Luke DeCock

After opening blowouts, hard to tell how good Duke is, or isn’t

David Cutcliffe assesses Duke after beating NC A&T

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses his team's shortcomings and strong points after the Blue Devils beat the NC A&T Aggies 45-13 on September 7, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.
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Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses his team's shortcomings and strong points after the Blue Devils beat the NC A&T Aggies 45-13 on September 7, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.

Two games into the season, your guess is as good as David Cutcliffe’s just how good Duke is, or isn’t. Both of the Blue Devils’ games have been blowouts, one way or another, and even if they weren’t, Duke was missing 11 scholarship players at the start of last week’s win over North Carolina A&T, a number that quickly grew to 13.

There aren’t many conclusions to be drawn from a 42-3 loss to Alabama, other than that the Blue Devils aren’t CFP material, which came as a shock to no one. Likewise the 45-13 win over the Aggies, a game where Duke more or less did what it wanted once it took control.

Cutcliffe thought, with a bunch of starters returning on defense and a new quarterback who was nevertheless an old and familiar face, he would have a better handle on things by this point. Between the injuries and the scorelines, this season has not given him that chance.

“I think we have the right people,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got a lot of people that have played and been in a lot of different environments and won games, so I don’t have a lot of question marks all over the place. I think the biggest thing we don’t know is as we try to grow back toward somewhat of full strength, how good can this team be?”

Saturday’s game at Middle Tennessee State might offer a little more of a window — even against a Conference USA opponent, Duke can’t screw around on the road and expect to win — but it’s not nearly the litmus test Duke’s trip to Virginia Tech on Sept. 27 will present, a Friday night game in Blacksburg after an open week for both teams.

That kicks off a three-game ACC stretch of eminently winnable games, starting with the vulnerable-looking Hokies and followed by home games against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech. If what happens at Virginia Tech will scribble Duke’s true prognosis in pencil, those games will etch it in ink.

At the moment, who can tell?

“I don’t know if we’re going to know what exactly this team is,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got a lot of good ingredients, many of the best young players we’ve had here. We’re going to keep churning.”

Duke’s best teams in recent years, the ones that made bowl games but not history for doing it, have typically handled their early season schedules well, taking care of business against nonconference opponents and the occasional early ACC foe, winning on the road. That’s been a pretty good indicator of things to come. The one recent team that struggled off the hop — losing to Wake Forest and Northwestern to open 1-2 in 2016, although by October it ended up going 3-1 in nonconference — was the only Duke team to miss a bowl in the past seven seasons.

Even if the Alabama loss comes with a big asterisk, these next two games on the road will have a lot more to say about where the Blue Devils are headed. Historically, you’d expect a bowl-bound Duke team to win one and maybe both.

“I think we’ll know more about our team after another month of being tested,” Cutcliffe said.

At the moment, it’s still too hard to tell.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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