-point loss to Virginia Tech, Duke played its worst against its best opponents.
|Q1 Rk||32||1st Down Rk||64|
|Q2 Rk||64||2nd Down Rk||28|
|Q3 Rk||50||3rd Down Rk||47|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Anthony Boone||6'0, 230||Jr.||*** (5.6)||49||95||531||51.6%||5||2||1||1.0%||5.5|
|Brandon Connette||6'2, 225||Jr.||*** (5.5)||4||12||36||33.3%||2||0||5||29.4%||1.6|
|Thomas Sirk||6'4, 215||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Parker Boehme||6'2, 215||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
4. Take what you're given
Sean Renfree was almost exactly what David Cutcliffe looks for in a quarterback. He's built well (6'3, 220), he's smart and decisive, he avoided bad throws for the most part. And most importantly for the Duke offense, he quickly figured out what the defense was giving him and took it. (Duke's run-pass percentages are a little skewed, considering a good portion of Duke's passes were of the extended-handoff variety.)
For what Renfree had at his disposal -- a revolving door of below-average backs, possession receivers, and no big-play threats whatsoever outside of Jamison Crowder -- the fact that he engineered a top-60 performance out of this unit for two straight years is quite impressive. His legacy is not insurmountable, but in looking at the candidates at hand, it's not difficult to see a drop off in production from the quarterback position in 2013.
Anthony Boone is experienced but impatient. Brandon Connette has been used mostly as a run-first threat (who can't actually run incredibly well). Redshirt freshman, and last year's star recruit, Thomas Sirk is likely missing the season with an Achilles injury. and Parker Boehme is a true freshman. There is no slam-dunk here, to say the least. But whoever wins the job will at least suffice if he can master the art of taking what is given to him.
Lord knows Duke won't suddenly have amazing weapons it didn't have last year. The Blue Devils will have to lean on efficiency once again.
All four of last year's primary running backs return, including rare four-star recruit Shaq Powell. Powell was ineffective as a freshman, but he still has potential, and fellow sophomore Jela Duncan showed more flashes than anybody else in this unit last year (nine carries for 88 yards versus Memphis, six for 64 versus Miami).
The receiving corps, meanwhile, has thinned out a bit with the departure of Conner Vernon and Desmond Scott, two steady possession guys, but Crowder returns. He's exciting, and he could get help in the efficiency department from guys like Brandon Braxton and Issac Blakeney. And in theory, the tight end position could see more play this year with the return of David Reeves, Braxton Deaver, and an interesting redshirt freshman in Dan Bellinson. The skill position ceiling isn't very high here, but there's at least a little bit of potential in guys like Duncan, Crowder, and Powell.
|Jela Duncan||RB||5'10, 210||So.||*** (5.7)||109||553||5.1||4.2||4||+5.3|
|Josh Snead||RB||5'9, 190||Jr.||*** (5.7)||99||496||5.0||3.9||2||+3.4|
|Juwan Thompson||RB||5'11, 225||Sr.||*** (5.7)||75||352||4.7||3.5||1||-1.3|
|Brandon Connette||QB||6'2, 225||Jr.||*** (5.5)||41||91||2.2||1.5||7||-7.9|
|Shaquille Powell||RB||5'10, 205||So.||**** (5.8)||28||93||3.3||1.0||0||-5.1|
|Anthony Boone||QB||6'0, 230||Jr.||*** (5.6)||25||88||3.5||2.8||2||-2.1|
|Jamison Crowder||WR||5'9, 175||Jr.||*** (5.5)||116||76||1074||65.5%||9.3||22.3%||55.2%||9.4||126.6|
|Brandon Braxton (2011)||WR||6'1, 210||Sr.||** (5.3)||66||40||352||60.6%||5.3||14.0%||60.6%||N/A||N/A|
|Issac Blakeney||SLOT||6'6, 235||Jr.||** (5.2)||53||32||290||60.4%||5.5||10.2%||58.5%||5.5||34.2|
|Juwan Thompson||RB||5'11, 225||Sr.||*** (5.7)||33||24||128||72.7%||3.9||6.3%||54.5%||4.0||15.1|
|David Reeves||TE||6'5, 250||So.||*** (5.5)||28||18||122||64.3%||4.4||5.4%||53.6%||4.3||14.4|
|Jela Duncan||RB||5'10, 210||So.||*** (5.7)||25||19||89||76.0%||3.6||4.8%||44.0%||3.8||10.5|
|Josh Snead||RB||5'9, 190||Jr.||*** (5.7)||14||10||46||71.4%||3.3||2.7%||50.0%||2.9||5.4|
|Braxton Deaver (2011)||TE||6'5, 240||Jr.||** (5.3)||12||8||107||66.7%||8.9||2.5%||58.3%||N/A||N/A|
|Brandon Connette||QB||6'2, 225||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||11||85||91.7%||7.1||2.3%||58.3%||7.1||10.0|
|Erich Schneider||SLOT||6'7, 225||So.||*** (5.6)||3||1||13||33.3%||4.3||0.6%||0.0%||2.6||1.5|
|Dan Beilinson||TE||6'6, 250||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Anthony Nash||WR||6'5, 200||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Johnell Barnes||WR||5'11, 154||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Brian Moore||C||40 career starts|
|Perry Simmons||RT||6'5, 300||Sr.||** (5.0)||37 career starts|
|Dave Harding||LG||6'4, 285||Sr.||*** (5.6)||27 career starts|
|Laken Tomlinson||RG||6'3, 320||Jr.||*** (5.7)||25 career starts|
|Takoby Cofield||LT||6'4, 305||Jr.||*** (5.7)||15 career starts|
|John Coleman||C||6'4, 290||Sr.||** (5.4)||9 career starts|
|Conor Irwin||C||2 career starts|
|Cody Robinson||LG||6'3, 300||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Lucas Patrick||LG||6'4, 310||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Marcus Aprahamian||RG||6'4, 300||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Matt Skura||C||6'4, 290||So.||** (5.3)|
|Carson Ginn||RT||6'6, 300||So.||** (5.3)|
|Tanner Stone||LT||6'6, 290||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Casey Blaser||RT||6'5, 280||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
5. A legitimately strong line
The skill positions weren't exactly amazing last year, but John Latina's line was damn strong. That Duke managed a top-10 ranking in Adj. Sack Rate could be at least partially ascribed to the nature of the quick-passing game, but the fact that Duke also ranked in the Adj. Line Yards top 20 is a highly encouraging sign.
