I know what my counterpart will say. All-time Duke greats have graduated. The defensive secondary has serious concerns. Last year was the first time Duke went to a bowl game since 1994, and lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place!
Well, even Bill Nye the Science Guy would have to admit that the Blue Devils’ chances of going back to a bowl game are not only high, but also perhaps even higher than a season ago.
Let’s get the obvious concerns out of the way. This season, redshirt junior Anthony Boone will takeover as the full-time starter for the first time in his career. Boone has thrown six touchdown passes and three interceptions in 148 pass attempts in his career thus far, although four of those touchdowns came in one game against Virginia a year ago. He also is not the accurate passer now-Atlanta Falcon Sean Renfree was over the course of his collegiate career.
However, Boone’s playmaking ability in this offense will suit him well.
Where Renfree was mostly a pocket-passer, Boone offers an out for the offensive line if the pocket is closing around him. He’ll have four capable running backs in Jela Duncan, Josh Snead, Juwan Thompson and Shaquille Powell to dump the ball off if necessary, one of the fastest receivers in the ACC in Jamison Crowder, and let’s not forget the do-it-all glue guy Brandon Connette.
Perhaps the biggest reason why this offense will not miss a beat on the scoreboard is the experience on the offensive line. The starting line will return four of last year’s starters, including two juniors and two seniors. With that kind of experience up front, Boone will have more time in the pocket and the running game could flourish. With a dual-threat quarterback in Boone, Duke may also run the ball more, a noteworthy change considering how infrequently the Blue Devils have run with success in recent years. However, a small sample size from a season ago, in which Duke ran for 180 yards or more three times, including the Belk Bowl, may be evidence enough that this team is ready to become more dynamic on offense.
There are also a slew of returning defensive studs, including Ross Cockrell and Kenny Anunike, who will anchor this veteran defense. The defensive backfield may need some time to get its rhythm, but the defensive line can really get to the quarterback. Anunike and Justin Foxx will bring the heat at defensive end, opening up space for returners CJ France and Kelby Brown, both slated to start at linebacker. When you have that kind of experience forcing the offense’s hand, even an inexperienced secondary can force turnovers.
One could make a compelling argument that the dynamic special teams duo of Will Monday and Ross Martin will keep the Blue Devils on pace for their first bowl game. Monday averaged roughly 45 yards a punt a year ago. Martin made 20 of his 23 field goal attempts and missed only one extra point. Both have worked hard to improve and make a difference on this team, which is part of the reason why both are ranked in the top 10 of their respective positions entering the 2013 season.
Where this bowl prediction becomes most interesting is the strength of schedule for Duke, or perhaps lack thereof. Seven of the twelve games will be played in Wallace Wade. The Blue Devils non-conference schedule consists of N.C. Central (4-8), Memphis (6-5), Troy (5-7) and Navy (8-5) —teams that went a combined 23-25 last season. Account for the weak schedules each of those teams had a season ago and you have four very winnable games right there!
Duke’s ACC schedule isn’t too difficult either. Rather than play top 10 teams such as Florida State and Clemson, the Blue Devils will instead play Pittsburgh and N.C. State. In fact, Duke will not take on a single team ranked in the preseason AP top 25. I’m not sure these are guaranteed wins by any means, but they’re certainly more winnable than some of last year’s games.
The Blue Devils have a bad taste in their mouths after last year’s heartbreak at the Belk Bowl. With experience and a weaker schedule, Duke will have another shot at postseason play this season.