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1. An unexpected breakthrough
For each set of conference previews in this series, the order is set by five-year history. That Duke is already up on the ACC list -- third from the bottom ahead of only Wake Forest and Virginia -- tells you both how unexpected Duke's run to 10-4 and a division title was last fall, and how recently the Blue Devils were on shaky ground.
In 2008, David Cutcliffe took over an absolutely hopeless program; Duke had gone 10-82 in the previous eight years, and...
...actually, I'll just stop there. You know how bad Duke was. It was pretty well-established.
That Cutcliffe was able to bump the Blue Devils from the 100s in the F/+ rankings to the 70s was impressive. He established worth for a program that had very little in recent decades. But it also appeared that the program had stagnated a bit. From 2008-12, Duke ranked 78th, 68th, 78th, 75th, and 81st according to F/+. In some years, they were unlucky, and in some they were lucky. In some years, they closed out close games and finished with five or six wins, and in some they didn't and finished 3-9.
In 2012, Duke experienced a breakthrough ... sort of. With basically the same team as usual, the Blue Devils took advantage of a backloaded schedule, beat bad teams, and eked past North Carolina at home to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 1994. They lost the last four games of the regular season by an average of 26 points and fell to Cincinnati in an exciting Belk Bowl, and in last year's Duke preview, I kind of felt like a jerk for pointing out that the team wasn't actually very good. But they weren't!
In 2013, Duke was good. Aside from an early home performance against Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils played like a top-40 team, wearing defenses out with efficient offense and steady execution and preventing big plays well enough to force opponents to employ patience to score. I'm not going to say this was as good as a Duke can be or anything like that, but one could see Cutcliffe's complete vision for winning football games at Duke, and Duke won a lot of football games.
Now, after a real, honest-to-goodness breakthrough, Duke attempts an encore. Cutcliffe lost his offensive coordinator, two of his three running backs, two three- or four-year starters on the offensive line, two solid defensive ends, and an excellent cornerback. But he's got his quarterback, his top three receiving targets, and everybody else from a steady secondary.
With the schedule at hand -- five games against teams projected 83rd or worse, six more against teams projected no better than 30th -- it would be shocking if Duke didn't attend its third straight bowl in December. But the Blue Devils did a lot more than that last year; can they make another division title run?
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 10-4 | Adj. Record: 10-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 41|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||N.C. Central||N/A||45-0||W||27.0 - 16.2||W|
|7-Sep||at Memphis||83||28-14||W||31.8 - 19.4||W|
|14-Sep||Georgia Tech||34||14-38||L||17.2 - 31.5||L|
|21-Sep||Pittsburgh||54||55-58||L||45.4 - 40.4||W|
|28-Sep||Troy||105||38-31||W||33.9 - 23.6||W||4.8|
|12-Oct||Navy||58||35-7||W||29.2 - 22.2||W||4.1|
|19-Oct||at Virginia||79||35-22||W||30.9 - 29.7||W||1.8|
|26-Oct||at Virginia Tech||27||13-10||W||22.2 - 27.1||L||3.7|
|9-Nov||N.C. State||92||38-20||W||18.3 - 30.7||L||0.3|
|16-Nov||Miami||36||48-30||W||43.7 - 32.5||W||0.4|
|23-Nov||at Wake Forest||81||28-21||W||38.1 - 24.2||W||1.8|
|30-Nov||at North Carolina||38||27-25||W||34.1 - 29.6||W||2.5|
|7-Dec||vs. Florida State||1||7-45||L||22.9 - 28.1||L||2.4|
|31-Dec||vs. Texas A&M||23||48-52||L||39.6 - 35.7||W||5.7|
|Points Per Game||32.8||41||26.6||64|
|Adj. Points Per Game||31.0||47||27.9||67|
2. Handling the beatable teams
To even the playing field, David Cutcliffe uses every inch of it. He doesn't necessarily run a customary spread (though we're really just getting into semantics), but we'll call it a stretch offense. He spreads opponents as widely as possible, figures out what they're giving him, and bludgeons them with it until they adjust.
If quick horizontal passing to the perimeter works, the Blue Devils will do it ad nauseum. My favorite example: Sean Renfree going 41-for-53 for 368 yards against Boston College in 2011. Duke running backs had 17 carries while the top three receivers had 28 catches for all of 188 yards.