The Blue Devils did face quite a few solid defensive lines (which gives the adjusted rankings a bit of a boost), and with a three-year starter, two two-year starters, and two others with starting experience in this year's unit (not to mention more experienced running backs attempting to take advantage of the opportunities the line creates), Duke could produce the same stats this time around.
It goes without saying that a line that knows what it's doing makes everybody else on the offense look pretty good. This line could make sure that Duke's offense doesn't slip much despite the loss of Renfree, Vernon, etc.
|Q1 Rk||110||1st Down Rk||124|
|Q2 Rk||106||2nd Down Rk||68|
|Q3 Rk||112||3rd Down Rk||96|
6. When experience isn't completely a good thing
I've used the Columbia-in-the-1980s example before, but I'll use it again. Back in the 1980s, when Columbia was mired in a ridiculous losing streak, I noted to my father that, per whatever preview magazine I was looking at (Sporting News, probably), the Lions returned quite a few starters, and that experience could really push them forward that year. (I've always been an unapologetic homer to underdogs.) And of course, he noted that experience only matters if there's at least a small semblance of talent involved.
Well, Duke's front six (the Blue Devils run a 4-2-5) has the experience in 2013. Every defensive lineman returns, as do last year's top three linebackers and 2011 starter Kelby Brown. That's appealing. But it only matters if these players have some level of talent.
Duke ranked 123rd -- second to last in FBS -- in Adj. Line Yards, 121st in Standard Downs S&P+, and 115th in Rushing S&P+. That's horrendous. The Blue Devils never got anybody in the backfield without blitzing, allowed more passing-downs line yards (while selling out on the blitz) than anybody in the country, and constantly allowed opposing runners to get to the second level of the defense. The front six was neither big nor particularly fast, and while experience is good, athleticism is better.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Justin Foxx||DE||6'3, 255||Sr.||*** (5.7)||8||31.5||4.6%||3.5||3.5||0||0||0||1|
|Kenny Anunike||DE||6'6, 260||Sr.||*** (5.6)||11||28.5||4.2%||6||5||0||0||1||0|
|Nick Sink||DT||6'6, 285||Jr.||** (5.4)||12||18.5||2.7%||1||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Jonathan Woodruff||DE||6'3, 225||Jr.||** (5.4)||12||18.0||2.7%||4.5||2.5||0||0||0||2|
|Dezmond Johnson||DE||6'4, 260||Jr.||*** (5.6)||11||16.5||2.4%||5.5||3||0||0||0||0|
|Sydney Sarmiento||DT||6'4, 300||Sr.||** (5.2)||12||16.5||2.4%||3.5||1.5||0||0||0||1|
|Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo||DE||6'4, 240||Jr.||** (5.2)||11||14.5||2.1%||3.5||2.5||0||0||1||0|
|Jamal Wallace||DE||6'4, 275||Jr.||*** (5.6)||8||7.0||1.0%||1.5||1.5||0||0||1||0|
|Steven Ingram||NG||6'2, 315||Jr.||** (5.2)||10||6.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Jamal Bruce||NG||6'1, 285||Jr.||** (5.4)||6||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Sam Marshall||DT||6'7, 285||So.||** (5.3)||6||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Britton Grier||DE||6'1, 245||Jr.||** (5.4)||10||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Carlos Wray||NG||6'2, 290||So.||*** (5.5)||8||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Keilin Raynder||NG||6'3, 270||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Michael Mann||DE||6'4, 230||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|A.J. Wolf||DT||6'4, 270||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
7. But hey, they could pin their ears back
The 4-2-5 is sometimes a reactive defense, utilizing its speed to swarm to the ball. Defenses like TCU's don't always log an incredible volume of tackles for loss, but at its best, this defense can minimize big gains.
