Seven seasons—that’s how long it has been since Duke last won the ACC regular-season crown. 

Following 2017-18, that number will stretch to eight.

I have little doubt that the Blue Devils are the most talented team in the conference. Despite a roster that features seven scholarship freshmen, the leadership of Grayson Allen along with the raw ability of Marvin Bagley III and Gary Trent Jr., among others, are reasons why Duke is—and should be—the preseason favorite in the ACC.

But at the end of the day, the Blue Devils will not finish as regular-season conference champions yet again. And more than anything, this is a testament to a top-heavy ACC that will test one of the youngest Duke teams in the Mike Krzyzewski era. 

It starts with North Carolina, the reigning national champion that brings back its point guard in Joel Berry II and a pair of veteran leaders in Theo Pinson and Luke Maye. Add in Cameron Johnson, arguably the top transfer of the offseason, and though the Tar Heels lack depth, they have winning experience, plenty of talent and as good a coach as in the ACC outside of Krzyzewski.

Next is Notre Dame. Ever since the Fighting Irish joined the conference at the start of the 2013-14 season, no team has given the Blue Devils more trouble than Mike Brey’s squad—Duke is just 2-3 against Notre Dame in the regular season during that stretch in addition to two ACC tournament losses. The Fighting Irish have preseason conference player of the year Bonzie Colson and will likely start three seniors with a junior and a sophomore.

Miami is another older team whose guards could give the Blue Devils fits. Ja’Quan Newton is the Hurricanes’ lone senior, but they also have Bruce Brown Jr., who torched Duke for 40 points in two games last season—including an 11-for-18 shooting performance in South Florida. 

And even with all the drama that’s surrounded Louisville the last six weeks, the Cardinals should get things settled come ACC play. They have a solid core with Deng Adel, Anas Mahmoud, Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding and V.J. King plus a new coach in David Padgett, who will throw a different wrinkle into the mix when the Blue Devils host Louisville in late February.

With four other teams at the top plus Virginia Tech—and maybe Georgia Tech—it’s hard to feel confident that Duke will be atop the ACC standings come March 3.

Beyond just the teams as a whole, consider the schedule the Blue Devils will have to play this season. Although Duke will host three of those four premier teams, it still has to play on the road against North Carolina, Miami, the Hokies and the Yellow Jackets.

Also consider a pair of challenging four-game stretches on the Blue Devils’ schedule. 

In the span of 13 days, Duke hosts Notre Dame before racking up the air miles—the Blue Devils will visit New York to take on St. John’s, come back to a rivalry game in Chapel Hill and then three days later, travel to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech.

Later on in February, Duke closes out its regular season by hosting Louisville and Syracuse before venturing up to Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Tech and returning home for the season finale against the Tar Heels—all in a matter of 10 days.

Neither stretch is as treacherous as those of recent seasons past. The Blue Devils will avoid some of the ACC’s tougher venues, such as the Carrier Dome, the KFC Yum! Center and Purcell Pavilion. They also probably won’t play consecutive games against ranked opposition at any point in ACC play.

But the conference is far from easy. 

Duke has lost at least three ACC games every year since the 2005-06 season, when it finished 14-2 and captured the conference tournament title to boot. And every year of the past decade, the ACC regular-season champion has dropped four or fewer contests.

For all the advantages that Cameron Indoor provides, the Blue Devils have lost at least once at home in each of the last three seasons. It’s reasonable to imagine Duke then losing at least twice on the road at some combination of North Carolina, the Hurricanes and Hokies. If the Blue Devils were to lose even one more game to someone else along the line, their chances of a conference title would be quite slim.

At the end of the day, Allen and four five-star freshmen make this Duke team capable of anything. It is not far-fetched to think the Blue Devils could win the ACC regular-season or tournament crowns this year, as well as a national title.

But Duke will make plenty of mistakes, and in as talented a conference as the ACC, even the smallest slip-up can be the difference between a win and a loss.

Talent should carry the Blue Devils far—just not to first place this season.