As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its ACC schedule when it travels to North Carolina to play Duke on Nov. 16.
DUKE’S UP AND DOWN SEASON
Duke’s 2018 season is one that can be told in three separate acts.
The first act could be considered the rise of the Blue Devils. Unranked and picked fourth in the Coastal to start the 2018 season, Duke stormed out to a 4-0 start with wins against Army, Northwestern, Baylor and NC Central.
Duke rose to as high as No. 22 in the rankings before dropping a 31-14 game to Virginia Tech at home. That started a slide of three losses in four games, and then two blowout losses to end the season.
One was an understandable 35-6 road loss against Clemson before an unthinkable 59-7 rout at home against Wake Forest. That dropped Duke to 3-5 in conference play and sixth in the unpredictable Coastal Division.
Still, the Blue Devils reached the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons under head coach David Cutcliffe. While that might be standard fare for many Power 5 teams, especially in the ACC, consider that Duke had appeared in only two other bowl games since the 1961 to put things in proper perspective.
Which brings us to Act III. The Blue Devils enjoyed a 56-27 demolition of Temple in the Independence Bowl, as NFL-bound Daniel Jones threw for 423 and five touchdowns.
The Blue Devils ended with eight wins on the season, tied for the third highest win total of the Cutcliffe era.
» Related: Previewing Syracuse’s rivalry matchup with Boston College
WHO TO WATCH FOR
Duke will undergo a change in offensive philosophy this season because of the talent it lost in 2018.
The Blue Devils leaned on their aerial attack last year, led by Jones, who the New York Giants drafted with the sixth overall pick of the 2019 draft. While it was a controversial pick, Jones did throw for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns in his senior season in just 11 games.
He missed the team’s third and fourth game of the season because of injury, and was replaced by Quentin Harris, who will be the starter in his senior season. Though it was a small sample size, Harris made the most of his opportunities, throwing for 437 yards and an impressive seven touchdowns to just one interception.
But Duke will be more of a run-based team this season because not only is it replacing its quarterback, it also has to overhaul its wide receiver core.
The top four receivers from last year’s team are gone, and the Blue Devils don’t have much proven talent behind them. Its leading returning receivers are sophomore Jake Bobo, who had 10 catches for 167 yards and senior Aaron Young (seven catches for 139 yards).
Instead, Cutcliffe will rely on a deep stable of running backs, led by Deon Jackson (847 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) and Brittain Brown (369 yards, three TDs). Cutcliffe will also likely use Harris more in running situations, as he is far more mobile than Jones (195 rushing yards and five touchdowns).
They’ll be running behind an offensive line that has six separate players with starting experience. Though that sounds good in theory, but the Blue Devils surrendered 30 sacks last season and will need to replace two starters.
On defense, Duke must bolster a defense that surrendered 409 yards per game and finished 77th in total defense. The good news is that it returns eight starters; the bad news is that it lost stud linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys.
Still, there is plenty of talent on the defensive line, including Freshman All-American Chris Rumph II (24 tackles and three sacks). Returning ends Victor Dimukeje (42 tackles) and Drew Jordan (33 tackles and 2.5 sacks) are the heart and soul of this unit.
In the secondary, Duke returns cornerback Mark Gilbert, who missed most of 2018 with a hip injury. The Blue Devils are hoping he can replicate his sophomore season when he led the ACC in total passes defended (21).
Duke also gets back safety Dylan Singleton, who broke his ankle after 10 games in which he had 73 tackles, and had four games with at least 10 tackles.
Duke has an unforgiving schedule, starting right away with a home opener against college football blueblood Alabama. While they follow that up with a gimmie against North Carolina A&T, there are no surefire wins on the rest of the schedule. The other two non-conference games are a tough matchup at Middle Tennessee State and then a game against Notre Dame in November.
While there’s no Clemson on the schedule, Syracuse is probably the Atlantic Conference team that the Blue Devils would want to avoid.
Duke has only had one losing season under Cutcliffe, so it’s hard to bet against him. But the path to six wins will be difficult: Syracuse wins on the road 44-41.
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