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Duke could be a top-40 team. So could almost every opponent.

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David Cutcliffe’s youth movement could reap dividends in 2018. It better, because there are almost no sure wins on the schedule.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Duke
David Cutcliffe
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

ESPN’s MegaCast of the CFP National Championship game was, as always, a hit-or-miss affair. I don’t have a lot of use for most of the options — which is sort of the point, as it’s meant to be something for everyone — but I always DVR the Coaches Film Room feed.

It allows you to see coaches react as fans or passive observers and to watch coaches interact and establish an alpha. In a room with Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, and others, the alpha was absolutely Duke’s David Cutcliffe.

When Cut spoke, everyone deferred. He controlled the conversation.

There’s good reason. The dude’s been around the block. The 63-year-old Alabama grad was a Tennessee assistant for 17 years, moving from part-timer to offensive coordinator for UT’s 1998 national title squad. He held the head coaching job at Ole Miss for seven years, recruited Eli Manning, won 10 games in 2003, and was sent packing after a single setback season. After a couple of years back at UT, he took over at Duke in 2008.

Cutcliffe has created his ideal coaching workshop. Expectations aren’t high, and basketball will always control the narrative — on the Duke page of the Durham Herald-Sun’s website in mid-July, there are 16 basketball stories and three football stories — which affords him time for setbacks. But he’s still managed to raise the bar significantly at a school that, for a while, didn’t have one.

Cutcliffe won 15 games in his first four seasons in Durham, and that alone was an improvement; the Blue Devils had won just 17 in their previous 10. But over his last six seasons, they’ve made five bowls (they’d made five bowls in 65 years), won an ACC Coastal crown, and, in 2013, finished ranked for the first time in 53 years.

Of course, just because other coaches respect him, doesn’t mean they won’t poach his staff. When Will Muschamp needed an offensive boost at Florida, he hired Cutcliffe’s OC, Kurt Roper. Roper’s replacement, Scottie Montgomery, was hired as ECU’s head coach in 2016. And a few weeks after the Coaches Film Room get-together, Gundy stole defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

Duke’s never going to have the football budget to match salary offers from schools higher on the totem pole, and Cut has gotten used to moving on. Roper’s younger brother Zac has been coordinator since Montgomery left. And to replace Knowles, Cutcliffe went with a committee approach, promoting Ben Albert and Matt Guerrieri to co-coordinators. If they do well, they’ll probably get poached, too.

On paper, Duke’s 2017 went about as planned. The Blue Devils were projected 65th in S&P+ and finished 65th; they were projected to win 5.4 games in the regular season and won six. In last year’s preview, I wrote of a team that was re-stocking for 2018 and beyond. That the Blue Devils met expectations with a sophomore quarterback and a massive load of underclassmen on defense says good things.

But we have to acknowledge the insane streakiness. Holy smokes.

Duke in 2017

Category First 4 games Next 6 games Last 3 games
Category First 4 games Next 6 games Last 3 games
Record 4 W, 0 L 0 W, 6 L 3 W, 0 L
Avg. score DU 41, Opp 15 Opp 24, DU 12.2 DU 37, Opp 19
Yards per play DU 5.4, Opp 4.6 Opp 5.5, DU 4.2 DU 5.4, Opp 5.3
Avg. percentile performance 76% (67% off, 78% def) 21% (14% off, 55% def) 84% (75% off, 75% def)
Avg. performance vs. S&P+ proj. +20.5 PPG -4.5 PPG +24.9 PPG
Daniel Jones comp. rate and passer rating 62%, 125.5 50%, 90.2 64%, 135.4
Opp. comp. rate and passer rating 46%, 104.6 58%, 131.0 45%, 110.2

Duke started 4-0, lost six in a row, salvaged bowl eligibility with a romp over Georgia Tech and a comeback win over Wake Forest, then smoked NIU in the Quick Lane Bowl. They were good, then terrible, then good again.

