To get it out of the way—the Blue Devils won’t make a bowl game this year, but it won’t be because they are worse than they were last year.
They have a good coach and a talented roster, they get an extra year under their belts in Jim Knowles’ unusual defense, and they will be a more experienced squad returning most of their playmakers, including some key players who missed last season. All of that means that it’s especially unfortunate that this year’s team is not even certain to exceed the 3-9 record of last season, let alone achieve the six wins necessary to earn the program its first bowl berth since the 1994 season.
There are three big questions that the Blue Devils need to answer if they are to reach the promised land of bowl eligibility, and the answers to all of them are cloudy at best.
First, who will replace Matt Daniels? Daniels broke up 14 passes last season. The entire starting secondary in 2012 had 14 pass breakups combined. Only one defensive starter had more than half as many tackles as Daniels did last season, and Daniels’ leadership on and off the field will be equally difficult to replace.
Second, who will catch the ball? Conner Vernon will return to the top of the wide receiver depth chart, but behind him, it’s a mess. Head coach David Cutcliffe begins the season with only two non-running backs who caught passes last year. Behind Vernon will be Jamison Crowder, a dynamic talent who has plenty of maturing to do with his increased role in the offense, and former tailback Desmond Scott, who will be one of many Blue Devils to change positions in 2012. There is upside in the receiving corps, but there is also plenty of risk.
And the most important question—who will they beat? Let’s get the obvious out of the way. North Carolina Central and the quarterback-less Memphis Tigers should be easy wins. Stanford and Florida State are top-10 material, and it would take a miracle of nearly unprecedented proportions for Duke to beat either of those teams on the road. So that’s two wins and two losses.
Florida International is a beatable team in the opener, with the Duke defense getting a game under its belt against a Panther offense that has lost its two primary weapons from last season. And since the Blue Devils were able to defeat Florida International last year, I’ll give them their third win.
This leaves the ACC schedule, which is where the major problem lies. This year’s conference schedule is extremely difficult, as Duke gets no breaks in the selection of the eight ACC teams that it must face. The Blue Devils have matchups against all of the clear top-five teams in the conference: Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
Arguably the sixth-best team, Miami, is also on the schedule, meaning that the three teams the Blue Devils face all come from the bottom five teams in the league. Missing Maryland—the one team that some pundits are projecting beneath Duke in the standings—is an especially tough blow.
But for the sake of argument, let’s try to get the Blue Devils to six wins. The Virginia game at home should be a winnable contest, since the Cavalier quarterback situation is uncertain at best, and the defense was decimated by graduation. That’s four.
Finding the last two is where things start to get tough. Miami’s talent left in droves following the Nevin Shapiro scandal, but Al Golden has brought in an elite recruiting class. If Duke were matching up with the Hurricanes early in the season, I might be more bullish about the Blue Devils’ prospects. But since Duke meets Miami in the season finale, Golden will have had plenty of time to get his young squad in order.
Wake Forest beat the Blue Devils by just one point last year, and Duke’s improvement should make it the better team this year—except that the game is on the road. Perhaps Duke could take advantage of a talented North Carolina squad still adjusting to a new coach after a tumultuous 2011 season. Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are all definite longshots, especially with two of those three games away from Durham.
So a bowl game will probably require wins in two very winnable games—against Florida International and Virginia—and pulling out two more wins from among Miami, Wake Forest and North Carolina. And given that even the winnable games have proven to be challenging for the Blue Devils in the recent past, the 2012 Duke team is not an especially good candidate to go bowling, even if it does end up being a better squad than it was last year.