Record: 6-7 overall, 3-5 ACC, lost to Cincinnati 48-34 in Belk Bowl.
Who's back: WR Jamison Crowder (76 receptions, 1,074 receiving yards, eight TDs), CB Ross Cockrell (13 pass breakups, five interceptions), RB Jela Duncan (569 rushing yards, four TDs), K Ross Martin (20-23 field goals, longest: 52 yards), P Will Monday (44.6 yards per punt).
Who's gone: QB Sean Renfree (3,113 passing yards, 19 TDs, .673 completion percentage), WR Conner Vernon (85 catches, 1,074 receiving yards, eight TDs), WR Desmond Scott (66 catches, 666 yards), S Walt Canty (109 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss), S Jordon Byas (83 total tackles, seven for loss)
Best-case scenario: Duke continues to steadily improve, and thanks to improving athleticism and better luck with injuries, posts an eight-win season for the first time since 1994 and enjoys its first bowl streak.
Worst-case scenario: Replacing Renfree, Vernon and Scott on offense proves more difficult than expected and a young secondary gets torn apart as Duke regresses and finishes 4-8.
Bottom line: Duke projects to have its best team of the David Cutcliffe era in 2014, but this season doesnt have to be all about growing pains. If the Blue Devils win at least three games in nonconference play and put away three of four beatable opponents in Pittsburgh, Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest, they can finish 6-6 and clinch back-to-back bowl berths for the first time.
3 key games
Pittsburgh (Sept. 21): This is the type of game the Blue Devils must win if they want to stop getting picked annually to finish last in the Coastal Division. Its an early home game against a below-average ACC opponent.
Navy (Oct. 12): Winning the toughest nonconference game will give Duke breathing room in ACC play and significantly increase the odds that the season ends with a bowl. After facing Georgia Tech Sept. 14, Navys triple-option should be easier to contain by comparison.
N.C. State (Nov. 9): The last time Duke played the Wolfpack, Thad Lewis put on a passing clinic to lead the Blue Devils to a 49-28 win in 2009. Duke will be coming off a bye week (and State will be coming off its UNC game) and this will be its first shot to end its November woes.
The offense: Anthony Boone will lead a more balanced attack, as his running ability will keep defenses honest. The veteran offensive line should have the blocking down so the Blue Devils can run their zone-read wrinkle. Dont expect Duke to become Georgia Tech, though, as Cutcliffe will have Boone throwing plenty of deep balls, too.
The defense: The secondary is young and inexperienced, but theres a lot to like with safety Jeremy Cash in the middle. If cornerback Ross Cockrell can lock down his side of the field, that will help the rest of the defensive backs tremendously. The line, which returns all four starters, needs to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Key player: LB Kelby Brown
In between Dukes experienced line and young secondary are two linebackers. Brown has been productive when he has been on the field (128 tackles in 19 career games). Keeping him there has been the problem, as hes yet to play a full healthy season. Duke needs more production from its linebackers, and Brown, a redshirt junior, is the best candidate to provide it.
Key stat: 151 catches
Thats what Duke must replace in its passing game, as heavily used seniors Vernon and Scott are gone. Crowder is the only proven receiver the Blue Devils need at least two receivers to emerge from the group of Issac Blakeney, Max McCaffrey, Brandon Braxton, Anthony Nash, Ryan Smith and Johnell Barnes.
|Saturday||N.C. Central||4 p.m.|
|Sept. 7||at Memphis||4:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 14||Georgia Tech||3:30 p.m|
|Oct. 19||at Virginia||TBA|
|Oct. 26||at Virginia Tech||TBA|
|Nov. 9||N.C. State||TBA|
|Nov. 23||at Wake Forest||TBA|
|Nov. 30||at North Carolina||TBA|