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Schedule says: A bowl possible

Two years ago the win total was four games, last season it was five, and this season Duke fans hope the total to at least be six, which would qualify for the Blue Devils for their first bowl game since 1994’s Hall of Fame Bowl. Head coach David Cutcliffe eagerly anticipates his team’s journey to begin.

“I can’t remember—this is an honest statement—being more excited about starting a season than I am with this group,” Cutcliffe said.

The Opener:

ELON (September 4)

The opener against the Phoenix will be crucial as the Blue Devils look to start the season on a positive note. Last season a swine flu-ravaged Duke lost to FCS school Richmond at this juncture, and it severely damaged the season’s bowl hopes. Elon is not of the same caliber as that Richmond team, which was the defending FCS national champion, but the Phoenix do return thirteen starters to a team that made the FCS playoffs last season, so they should not be taken lightly.

Key Non-Conference Games:

ALABAMA (September 18)

The Blue Devils face football juggernaut Alabama—the defending national champion, with a quarterback who has never lost a game as a starter on any competitive level—in this early season matchup. The Tide boasts a reloaded defense and a host of NFL prospects, including last season’s Heisman winner Mark Ingram and standout wide reciever Julio Jones. Although the Blue Devils look overmatched, the game will give Duke Football national exposure and a good showing could boost morale.

ARMY (September 25)

Army is a team in a similar situation to Duke: In the past few years the Cadets have brought in a new coach, Rich Ellerson, who oversaw an improvement in the win total to five games last season. After starting 12 games as a true freshman, sophomore quarterback Trent Steelman is expected to have enough experience to get the Cadets over the hump to bowl eligibility, the Blue Devils’s same goal. This matchup will be closely contested as Army will look to avenge last year’s 35-19 loss to Duke, but with this year’s game in the friendly confines of Wallace Wade, the home team should have the edge.

Navy (October 30th)

Navy and its dreaded triple option attack will host the Blue Devils in Annapolis the day before Halloween. The Midshipmen have not missed a beat since Paul Johnson left the program for Georgia Tech two years ago, and under Ken Niumatalolo, Navy won 10 games last season. Expectations for another solid year are just as high this time and with dynamic quarterback Ricky Dobbs, some experts have tipped Navy to be the next mid-major team to break into a BCS bowl game. Coming off huge matchups the previous weeks against Miami and Virginia Tech, Duke will need a good showing against Navy to build momentum for the tail end of the season.

Winnable ACC games:

Wake Forest (September 11)

Last season was a disappointment for Jim Grobe’s Deamon Deacons as a 5-7 record prevented them from qualifying for a bowl. This year could also be a struggle as record-breaking quarterback Riley Skinner, who graduated with the ACC record in completion percentage, has questionable impact replacements. With wins against Maryland and N.C. State, the Blue Devils showed last year that they could beat rebuilding ACC teams, like Wake Forest is this season.

Maryland (October 2)

Head coach of the Terrapins Ralph Friedgen might be in the hottest seat in the ACC after last season’s 2-10 record, the most losses in one year in the school’s history. With many uncertainties—namely a non-battle tested defense—Maryland should be a team the Blue Devils can handle on the road.

VIRGINIA (November 6)

The 2010 season marks the beginning of the Mike London era in Charlottesville and expectations are not lofty to start. Question marks abound throughout the roster and quarterback is no exeption, as it seems to be for many of the ACC’s lower rung squads. London handed senior Mark Verica—who did not play against Duke last year and was less than impressive two years ago in a 28-point loss to the Blue Devils—the starting nod.

NORTH CAROLINA (November 27)

A few weeks ago expectations for the 2010 Tar Heels were reminiscent of the expectations placed on some of Mack Brown’s former teams in Chapel Hill. Now in the midst of a scandal involving agents and academic fraud, it is hard to know how this season will turn out for North Carolina. Marvin Austin, Greg Little, Robert Quinn and Bruce Carter all have question marks surrounding their future with the team. One player sure to start for the Tar Heels, however, is TJ Yates, who in his previous three years has been suspect in leading the talented offense around him, and who threw for 15 interceptions last season. The possible absence of impact players like Austin and Quinn, added to the presence of Yates, could prove to be the key in Duke taking the Victory Bell.

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