But if your defense is too focused on the perimeter, Duke will gash you up the middle. Against Miami last year, running backs had 33 carries for 299 yards while Duke quarterbacks passed just 24 times. There is no stubborn pride here, no variety for the sake of variety. This is direct, old-school, "We're doing this til you stop it" offense.
It also doesn't really work on top teams. If you've got the athletes to beat Duke's athletes 1-on-1, Duke probably isn't going to move the ball. This goes for all teams to some degree, obviously, but it was especially true for Duke in 2013, and on both sides of the ball.
- Actual Points Per Game (Duke vs. F/+ top 35): Opponent 36.3, Duke 20.5 (minus-15.8) (record: 1-3)
- Actual Points Per Game (Duke vs. No. 36-70): Duke 41.3, Opponent 30.0 (plus-11.3) (record: 3-1)
- Actual Points Per Game (Duke vs. No. 71-105): Duke 33.4, Opponent 21.6 (plus-11.8) (record: 6-0)
Duke averaged 5.9 yards per play in 2013: 3.3 against Florida State, 3.7 against Virginia Tech, 4.1 against Georgia Tech, and 6.4 against everybody else. The defense, meanwhile, allowed 5.7 per play: 8.0 against Texas A&M, 7.6 against Florida State, 7.2 against Miami, and 5.1 against everybody else. Again, this is true to some degree for most teams -- you do better against bad units than good units. Of course. But the difference was pronounced for the Blue Devils.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||45.2%||40||Succ. Rt. +||109.6||30|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||27.5||21||Def. FP+||104.4||15|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.6||43||Redzone S&P+||122.3||10|
|Q1 Rk||56||1st Down Rk||29|
|Q2 Rk||25||2nd Down Rk||32|
|Q3 Rk||16||3rd Down Rk||60|
3. The little things™
Kurt Roper is 38 years old but has already been a major-conference offensive coordinator for 12 years. He worked under Cutcliffe at Ole Miss (O.C. from 1999-2004), Tennessee (running backs coach when Cutcliffe was O.C. in 2006-07), and Duke (O.C. from 2008-13). He is the rare combination of up-and-comer and experienced hand, and it made perfect sense for Florida to hire him away this past offseason. He should bring to Florida a system that is both simple and effective, especially with the athletes Florida recruits.
Cutcliffe didn't look very far in an attempt to replace Roper. When searching for his first non-Roper offensive coordinator, he zeroed in on last year's Duke receivers coach, Scottie Montgomery. Obviously there could always be subtle changes when a new guy is running the show, but one has to figure that as long as Cutcliffe is the head man, Duke is going to basically do what Duke has been doing. And along with the stretch principles mentioned above, that means Duke will continue trying to do the Little Things™ very well. The Blue Devils will peck and poke and move the chains and try to do their defense as many field position favors as possible, and when they get a chance to score, they'll probably finish.
Duke was a Little Things™ master in 2013: 10th in Redzone S&P+, 15th in Def. FP+ (an opponent-adjusted look at the field position the offense created for the defense), 30th in Success Rate+ (29th rushing, 32nd passing).
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Anthony Boone||6'0, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||206||322||2260||13||13||64.0%||10||3.0%||6.6|
|Thomas Sirk||6'4, 215||So.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Parker Boehme||6'2, 220||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Johnathan Lloyd||6'0, 195||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Nicodem Pierre||6'2, 205||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
4. All Anthony
It would make sense that Cutcliffe, the guy who coached both of the Manning brothers, helped to turn Tee Martin into National Championship Quarterback Tee Martin, and helped to turn Erik Ainge into SEC East Championship Quarterback Erik Ainge, would recruit quarterbacks relatively well. Kids aren't dummies. Duke isn't a threat to start landing blue-chippers left and right, but of the five quarterbacks listed above, all were three-star recruits, and two were high-three-star recruits.
The 2015 quarterback competition in Durham could be rather interesting, with four well-touted, diverse youngsters battling for the job. But in 2014, barring injury, the job is Anthony Boone's. Boone isn't always as good as he was in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M (29-for-45 for 427 yards, three touchdowns, and two picks) -- if he were, he'd be a Heisman contender -- but he had quite a few strong moments in 2013.