There was no single injury/recovery or suspension that caused the team to drift onto the rumble strip and then right itself; this was just a young, volatile team that misplaced its confidence, then re-discovered it in droves.

If the new co-coordinator arrangement is solid, the defense could be excellent. The offense has more potential than it’s had in a while. Cutcliffe’s legacy is set, but he’s not done making noise. The ACC’s middle class is as crowded as ever, but aside from trips to Miami and Clemson, the Blue Devils are going to have a chance in nearly every game.

Offense

2017 Duke offensive radar

The Duke offense spent much of 2017 playing catch-up. The Blue Devils spent a good amount of time trailing on the scoreboard, sure, but even within a given drive, they were constantly falling behind.

Duke averaged just five yards per play on first down, 119th in FBS and second-worst in the ACC. But they flipped that around and averaged just 6.8 yards to go on third down, 45th overall.

The key was using the run to steal back yardage; DU averaged just 3.7 yards per rush on first down and 5.4 on second, and then Daniel Jones would take it from there on third down.

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Duke vs Northern Illinois
Daniel Jones (17) and Brittain Brown (22)
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Mind you, this is insanely difficult to pull off with consistency, and Duke most certainly did not. It’s much healthier to just gain those yards on first down and take your chances from there. Inexperience won’t be as much of an issue as it was last year, and maybe that helps.

Roper appears to attempt balance on standard down, running 55 percent of the time (five percentage points less than the national average) and throwing 45 percent. Leading rusher Shaun Wilson is gone, but backups Brittain Brown and Deon Jackson produced the same efficiency numbers, and they were freshmen.

There could be upside, especially from Brown, who was the best of the bunch at stealing second-down yardage (6.7 yards per carry on second down). He also averaged 8.5 yards per receiving target to Wilson’s 5.6. At 6’1, 205 pounds, he looks the part of an every-down back, and his stat profile backs that up.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Duke
T.J. Rahming
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Still, a Cutcliffe offense is going to wing the ball around a little bit, and it has to be exciting that Jones gets another year with a trio of seniors he’s gotten to know awfully well. T.J. Rahming, Johnathan Lloyd, and Chris Taylor have combined to catch 262 balls for 2,852 yards over the last two seasons, almost all from Jones.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to get others involved. Tight end Daniel Helm’s plus-23 percent marginal efficiency dwarfed that of everyone else in the receiving corps (among the top trio, Lloyd’s plus-4 percent was the best), and junior Aaron Young’s 13.7 yards per catch was the best of the bunch. He ended up a co-No. 1 with Taylor on the post-spring depth chart.

Continuity is a strength for this offense, but that’s not as much the case up front. Guards Zach Harmon and Julian Santos have combined for 39 career starts, but all-conference center Austin Davis and both tackles are gone. Senior tackle Christian Harris and Ohio State transfer Jack Wohlabaugh might have to make names for themselves pretty quickly.

Despite Cutcliffe’s reputation, Duke’s strength has been defense. The Blue Devils haven’t ranked better than 69th in Off. S&P+ since 2013’s division title run; they spent about half of last year playing like a top-30 offense and half like a bottom-30, but there appears to be some upside here if those first downs are a bit more successful.

Defense

2017 Duke defensive radar

Knowles pulled off a startling reversal in personality. In 2015, perhaps sensing the need to create more breaks and big plays for a fading offense, he ratcheted up the aggressiveness. Almost overnight Duke went from a prototypical bend-don’t-break defense to one that stressed efficiency and was willing to risk giving up big plays in the name of forcing turnovers and three-and-outs.

That remained the case in 2017, when Duke presented the third-most efficient defense in the conference, one that gave up the third-biggest big plays.

2017 Duke defensive efficiency & explosiveness

There was a trade-off here. Duke allowed only 10 gains per game of 10-plus yards (eighth in FBS), but 2.2 of those went for 30-plus yards (71st).

