CHARLOTTE, N.C.—When the Coastal Division players gathered for a group photo before press conferences began at ACC football media day Friday, there were plenty of unfamiliar faces.
Gone were North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky—the No. 2 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft—Miami’s Brad Kaaya and Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman, all gunslingers who were taken in the draft this spring.
Duke redshirt sophomore Daniel Jones has one ACC win under his belt as a starting quarterback, as many as any other signal-caller in the division. Virginia’s Kurt Benkert is the only other returning starter in the Coastal and picked up his one conference win against the Blue Devils last season.
For a division that seems wide open every year, the Coastal will be as unpredictable as ever this season.
“Since we’ve started participating in it, you could put the Coastal Division teams in a hat and pull a name out, and you’ve got a shot at picking the champion,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We are in that position, although I think there are teams that have certain advantages in our division.”
Four years ago, the Blue Devils emerged from a division with no dominant teams to advance to the ACC championship game.
But last year, they felt the flip side of playing in the Coastal with very few bad teams. Duke finished last in the division with a 1-7 ACC record and failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
“It’s without question one of the top to bottom tougher divisions in all of football,” Cutcliffe said. “We should have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.... We’ve raised our expectations of ourselves. We were hurt by what occurred a year ago.”
And the rotating ACC schedule will do the Blue Devils no favors this year, either, pitting them against Florida State, which could potentially be named the favorite to win the ACC crown when preseason media picks are released next week.
The odds are in favor of Duke finishing somewhere between first and last this season, but where it falls in that range is anybody’s guess with some of its toughest conference games coming at Wallace Wade Stadium. If the Blue Devils could steal a home win against Miami or Florida State, it could move them up several spots in the standings, but they could just as easily falter on the road against a team like Virginia.
The Cavaliers only have four conference wins in the last two seasons, but half of those have come against the Blue Devils. They are one of three teams in the Coastal, along with Pittsburgh and the Hurricanes, that enter the season with a two-game winning streak against Duke.
“We know what to expect from the Coastal. It’s going to be a fight,” said redshirt senior cornerback Bryon Fields, the only Blue Devil remaining that appeared on the field in the 2013 ACC championship game. “The good thing about that is we do have some experience coming back. We have Daniel coming back. He understands what it’s like to be in those games.”
Although most of the Coastal will be transitioning to new starting quarterbacks, there is likely to be at least one diamond in the rough among the newcomers. Jerod Evans had never taken a Division I snap before leading Virginia Tech to a first-place finish last year—he then elected to go pro after the season—and Trubisky was in just his first year as a starter at North Carolina.
“Maybe you don’t hear the names returning or you don’t hear some of the more notable players, but at the end of the day, you don’t really know,” Jones said. “The best thing we can do is focus on ourselves and make sure that we’re the best version of Duke as possible.”
Having a starting quarterback that was able to shake off some early growing pains last season could help Duke more in the first few weeks of this season. The Blue Devils’ first two ACC games are against the Tar Heels and Miami, and both of those teams will have quarterback competitions in fall camp.
If Duke can get off to a 2-0 ACC start in September against two of its most important Coastal competitors, redemption from last year’s disappointment will be almost assured, and yet another magical year might then not be that far off.