2014 Record: 9-4
F/+ Rank: 51
Wins: Elon, Troy, Kansas, Tulane, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Wake Forest
Losses: Miami, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Arizona State
A year after they shocked the world by winning 10 games and advancing to the ACC Championship Game, the Duke Blue Devils took an expected step back in 2014. Sure, they won nine games and finished second in their division, one game back of a top-10 ranked Georgia Tech team they defeated during the season. But there was something missing from the Blue Devils last season.
Duke opened up the year unranked, pasting FCS Elon (52-13), Troy (34-17 on the road), Kansas (41-3), and Tulane (47-13). But those were four teams (three of which didn't play in power conferences) that combined to win 10 games all season. When Duke finally met a team capable of winning a football, it was Miami, and the Hurricanes dispatched the Blue Devils behind 155 rushing yards by running back Duke Johnson.
Standing at 4-1, the Blue Devils needed a good showing against Georgia Tech on the road in order to shake the murmurs that they were going to get into a bowl by simply scheduling weak teams (I see you, NC State). The Yellow Jackets, ranked 22nd at this point in the season, hadn't lost to Duke in 10 years.
But Duke induced a couple of interceptions by Justin Thomas and another fumble and scored a couple of touchdowns on the ground behind Thomas Sirk to stake themselves to a 31-12 lead. They held off a mad dash comeback from the Jackets to win 31-25, improving to 5-1 and announcing themselves as contenders in the wide open Coastal Division.
They weren't ranked, however, until two weeks later. After knocking off Virginia, 20-13, Duke traveled up to Pittsburgh and engaged in a double-overtime thriller, defeating the Panthers, 51-48. Now #24 in the nation, they followed that up with a 27-10 victory in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. Back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech (17-16) and North Carolina (45-20) knocked them out of the rankings, but they finished the year strong with a Tobacco Road victory at home over Wake Forest (41-21).
Finishing with nine wins, there was concern from the BC fandom that Duke could somehow wind up in the Pinstripe Bowl while Boston College would go to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The concern wasn't just because it would've pushed BC out of a game in nearby New York City; the opponent awaiting the ACC team was Arizona State, a team that had ranked in the top 10 after throttling Notre Dame earlier in the year.
When the chips fell, the Blue Devils were the team holding the straw. Playing tough football against a very good team, Duke rallied from down 20-3 in the second quarter to 20-17 by halftime. ASU went up 30-17 in the third, but again Duke came back, grabbing a 31-30 lead late in the fourth quarter. But Kalen Ballage returned a kickoff 96 yards to set up a four yard pass, and Arizona State walked away with a 36-31 victory.
Series: Boston College leads, 4-2
First matchup: 1927 (Duke won, 25-9)
Last matchup: 2011 (Duke won, 20-19)
What David Cutcliffe accomplished at Duke in seven years is nothing short of miraculous. He took a team that hadn't beaten an ACC opponent in over three years and had only three winning seasons in the previous 25 seasons. And even though he struggled in his first four years to win consistently, he produced a 3-5 conference season when the team went 5-7 in his second year. In 2011, his 3-9 Blue Devils team went 1-7 in ACC play - with their lone win coming in Chestnut Hill. You'll remember that game as the one when Nate Freese clanked the upright in the loudest miss I've ever heard in my life.
In 2012, Duke went to its first bowl game since 1995. In 2013, it went to the ACC Championship Game, following it up with nine wins last year.
Cutcliffe's known as the "quarterback whisperer," but he's made Duke a legitimate program from top to bottom. When he was fired from Ole Miss in 2004, it was because he finished under .500 and he refused to fire any of his staff members. When Lane Kiffin departed Tennessee, he was the leading candidate to leave but chose to stay at Duke because that's where he wanted to be. He's a loyal guy, and it's hard to dislike what he's accomplished because he is as respectable as he is.
Offensively, whoever is playing quarterback (more below) is going to have weapons to throw to. Even without Jamison Crowder in the lineup, Duke brings back Max McCaffrey and Braxton Deaver. Deaver is considered one of the best tight ends in the league, and McCaffrey (a big target at 6'2") is a solid possession receiver with over 50 catches in the last two seasons. This will be his time to shine.
Defensively, the secondary is very good, with DeVon Edwards coming back (joined by Jeremy Cash). That's a good sign for the Blue Devils, especially with an inexperienced defensive line that may have trouble getting to the quarterback.
Duke lost a big cog of their offensive line when Laken Tomlinson, the 28th overall pick in this year's NFL Draft, graduated. A four year starter, the Blue Devils have to find a way to replace a guy who started 52 games and was the ACC Male Athlete of the Year last year.
Who steps in is a question, but with a couple of full recruiting cycles under his belt, the Blue Devils have to hope the sum is greater than the full parts.
Returning Quarterback: No
Anthony Boone is gone, replaced by what we think will be Thomas Sirk. The 6'4" passer completed 10 of his 14 passing attempts last year for three touchdowns. He played the most against Elon, going 5-for-7 for 40 yards in mop up duty.
It might be a big time switch for the Blue Devils given Sirk's propensity for running the football. He nearly broke 100 yards in the win over Tulane, rushing five times for 94 yards and a touchdown. He scored twice against Georgia Tech, then did it again in the double overtime win over Pitt. So expect Duke, a multiple formation type of offense, to use more option and running than they have in the past.
Biggest Problem for 2015:
Duke has some big time strengths on their lineup, but the enter the season with some major question marks that can belie those positives. The Blue Devils have a good secondary, but their defensive line and linebackers leave something to be desired. They have good running backs, but they may be overtaxed by a passing game lacking a true threat. The offensive line is deep, but it lost its best piece and will have some trouble replacing him - combined with an inexperienced signal caller who hasn't seen full time starting action.
If the strengths can power the weaknesses into development, the Blue Devils stand poised for another good season. If not, however, then they're going to run into some major problems that may ruin whatever good's been built in the offseason.
Biggest Strength for 2015:
See above. If Duke's secondary gives the front seven enough time, they should be able to get into the backfield. If the running game is effective enough, then the possession receivers and strong tight end play should help buoy the quarterback position. If they can develop a couple of threats on all sides of the ball, they're going to be a very good team for a third consecutive season.