I’m hoping Albert and Guerrieri don’t mess with this formula too much. The average college football team scores about 28 points in a given game, and allowing a couple of gash plays isn’t going to make or break you as much as flipping the field for your offense with turnovers or quick punts. And with a drastically more experienced defense, Duke could retain the aggressiveness while reducing the glitches.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Duke
Mark Gilbert (28)
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The aggressiveness starts in the back. Duke was sixth in the country in defensive back havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total team snaps), and DBs accounted for nearly half of the team’s total havoc plays. Twenty-three of those came from corner Mark Gilbert (three TFLs, six INTs, 14 breakups), who made nearly as many havoc plays as tackles (27).

Returning safeties Jeremy McDuffie and Jordan Hayes added another 22.5 havoc plays, and Penn cornerback transfer Mason Williams is intriguing in this regard, too: he had 11 passes defensed and two TFLs in his last season as a Quaker. He’s locked in a battle with sophomore Myles Hudzick and redshirt freshman Josh Blackwell for the starting CB spot opposite Gilbert.

NCAA Football: Duke at Virginia
Joe Giles-Harris (44)
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Duke was sixth in passing success rate allowed last year, and I’m betting that ranking doesn’t sink much. But they were 125th in passing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays); reduce the size of the glitches just a bit, and this unit could dominate.

They should benefit from experience up front. Seven of the top eight linemen return, as do each of the top four linebackers, and of these 11 players, nine are either sophomores or juniors. This front six was young as hell last year.

The only departing piece, tackle Mike Ramsay, was a good one; his five sacks led the team, and his 9.5 TFLs were tied for second. But the biggest strength this front six had going for it last year was diversity; seven linemen and linebackers had at least two sacks, and nine had at least three TFLs. There’s still attacking talent at tackle with the return of Edgar Cerenord and Trevon McSwain.

Plus, linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys (combined: 25 TFLs, seven sacks) and ends Tre Hornbuckle and Victor Dimukeje (combined: 17 TFLs, three sacks). So is sophomore end Drew Jordan, who made three sacks among his 11.5 tackles. If the middle holds, the edges of this unit could be dynamite.

Special Teams

After a disastrous turn in 2016, special teams got back under control. The Blue Devils ranked sixth in Special Teams S&P+ in 2014 and second in 2015 but plummeted to 119th with freshmen at punter and place-kicker.

They were back up to 74th last year. Punting was still an issue for Austin Parker, but he turned in a decent performance in the place-kicking department, and Shaun Wilson’s returns remained a strength. Parker’s back, but Wilson isn’t — the hole he leaves in returns might be bigger than at running back.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Army 92 13.5 78%
8-Sep at Northwestern 38 -3.3 43%
15-Sep at Baylor 50 -0.6 49%
22-Sep NC Central NR 38.0 99%
29-Sep Virginia Tech 21 -3.3 43%
13-Oct at Georgia Tech 53 -0.3 49%
20-Oct Virginia 73 9.0 70%
27-Oct at Pittsburgh 45 -1.4 47%
3-Nov at Miami 13 -14.2 21%
10-Nov North Carolina 51 4.4 60%
17-Nov at Clemson 3 -22.2 10%
24-Nov Wake Forest 34 0.9 52%
Projected S&P+ Rk 40
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 73 / 28
Projected wins 6.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 1.7 (61)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 51 / 47
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / -5.6
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 80% (82%, 78%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.6 (0.4)

The good news: after four years between 56th and 75th, Duke is projected to rise to 40th in S&P+. The combination of returning production and recent defensive performance should lead to nice improvement.

The bad news: pretty much everyone in the ACC is going to be capable of a top-40 performance this year. The league might only have one or two true elite contenders, but the depth could be absurd. And with a non-conference schedule that features trips to Northwestern and Baylor, there are almost no sure wins or sure losses.

Per S&P+, their win probability is between 43 and 60 percent in seven games. With a full offensive rebound — certainly conceivable with a high-upside RB and a high-continuity passing game — and some bounces, Duke could be looking at a run to 10 wins. But if the offenses is only decent, and the defense slips a bit with a change in leadership, the floor could be equally low.

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