Football season for Duke starts in a mere two days.
But how long before the games become interesting, competitive affairs?
The bad teams are real bad, and trying to impose some sort of order on the slop was tough. But how does one make sense of the Coastal Division? Other than Virginia, I can pretty much talk myself into or out of any team. And when you look close enough, they all have major flaws that make you want to knock them down on the difficulty scale.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
A quick note on scheduling: these series are put on the calendar so far in advance that it’s basically impossible to know what, exactly, an opponent is going to look like once the game actually arrives. For example: Duke and Baylor agreed back in 2009 to play a home-and-home series in 2017 and 2018. In 2009, Baylor was 4-8 and hadn’t had a year over .500 in 14 years. Now, the Bears are the Big 12 champion. Who knows how good they will be in three more years.
So, with that out of the way, no more further delay. The schedule ranking:
Aug. 30 vs. Elon (2-10)
One thing to know about the Phoenix: This is a bad football team. This isn’t even a good FCS team. I generally believe preseason scrimmage stats are useless, but when your returning starting quarterback goes 5 of 18 for 76 yards and ends his day with incompletions on 10 of his last 11 attempts…that’s not good, people.
To open last season, Elon lost 70-0 to Georgia Tech with a running clock at the end. The year before that, the Phoenix lost 62-0 at UNC to open the season. There should be a similar beatdown Saturday.
Sept. 13 vs. Kansas (3-9)
One thing to know about the Jayhawks: This is a bad football team. It’s also a great example of why it’s absurd that the ACC and other leagues won’t schedule BYU as a Power Five equivalent game, implying that a Power Five team guarantees a certain level of quality. It doesn’t.
Montell Cozart won a quarterback competition with Jake Heaps in the spring—Heaps then transferred to Miami and was promptly beat out by a true freshman for the job there. Cozart was, um, not good last year (23-of-63 for 227 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s a 36.5 percent completion percentage and a paltry 3.6 yards per attempt). Then in preseason camp, Kansas lost its two top running backs in consecutive days to season-ending injuries ( Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox). The defense *could* be okay, and by that I mean average in the Big 12, a league not exactly known for its prowess on that side of the ball. But the offense will be atrocious.
Nov. 29 vs. Wake Forest (4-8)
One thing to know about the Demon Deacons: This is a bad football team (noticing a trend? I had forgotten just how uninspiring a good portion of Duke’s schedule was until this exercise).
A true freshman starter ( John Wolford) at quarterback—a true freshman who didn’t enroll early and just arrived this summer—receiving snaps from a true freshman center on an offensive line with two other true freshmen in the two-deep? Oy. It’s going to be a long season.
In an effort to say something nice about the Demon Deacons, they do have a nice duo at cornerback ( Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel). But those poor guys are playing behind a totally revamped defensive line.
So, why is Wake Forest a "tougher" game than Kansas? Admittedly, it’s splitting hairs, but at least there is hope at Wake with the new regime. Players have the idea of better days ahead to play for, and there might be some sentiment to end the season on a high note.
Sept. 20 vs. Tulane (7-6, New Orleans Bowl)
The Green Wave were a nice feel-good story last year, defying the odds to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2002. It was an imperfect that that struggled offensively, and, with a new quarterback (redshirt freshman Tanner Lee, who beat out incumbent Nick Montana—yes, his dad is Joe Montana), running back and top wide receiver, Tulane will probably be more of the same this year, but there is at least hope that the offensive line will be solid enough make life easier. The defense was great last year, but the defensive line will take a step back. For what it’s worth The media picked Tulane to finish tied for 9th in the 11-team American Athletic Conference.
This is a home game Duke should win handily.
Sept. 6 at Troy (6-6)
Troy has some legitimate talent and athleticism dotted throughout its roster, and this game was no gimme when it was in Durham last year (a 38-31 win in week five, after back-to-back losses against Pitt and Georgia Tech). Some media members who track the Sun Belt much closer than I are pretty high on the Trojans’ potential—Troy was picked to finish fourth in the 11-team conference. One of the Trojans beat writers picked even Duke to lose this game. I think that’s a bit much, if Duke is anywhere close to the team I think it is. Week five of 2013, the first of the 8-game winning streak to close out the regular season, was several gigantic steps back on Duke’s path to glory.
Troy’s offense should be a fair challenge to Duke’s defense this early in the season—assuming the Trojans find a quarterback to replace their previous four year starter (in a move that would make Larry Fedora proud, there are three potential starting quarterbacks listed on the depth chart). There will be soft spots in the defense for the Blue Devils to exploit.
Oct. 18 vs. Virginia (2-10)
The argument could be made for Virginia to perhaps be ranked even lower on the scale of difficulty—USA Today’s Paul Myerberg, for example, has the Cavaliers ranked 95th on his comprehensive breakdown of all 128 FBS teams. Troy ranks 18 spots higher.
But, for all the Cavaliers’ issues, raw talent isn’t one of them. Despite a complete lack of on-field success lately, Mike London has recruited extremely well, signing three five-stars and 12 four-stars in the last four recruiting cycles. That hasn’t translated onto the field.
Greyson Lambert is a question mark at quarterback, but the Cavaliers have an enviable backfield duo in Kevin Parks, a 1,000 yard rusher from last season and former five-star recruit Smoke Mizzell, a sophomore. The offensive line could be a disaster and the receivers are uninspiring. The defense should be "fine."