Jim Knowles' 4-2-5, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. The Blue Devils were a big-play sieve last year, and the one thing they did relatively well was get after the quarterback on passing downs. There was no hope of forcing passing downs because of a non-existent run D, but on the rare occasion when they did, they could occasionally come up with a nice, big play. Or, you know, give up one.
The personality should be similar in 2013. In ends Justin Foxx and Kenny Anunike, Knowles has a pair of decent pass rushers who combined for 8.5 sacks. (With more passing downs, this could have been 10-15.) But other than with the aforementioned experience, there's no indication that the Blue Devils will actually be any better at leveraging opponents into passing downs.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Kelby Brown (2011)||WLB||6'2, 230||Jr.||*** (5.7)||10||48.0||7.8%||7||1.5||0||3||1||0|
|C.J. France||WLB||6'0, 230||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||41.0||6.0%||1.5||0||1||3||1||0|
|David Helton||MLB||6'4, 235||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||36.0||5.3%||2.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kyler Brown||MLB||6'4, 230||So.||** (5.4)||11||35.5||5.2%||1.5||0||0||3||1||0|
|Deion Williams||WLB||6'0, 230||So.||*** (5.6)||12||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dominic Zanca||LB||6'2, 242||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ross Cockrell||CB||6'0, 190||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||51.5||7.6%||4||1||5||12||1||0|
|Dwayne Norman||ROVER||6'1, 200||So.||*** (5.6)||12||44.0||6.5%||0.5||0||0||1||1||2|
|Anthony Young-Wiseman||STRIKE||6'0, 220||Sr.||** (5.0)||7||7.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Garett Patterson||CB||6'1, 190||Sr.||** (4.9)||12||6.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Corbin McCarthy||STRIKE||5'10, 200||RSFr.||** (5.4)||2||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jeremy Cash||BANDIT||6'2, 210||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Jared Boyd||CB||5'9, 170||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Nick Hill||STRIKE||6'2, 220||So.||** (5.4)|
|DeVon Edwards||CB||5'9, 185||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Michael Westray||BANDIT||6'1, 200||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Evrett Edwards||CB||5'11, 175||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Quay Mann||CB||5'9, 195||Fr.||** (5.4)|
8. Ross Cockrell, all alone
Knowles was able to utilize safeties Walt Canty and Jordon Byas aggressively in 2012, giving Duke some hope of making a stop behind the line before it allowed a 30-yard gain. And in Ross Cockrell, he had a damn strong cornerback; Cockrell was asked to do a ton, but he held his own, recording four tackles for loss and defensing 17 passes.
Of course, Duke was still mostly awful in the passing game, and now the secondary must replace six of last year's top eight tacklers. Cockrell's back, but nobody else is; new blood can be good for a sketchy unit, but an outright blood transfusion is still scary.
|Will Monday||6'4, 210||So.||66||44.1||6||11||18||43.9%|
|Ross Martin||5'9, 185||So.||70||62.6||26||37.1%|
|Ross Martin||5'9, 185||So.||44-44||12-14||85.7%||6-6||100.0%|
|Jela Duncan||KR||5'10, 210||So.||9||16.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||22|
|Field Goal Pct||7|
|Kick Returns Avg||118|
|Punt Returns Avg||7|
9. Find a kick returner
Because of an awesome kicker and solid punt returning from Lee Butler, Duke was able to generate a decent field position advantage through special teams. But the kick returns were atrocious, and Butler's now gone. The kicking and punting are in decent hands, but surely there's somebody who can at least average 22-23 yards per kick return, right? (And with this team, kick returns are more important than punt returns, if you catch my drift.)
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|26-Oct||at Virginia Tech||23|
|23-Nov||at Wake Forest||81|
|30-Nov||at North Carolina||29|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||86|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||67|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+2 / +0.8|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (7, 8)|
10. Start hot
The goal for Duke is, and will always be, finding the sixth win. Cutcliffe has improved both recruiting and performance, but unless he finds a batch of major diamonds in the rough, the ceiling is six.
Okay, so where are this year's six? N.C. Central and Memphis, certainly. Troy and Navy are quite beatable. That's four. But the best opportunities for two more wins probably come in September, when Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh visit. Both the Yellow Jackets and Panthers get pretty friendly projections in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, but if Duke can build some confidence early, and if the new pieces on offense can gel pretty quickly, the Blue Devils could ride a hot start back to bowl eligibility. And if they slip up, they still have N.C. State and Miami at home later on, along with a less-than-intimidating trip to Wake Forest.
Still, as always, the margin for error is minimal. The Blue Devils still work with less raw talent than anybody in the conference not named Wake, and they still have no choice but to take most of their close games.
The good news is that last season doesn't have to be a one-off. The bad news is that Duke still wasn't very good last season. Cutcliffe has done an incredible job just to get Duke to this level. They're probably not taking another step up any time soon.
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