Team: Duke Blue Devils
2014 record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)
Recap: What David Cutcliffe has done during his seven years in Durham is nothing short of magical. Before his arrival, the only consistent thing about Duke’s football program was the inevitable double-digit loss column that followed a dismal season—the Blue Devils went 22-125 from 1995-2007, its best performance coming in 1998 at 4-7.
That’s an average of 1.7 wins per season. Which is not good.
Cutcliffe set up shop in 2008 and immediately went to work on the laughing stock of the ACC, winning 15 games in his first four years while slowly establishing a new culture—and creating a sleeping giant in the process.
In 2012, Duke finally took that next step into unknown territory with its first bowl appearance in nearly two decades. And then in 2013, it happened—Duke became a good football team, winning 10 games and a Coastal division title for the first time in school history, before barely missing the same mark again in 2014.
It’s clear that Cutcliffe has made his mark and that Duke has earned everyone’s respect. However, with a senior class that had much to do with those record-breaking accolades gone, we’re going to see what kind of depth the Blue Devils have been building over the last two years, and whether they can sustain the momentum as a contender for the ACC once again.
It might be more of a rebuilding year in preparation of a breakout 2016 campaign, but then again, Cutcliffe isn’t someone to doubt.
Key player: DeVon Edwards, Jr., S and Jeremy Cash, Sr., S
Both deserve to be listed here as they are arguably the best one-two safety combo in the ACC. The two combined for 195 tackles last season (25 percent of the team’s total) with 19 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 28 passes defended and nine forced fumbles. Edwards and Cash are a two-man wrecking crew and will continue to devastate opposing offenses.
Biggest strength: Secondary
Here’s the Part B portion to Edwards and Cash’s role to this 2015 Duke team. They’re joined by returning starters Bryon Fields and Breon Borders at corner, who provided stability for a Blue Devils defense that struggled mightily against the run (192.9 yards per game—13th in ACC) and is relatively small up front. If the front seven can avoid pressuring its secondary from having to continuously be the second line of defense nearly every play, it can allow these disruptive DBs to create more plays by way of turnover, getting an unproved offense as many good opportunities as it can.
Biggest weakness: Passing game
Duke’s pass-first offense ranked 85th nationally in efficiency (119.8 rating), and now Cutcliffe replaces his starting quarterback and top two receivers. Junior Thomas Sirk looks the part (6-foot-4, 215) and has good mobility, but has 14 pass attempts on his resume and has obvious fundamental issues with his throwing motion. With the elusive Jamison Crowder now a member of the Washington Redskins, finding a viable playmaker at receiver is going to be vital for Sirk’s early development.
Most important game: vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 26)
If you’re going to contend for the division, the first thing you need to do is beat the defending champs. Even though its at home, this will be no easy feat—but then again, it’s the Coastal, and weird things tend to happen around these parts.
Best-case scenario: 10-2 (6-2)
To reiterate, this is a best-case scenario … not necessarily what is likely to occur. That said, there’s enough talent on this Duke roster to legitimately compete for a third straight year, and an ideal schedule that consists of home games against top Coastal contenders (Georgia Tech and Miami) helps tremendously.
Worst-case scenario: 6-6 (2-6)
Remember, kids: Duke didn’t win six games in a season for a 17-year stretch before 2012. This would probably come to a disappointment to some, but considering the circumstances, reaching a bowl game during a rebuild emphasizes the stability of where the program is today.
Early prediction: 8-4 (4-4)
Duke won’t be as good as it has been the last two years, but regression could be minimal if the offense finds its stride early in the season. Winning four conference games isn’t going to win them the Coastal, but it definitely keeps them in the hunt—and it also provides a huge platform for a major step forward heading into a very promising 2016 season.