Ever since David Cutcliffe arrived on Duke’s campus people have been asking him if he could make the Blue Devils Football program into a winner and get to bowls.
The 2012-13 season gave us the answer to one of those, but despite making its first bowl appearance in 18 years, Duke still didn’t finish the year with a winning record (6-7) after losing a heartbreaker to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
The 2013-14 season kicks off Monday with the Blue Devils opening up their fall training camp in preparations for the beginning of the season. While, August 31 is the third edition of the Bull City Gridiron Classic against North Carolina Central. Much optimism surrounds the program, but there is still a lot of uncertainty and question marks heading into the year.
Last year was seen as a sort of a make or break season with a veteran team that was led by QB Sean Renfree and WR’s Conner Vernon and Desmond Scott, who were expected to get Duke to a Bowl game. They did just that, but they are all gone and many are wondering whether or not the Blue Devils have enough in the tank to get back to 6 wins and a repeat bowl appearance, which would be a first in team history.
Obviously it would shock few if Duke took a step back, but the schedule is enticing. With four non conference games that all appear winnable (NC Central, Troy, Navy, Memphis), if the Blue Devils were to go 4-0 in non conference games, that would leave only two ACC games that they would have to win.
This year’s ACC slate isn’t that formidable. There is no Clemson or Florida State on the schedule this season. With Virginia rebuilding and Wake Forest coming off one of its worst seasons under coach Jim Grobe and having likely lost their best running back due to academic issues, Duke should win at least two conference games. Then there is Pitt who is new to the league but didn’t have the greatest year last season.
Those are likely the best three chances of Duke getting two wins should they go 4-0 non conference, but they still have a shot against rebuilding NC State, and anything can happen with North Carolina as we saw last year, a very winnable game.
Oddly, despite all the losses on offense, it is the defense that is said to be the Blue Devils weakest link, especially in the secondary. Still Duke’s defensive unit has 287 games and 137 starts under their belts and a lot of young, yet unproven talent. Offensively you have a new quarterback and two new wide receivers. With the strongest part of Duke’s program under Cutcliffe having been the offense, it is surprising more aren’t talking about an unproven quarterback and lack of experienced receivers instead of youth in the secondary.
Duke got a bit of a bump in public opinion after last season, so many could excuse them if they fell off and finished the year 5-7. However, this year is a measuring stick of sorts. Has the program improved enough to continue the strides made by last year’s team? Has the program improved enough in its depth chart to replace starters after graduation with equally talented players? Has the program learned how to win and keep winning?
When you look at Duke Football you can no longer make assessments and judgments based on what you know of the program from it’s past. A new history is being written, one where Cutcliffe says he wants to see Duke not only be competitive in the ACC, but win the ACC Championship. A monumental task, still he believes it and his players are beginning to believe it, even if no one else does.
Last year the question was can Duke get to a bowl game and they did just that. This year there is less pressure but more questions. Those answers will go a long way to seeing how the Blue Devils measure up to their past and signal a new future for the program.