I'm trying something different with my football preview this year. Instead of predicting every ACC game - often hilariously incorrect, of course - I'm taking an optimistic view of the upcoming season. Every team can win on any given Saturday, in theory at least. So let's take a look at he best case scenarios over the next few week or so, shall we? And let's begin with Duke.
Duke has had a rather rough twenty years. They last made it to a bowl game in 1994, in Fred Goldsmith's fifth season as head coach. (The UNC-Duke game that year was a spectacular duel,none of the best games I've seen live.) Goldsmith would lose his job after another four seasons; his replacement Carl Franks was fired after five, and his successor Ted Roof had four of his own. This is current coach David Cutcliffe's fifth season, and his record of 15-33 is actually respectable by Durham's recent history. This is the team Cutcliffe has been building towards over his tenure here, and if they're going to break through into mediocrity, this is the year.
Cutcliffe got his job on the strength of is quarterback coaching. He's put six former QBs in the NFL, including two Mannings. So it's no surprise that the current quarterback Sean Renfree is one of the bright spots on the team, with 6,022 yards passing and 28 touchdowns in two seasons as a starter. He looked to have a good selection of targets to throw to, led by All-ACC wideout Conor Vernon, who had 956 yards receiving. Supporting him will be sophomore Jamison Crowder, who impressed in limited play his freshman year, and was expected to thrive amongst a deep receiving corps. Unfortunately, the team lost his fellow sophomore, Blair Holliday, in a tragic jet ski accident over the 4th of July; his brains injuries may take years to heal. The team also lost TE Braxton Deaver to a broken kneecap and converted Brandon Braxton, who had the second-most receiving yards of the returning players, to safety. There are a lot of untested freshmen and sophomores, as well as senior converted RB Desmond Scott who will get a chance to contribute, and Renfree will make at least some of them look good. Throw in an experienced offensive line and an improving running game - in addition to junior Juwan Thompson the Blue Devils get the services of Josh Snead who impressed as a freshman before missing last season with an injury - and Duke could be a significant scoring threat. Last year their offense died in the red zone, so small improvements could lead to big increases in points.
Then there's the defense. Also really young, the Blue Devil D has the advantage of being thrown into the fire a lot. There's a lot of game experience for a group that barely knows its way around Durham. Still, only Maryland gave up more yards and points per game than Duke, and the Blue Devils actually gave up more yards per play. The line should improve, and may be able to hold off a decent running attack. The secondary, last in the ACC last year, will still struggle, and rely on some weak opposing passing attacks to keep them in the game. Expect high scoring shootouts when Duke takes the field.
Can this team find their way to six wins? It's not as implausible as you might think. Duke can easily go 3-1 in September, with home games against Florida International, NCCU, and Memphis, the last two who were a combined 2-14 last season. (Their fourth September game, a road trip to Stanford, does not look favorable.) That leaves them with three wins to pick up in-conference. Duke gets Wake Forest away and Virginia at home to start October; both teams look to struggle on defense, and UVa's passing game may flounder. These are good shots for Duke. The Blue Devils also end the season at home against a Miami team that may be in full meltdown by November. This is a spot to pick up a sixth win.
And as much as I hate to say it, North Carolina is a question mark. The Heels have lost precisely once to the Blue Devils since Steve Spurrier left for greener pastures in 1989. But Larry Fedora will be instituting a new offense and defense, and there's a lot of ways this can go wrong. Do I think Duke will beat UNC this October? Absolutely not. But if you're looking at things in the best possible light for Duke, well, then it could happen.
So 6-6 is just barely within the Blue Devil's reach. That might just get David Cutcliffe ACC Coach of the Year (and a crushing bowl loss) and a finish outside of the Coastal Division cellar. Or, the team could continue their three-win ways. Either way, it will be entertaining to watch if nothing else.
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