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Talking Football: Duke-Vanderbilt Preview

Editor's Note: Because of some technical difficulties with our video camera, Ben Cohen and Matthew Iles decided to just type out this week's episode of Talking Football. We hope it's not too long and that you enjoy. For those newcomers to the blog—and, well, to our veteran readers, too—feel free to drop your thoughts in the comments section below. (Lots) more after the jump.

Matthew Iles: Hey there, Ben. What's good?

Ben Cohen: Not the Blue Devils, apparently. In fact, "not good" was the exact way I was doing to describe the way the Blue Devils must be feeling before you preempted me. After all, the last time we talked (on camera, that is), Duke was 3-1 and everything looked rosy. One shutout and another awful second half later, the Blue Devils are 3-3, look bound for another losing season and the optimism they built with a 31-3 win over a suddenly, um, good Virginia team is slowly draining.

Iles: That's right. This team clearly had some mental breakdowns against Miami last weekend, and we watched it result in a 49-31 loss in which Duke was outscored 35-7 in the game's last 29 minutes. Not good. What we once knew as a second-half team after its first four games has looked anything but in its last two. This staff prided itself on halftime adjustments, but the team has simply laid eggs after halftime in its last two losses. But to be fair, the burden has to be on these players-between silly penalties, dropped passes and dropped interceptions, Duke just hasn't capitalized on the chances it needed to beat good teams.

Cohen: Sure, that's true, but I think it's also somewhat shallow to blame the players. Against Miami, the talent discrepancy was vast and hard to overcome. I would even argue that the Hurricanes' depth and rampant athleticism forced Duke into all those mistakes and three-and-outs. Which brings us, of course, to this week and next week, because I think it's fair to say that Vanderbilt and Wake Forest don't have the level of talent of Miami and even Georgia Tech. They're two well-coached programs with similar academic impediments and urged patience in developing. Most of all, I think these two games provide perhaps Duke's best opportunities for marquee wins-if the Blue Devils play well, I think they can beat these two teams, whereas I'm not sure they can beat a team like Virginia Tech or could have beaten Georgia Tech.

Iles: Key word being if. If this Blue Devil team can play well has just as much to do with their athletic talent as it does their mental fortitude. I mean, after Miami stormed back, we were all given a dose of deja vu as Duke reverted to its old ways of pure awfulness. Simply put, if Duke is challenged early by Vanderbilt, the players have to respond. I mean, dig deep and play their heart out-any of those great Rudy-like clichés-it'll be interesting to see if they can. So again, the word of this game is if. If Duke can play like we saw it play against Virginia and Navy and James Madison, the Blue Devils will be back in the win column and the discussion of a bowl bid is back on the table.

Cohen: And that task is probably easier said than done for a few reasons: David Cutcliffe's squad will be playing a team looking for its first bowl bid since 1982-on its Homecoming weekend, to boot-and Duke will have to pull off the upset without wide receivers Raphael Chestnut and Austin Kelly, both of whom are out with leg injuries. The load is going to fall squarely on true freshmen wideouts Johnny Williams and Donovan Varner, especially because Eron Riley is going to be hawked by All-SEC cornerback D.J. Moore. And in order to pass, Duke will have to run-a lot, and well. The good news is that the Blue Devils did move the chains on the ground last week, racking up 194 yards of running offense. Before we move on, though, I do want to point out that talking about Duke's bowl chances has been a frustrating endeavor. We've discussed it every single week because it's so easy to debate, and I suppose we have to talk about it now. Simply put, if Duke wins one of its next two games, it puts itself in a position to get a bid. I know we said that last week's game against Miami was a must-win, but we'll recant for at least another week. Realistically, if Duke can beat Vanderbilt or Wake-again, not easy-it can beat N.C. State and potentially knock off UNC on the season's last weekend with a bowl berth hanging in the balance. That, or beat Clemson-that seems to be ho-hum these days. But can you imagine Cutcliffe leading Duke into Wallace Wade Stadium Nov. 29 in his first immersion into the Tobacco Road rivalry with a bowl bid on the line?

Iles: Ben, Ben, Ben. You're acting like a kid asking for a bicycle for Christmas when you've been getting nothing but coal for the last umpteen years. I know Duke fans were pretty spoiled early with those three (admittedly impressive) wins. But this is still Duke. And this is still a Commodore team that was once ranked No. 13 in the nation. Vanderbilt did drop one to a weak (OK, really weak) Mississippi State team, which might be an encouraging sign. But then Bobby Johnson's suad bounced back and gave No. 9 Georgia a scare last week. About this game specifically, though, you nailed it on the head. Duke runs for more than three yards a carry, protects the ball against a team that's averaging almost two picks per game, and avoids those dreaded three-and-outs, and the team walks out winners. I don't think Vanderbilt can outscore Duke if it performs that well. Of course, there we are again: if. It all comes down to execution, one of our favorite football buzzwords.

Cohen:  And now you sound like a Ted Roof apologist. Yeah, if Duke had scored more than the other team sometimes, it would have won more than two games in three years. That's true, Iles. And if either of us had any athletic talent, we would still be playing sports, not writing about them. Also true. And now another truth: We need to get to predictions soon, because we've reached our limit on this written version of Talking Football-also known as a typical blog post. In typical Marty Mornhinweg fashion-how are those Lions doing this year, bud?-I'll defer to you.

Iles: OK, let me address both of your personal shots before I get to my pick. I think the Lions have about as much chance of winning a Super Bowl this year as you do of beating me in any (read that again, any) sporting event. But I'm not going to drag our readers into this, so let's just handle this offline. All right, Cohen? As far as the Blue Devils are concerned, they're up against it this weekend. A win, and, like we said, bowl conversation begins anew. A loss, and I think this season spirals out of control. That being said, I'm going to go with the latter: Vanderbilt 27, Duke 17. And I'll add a little something extra thing week. I'm going to set the Thaddeus Lewis interceptions over-under at 1.5, and I'm taking the over. Nothing against Thad, but this secondary is special-and will win this game for the Commodores.

Cohen: Wow, Iles, you're picking against Duke? I guess there's a first for everything-including, I should say, you beating me at ping pong. I happen to be really good. Moving to a more masculine sport, I'm with you. I just can't see the Blue Devils beating Vanderbilt, not with the Commodores ready to snap a losing streak and not with the Commodores ready to clinch a bowl berth. I don't, however, think the Blue Devils will play badly-I just think Vanderbilt will play better. I actually think Duke will put up some points in this one, and I think the team will respond to Michael Tauiliili's Tuesday challenge. So the prediction: Vanderbilt 35, Duke 24. Thad and the Blue Devils will be fine. Vanderbilt will just be better. And what a position I'm in-I have the last word! Well, I won't say anything too demeaning. You are bigger than me.


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