Duke used Brandon Connette as a makeshift short-yardage quarterback in 2013, and he was very good at it (14 rushing touchdowns, among other things); he was a major reason why Duke was so good at finishing drives. He transferred to Fresno State this spring to be closer to his mother, who is battling cancer. Boone is actually a rather efficient runner himself, so it will be interesting to see if Montgomery goes with him 100 percent of the time, or whether Duke looks for another Wildcat-esque quarterback.
In 2014, Boone's biggest challenge will be making quicker repairs. One mistake tended to lead to another last fall, and there's no Connette safety net this time around. Against Virginia Tech, NC State, and Florida State, Boone completed 47 percent of his passes at 9.6 yards per completion with zero touchdowns and nine interceptions. Against everybody else: 70 percent, 11.3 yards per completion, 13 touchdowns, four picks. Sure, Virginia Tech and FSU had great pass defenses -- and as mentioned above, it's certainly possible to have better athletes in your secondary than Duke has at wideout -- but a week after performing terribly against Tech, Boone was almost equally bad against NC State and its No. 77 defense (according to Def. F/+). And at the end of the A&M game, we got a quick glimpse of how his decision-making could go south.
There's work to do here, but we've seen the upside. And despite some attrition up front, Boone should have a decent line in front of him. The offensive line was perhaps Duke's best unit in 2013; it ranked 20th in Adj. Line Yards and 12th in Adj. Sack Rate, and while quick passing and strong play-calling played into that, that's still excellent. Two longtime starters are gone, but all-conference guard Laken Tomlinson returns, and four returnees have combined for 84 career starts.
|Josh Snead||RB||5'9, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||107||651||2||6.1||6.2||43.0%|
|Shaquille Powell||RB||5'10, 205||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||62||344||2||5.5||3.9||45.2%|
|Anthony Boone||QB||6'0, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||56||275||5||4.9||3.2||44.6%|
|Jamison Crowder||WR||5'9, 175||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||8||71||1||8.9||4.7||75.0%|
|Joseph Ajeigbe||RB||5'9, 215||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jamison Crowder||WR||5'9, 175||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||166||108||1360||65.1%||37.6%||57.8%||8.2||59||8.5||173.9|
|Braxton Deaver||TE||6'5, 240||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||59||46||600||78.0%||13.4%||63.0%||10.2||92||10.5||76.7|
|Max McCaffrey||WR||6'2, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||48||26||282||54.2%||10.9%||53.5%||5.9||-63||6.2||36.1|
|Issac Blakeney||WR||6'6, 235||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||31||19||244||61.3%||7.0%||83.3%||7.9||8||8.6||31.2|
|Johnell Barnes||WR||6'0, 175||So.||3 stars (5.7)||26||15||217||57.7%||5.9%||50.0%||8.3||25||8.2||27.8|
|Shaquille Powell||RB||5'10, 205||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||14||8||90||57.1%||3.2%||50.0%||6.4||-13||7.6||11.5|
|Josh Snead||RB||5'9, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||8||6||29||75.0%||1.8%||50.0%||3.6||-38||3.8||3.7|
|Anthony Nash||WR||6'5, 200||So.||2 stars (5.4)||6||3||31||50.0%||1.4%||50.0%||5.2||-11||4.8||4.0|
|David Reeves||TE||6'5, 250||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||4||3||38||75.0%||0.9%||0.0%||9.5||4||6.2||4.9|
|Ryan Smith||WR||5'7, 165||So.||3 stars (5.5)||3||2||41||66.7%||0.7%||50.0%||13.7||17||18.4||5.2|
|Terrence Alls||WR||6'1, 180||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Quay Chambers||WR||6'3, 215||RSFr||2 stars (5.4)|
|Trevon Lee||WR||6'1, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Davis Koppenhaver||TE||6'4, 210||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
In Jamison Crowder and Braxton Deaver, Duke returns one of the best wideouts and one of the best tight ends, respectively, in the ACC. But the strength of the skill positions in 2013 was the depth. Four running backs had at least 62 carries, and six players were targeted with at least 26 passes.