When Virginia fans think about the sad state of their football program, the fact that Duke has won five of the last six games in this series must be like salt in an open wound. Blowing a 22-point lead at home to Duke last year has to rank among the low points for that campaign.
Virginia will come into this game off of an open date, but how much optimism will be left after playing (in order) ULCA, Richmond, Louisville, at BYU, Kent State and Pitt? I see three for-sure losses and possibly more.
Nov. 8 at Syracuse (7-6, Texas Bowl)
We’ve now reached the point in the schedule order where a loss to said team would not be considered a catastrophic failure. Since the rebirth of Duke football (2012), the Blue Devils have done a commendable job of beating teams they should beat (last year’s Pitt game being the only real notable exception). That’s a trait of any highly successful team.
Syracuse, to me, is like vanilla ice cream. There’s nothing awful about it—there’s also certainly nothing exciting about it. It’s fine. It’s fine, okay? Just fine. The defense is a big question mark for the Orange, which should play to Duke’s favor. This is definitely a team that the Blue Devils should beat. This contest also comes at the end of a streak of nine consecutive games for the Orange, the longest stretch any ACC team has in between its two open dates.
Nov. 15 vs. Virginia Tech (8-5, Sun Bowl)
Now we’ve definitely entered into the realm of games where Duke could definitely lose, and it would not be a surprise.
I am not as high on the Hokies as most writers are, particularly every writer on that beat. That’s fine—reasonable minds can disagree.
I expect the defense to be elite, like it always is. But, as Duke proved last year in Blacksburg, a great defense can be beaten if said team also features an atrocious offense. Until Virginia Tech shows otherwise, I can’t see any reason to expect the offense to be much better this season.
You could make a strong argument that the Hokies should have lost to both East Carolina and Marshall last season—the later was a victory in triple overtime —and that would have significantly altered the perception of the direction of this program.
The Hokies do play Duke after an open date—the Virginia schools are the only two teams that get that fortunate schedule break. But this is a home game for Duke, a home game that is also on basketball season’s opening weekend, so there should be a decent home-field atmosphere.
Nov. 1 at Pitt (7-6, Little Caesars Pizza Bowl)
Pitt is one of the six teams that received a first-place vote in the ACC’s preseason media poll—the Panthers actually finished fifth in the prediction exercise, but plenty of pundits have pegged them as a dark horse candidate to actually win the division. And why not? The Panthers have a duo of sophomore studs (running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd), and, as long as new starter Chad Voytik is competent at quarterback, Pitt is going to put up points.
Will the defense be any good? It will surely miss Aaron Donald in the interior of the defensive line. But how good of a defense does one need to actually win the Coastal, anyway?
Duke does have the advantage of going to Pitt after and open date. This will be the first game in the critical end-of-season stretch that finishes at Syracuse, vs. Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest.
Oct. 11 at Georgia Tech (7-6, Music City Bowl)
On principle, I slotted this game one, and possibly two, spot(s) more difficult than I would have if we were talking about any team BUT Duke. But the truth remains that David Cutcliffe is 0-6 against Georgia Tech—it’s the only traditional ACC Coastal team that he hasn’t beaten (two season does not make you a traditional Coastal team, sorry, Pitt). The good and bad thing about Paul Johnson’s spread-option offense—commonly referred to as the triple-option, but it’s more nuanced than that, in reality—is that it guarantees around six or seven wins. Hard to go much lower and also hard to go much higher.
The Blue Devils’ defense has yet to stop the misdirection of Georgia Tech’s running game effectively, and, when it’s come close, the Yellow Jackets have been able to air it out and still put points on the board. Until Duke proves it can handle this challenge—and this is a time Kelby Brown’s instincts and play-making ability will sorely be missed—Georgia Tech will be the favorite.
The good news for Duke is that this game comes after an open date.
Sept. 27 at Miami (9-4, Russell Athletic Bowl)
Perhaps the most difficult ACC opener Duke could have been dealt. Watch for the announcement of the game time here—if this is a 3:30 start at the end of September in Miami, the humidity will be absolutely brutal, which would be advantage, Hurricanes.
It’s really the same old story with Miami: no team has consistently done less with more, in terms of squeezing wins out of its talent. I can’t believe the Hurricanes are starting a true freshman quarterback. How is there not a better option? Still, the Hurricanes have probably the most talented running back in the league, when healthy ( Duke Johnson, and that’s an important qualifier), and I’m expecting big things from freshman Joseph Yearby.
Nov. 22 vs. North Carolina (7-6, Belk Bowl)
This should be fun. Thursday night, late November, the division title potentially on the line. Both teams will play this game on a short, five-day week, but Duke is at the disadvantage here—playing Virginia Tech will leave a physical toll on the Blue Devils. I’d bet the Tar Heels rebound faster from their game against Pitt.
The Tar Heels will have a proficient offense. The defense, like it always is, could be fine, it could be terrible and it probably won’t be great. In fact, you could really fill in "Duke" where I said "Tar Heels," and the description still fits. UNC still has more raw talent than Duke, but that hasn’t shown up in the win column in the past two years.
Still, at this point, I think UNC is the most complete team in the Coastal, with Pitt and Miami close behind.