Of those 10 players, seven return, including probably the three most explosive options in Crowder, Josh Snead, and Johnell Barnes. Assuming, again, that replacing Roper with Montgomery doesn't result in any serious philosophical shift, Duke should have more than enough options to again stretch the defense and take advantage of whatever it chooses to give up.
|Laken Tomlinson||RG||6'3, 320||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||39||2nd All-ACC|
|Takoby Cofield||LT||6'4, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||30|
|Matt Skura||C||6'4, 290||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||14|
|Lucas Patrick||RT||6'4, 310||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||1|
|Carson Ginn||LT||6'6, 300||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Cody Robinson||RG||6'3, 300||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0|
|Sam Marshall||RT||6'7, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0|
|Gabe Brandner||OT||6'6, 255||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Austin Davis||C||6'4, 290||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Trip McNeill||OL||6'5, 300||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Zach Harmon||OL||6'3, 280||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.6%||92||Succ. Rt. +||96.3||70|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.7||75||Off. FP+||100.5||55|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.2||65||Redzone S&P+||91.3||85|
|Q1 Rk||60||1st Down Rk||89|
|Q2 Rk||82||2nd Down Rk||46|
|Q3 Rk||85||3rd Down Rk||32|
6. Opponents did what they wanted
Duke's secondary was athletic and deep in 2013. It was one of the ACC's best. But it was pretty frequently put in a tough spot by the defensive front. Duke was able to rush the passer pretty well in obvious passing situations, but opponents could run at will, and the secondary spent a lot of its time cleaning up messes.
The result was perhaps a rather unintentional bend-don't-break defense. A lot of teams employ that general philosophy, but Duke had no choice. Opponents could run as much as they wanted on standard downs. And even on passing downs, they didn't fear the pass rush enough to avoid it.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Carlos Wray||NG||6'2, 290||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||23.5||2.8%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||1|
|Jamal Bruce||NG||6'1, 285||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||23.5||2.8%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kyler Brown||DE||6'4, 230||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||11||16.0||1.9%||2.0||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Dezmond Johnson||DE||6'4, 260||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||14||15.0||1.8%||2.5||1.0||0||1||0||2|
|Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo||DE||6'4, 240||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||10||7.5||0.9%||2.5||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|A.J. Wolf||DT||6'4, 270||So.||2 stars (5.3)||10||7.0||0.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jamal Wallace||DE||6'4, 275||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||5||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Keilin Rayner||NG||6'3, 270||So.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Mike Ramsay||DT||6'2, 280||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
7. The line was the major issue
Linebacker Kelby Brown made 10 non-sack tackles for loss last fall, but Duke still managed to rank 117th in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line). If he or end Kenny Anunike didn't make a stop for a loss, the play was probably gaining quite a few yards.
The linebacking corps returns intact, but end Anunike and Justin Foxx (a decent pass-rush specialist) are gone. Three of the four primary defensive tackles are back, but they weren't very effective. Barring a star turn by Carlos Wray, Jamal Bruce, or a young player like Keilin Rayner, it's hard to imagine Duke's line being too much better against the run. And without Anunike and Foxx, the pass rush might be worse.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|David Helton||WLB||6'4, 235||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||89.5||10.6%||4.0||1.0||0||2||0||0|
|Kelby Brown||MLB||6'2, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||13||85.5||10.2%||11.0||1.0||2||2||2||0|
|C.J. France||WLB||6'0, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||14.0||1.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Deion Williams||MLB||6'0, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||11.0||1.3%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Nick Hill||LB||6'2, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Chris Holmes||LB||6'2, 200||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Dominic McDonald||LB||6'2, 240||RSFr.||NR|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jeremy Cash||S||6'2, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||14||92.5||11.0%||9.5||0||4||4||2||0|
|Deondre Singleton||S||5'11, 175||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12||51.0||6.1%||3||0||1||4||1||0|
|DeVon Edwards||S||5'9, 185||So.||2 stars (5.4)||14||50.5||6.0%||0.5||0||3||6||0||0|
|Dwayne Norman||S||6'1, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||10||37.0||4.4%||1||0||0||0||1||0|
|Bryon Fields||CB||5'11, 185||So.||3 stars (5.5)||14||34.5||4.1%||1||1||0||6||0||0|
|Breon Borders||CB||6'0, 175||So.||2 stars (5.4)||14||20.0||2.4%||0||0||4||8||0||0|
|Corbin McCarthy||S||5'10, 200||So.||2 stars (5.4)||13||19.0||2.3%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Christian Conway||S||5'10, 200||Jr.||NR||14||2.0||0.2%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Evrett Edwards||CB||5'11, 175||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Phillip Carter||S||6'1, 200||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Quay Mann||S||5'9, 195||RSFr.||NR|
|Alonzo Saxton II||DB||5'11, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Zach Muniz||DB||5'11, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
8. Thriving with freshmen
If Duke wasn't already working with Jim Knowles' variation of a 4-2-5 defense, depth in the defensive backfield would have forced Knowles to consider moving to that structure regardless. Safeties Jeremy Cash (one of the best safeties in the east), Deondre Singleton, and DeVon Edwards -- a sophomore and two freshmen last fall -- combined for 13 tackels for loss, eight picks, 14 break-ups, and three forced fumbles, and corner Ross Cockrell played at an all-conference level.
Cockrell was a senior, but this was still an incredibly young unit overall, especially considering how injuries and shuffling led to 10 players receiving pretty extensive playing time throughout the course of the season. Five of the 10 were freshmen, and two were sophomores, and Duke still improved from 113th in Passing S&P+ to 53rd. That's remarkable. And now Duke enters 2014 with an experienced, proven, and deep defensive backfield. It probably isn't going to get any more help from its line than it did last year, but it could do well regardless.
|Will Monday||6'4, 210||Jr.||69||42.7||6||11||21||46.4%|
|Ross Martin||5'9, 185||Jr.||70||61.8||20||2||28.6%|
|Jack Willoughby||6'2, 195||Sr.||11||62.6||3||1||27.3%|
|Ross Martin||5'9, 185||Jr.||58-58||10-12||83.3%||3-7||42.9%|
|DeVon Edwards||KR||5'9, 185||So.||19||30.2||2|
|Johnell Barnes||KR||6'0, 175||So.||10||20.4||0|
|Jamison Crowder||PR||5'9, 175||Sr.||25||16.0||2|
|Max McCaffrey||PR||6'2, 190||Jr.||3||2.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||40|
|Field Goal Efficiency||54|
|Punt Return Efficiency||42|
|Kick Return Efficiency||24|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||12|
9. Clean up punt coverage
Duke returned four kicks for touchdowns last season, place-kicker Ross Martin was reliable under 40 yards, and kickoff coverage was damn strong -- Duke ranked 27th in kickoff efficiency despite few touchbacks. But despite punter Will Monday's strong leg, opponents averaged 10.9 yards per punt return with two scores (neither of which came from North Carolina's Ryan Switzer). All the legs and return men are back in 2014, and if Duke can clean up the punt coverage, this could be a top-25 unit.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|11-Oct||at Georgia Tech||44|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-4.2% (70)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||62|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||1 / 5.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (7, 8)|
10. A rough conference road slate
After ranking between 68th and 81st for four consecutive years, Duke improved by 40 spots in the F/+ rankings last year. That makes for a fantastic story, and it's difficult to maintain. Typically there is a bit of regression afterward, especially if there's no specific reason for the team's success (new coaching hire, dramatic recruiting improvement, etc.).
But in this year's Duke roster, it's easy to see a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses of last year's Duke roster. The defensive line probably isn't going to be better, but the secondary, the quarterback, and the skill positions probably aren't going to be worse. If there's no drop-off on the offensive line or in the offensive coordinator position, one can certainly conceive of a similar Duke ranking this time around. Thanks to the (completely justifiable) use of five-year history and recruiting rankings in our projections, the numbers don't necessarily see it that way, but there's a chance.
With the aforementioned five games against teams projected 83rd or worse, Duke should easily find enough wins to go bowling for the third straight year. But can the Blue Devils repeat as division champions? The schedule is going to make that difficult. They must play at Miami, Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh, which might force them to go undefeated at home and/or pull a road upset to make a serious run.
After last season, anything is possible, but it's probably not going to happen. Then again, I ended last year's preview with "They're probably not taking another step up any time soon." What the hell do I know?