The independent news organization of Duke University


This year’s Blue Devils are bowl ready

1995 was a year chalk full of history. Forest Gump won the Oscar for Best Picture, San Francisco 49er Steve Young threw a record six touchdowns in a 49-26 Super Bowl XXIX win over the San Diego Chargers, and an estimated 150 million people watched as a jury ruled O.J. Simpson not guilty of murder.

1995 also marks the last time that Duke football qualified for a bowl game.

While 17 years may have passed, Blue Devil fans should believe this year’s team has the potential to break the streak.

Since head coach David Cutcliffe arrived in Durham for his first season in 2008, Duke has been rejuvenated with new hope. Now, in his first season with all of his own recruits, Cutcliffe will try to do what no coach has done since William D. “Bill” Murray was the head man in 1960: qualify for and win a bowl game.

Start with the schedule. This season, the Blue Devils will play 12 opponents that had a combined .571 winning percentage last year, good for an average of 7.33 wins per team. Of those 12 teams, nine played in a bowl game, though it should be noted only Florida State won its playoff contest. These numbers stay roughly the same as the 2011 campaign, with a slightly higher winning percentage and wins per team average in 2012. With that being said, the big difference will be which teams Duke will play at home.

Five of the seven teams the Blue Devils faced at Wallace Wade a year ago participated in a bowl game, a large reason why the team managed only a 1-6 home record. This season’s projected numbers look more promising.

The average win total for teams coming to Wallace Wade this fall is slightly less than last season (6.14 wins per team compared to 7.43), and the ACC schedule is noticeably easier. All four teams Duke played at home last year ended up in the top three of their respective ACC divisions. This season? Only Clemson and an upstart Virginia team finished in the same range.

When it comes to breaking down the action on the field, the Blue Devils will look to their offense to lead the charge. Duke averaged 22.5 points per game in 2011, the lowest total since Cutcliffe’s first year as head coach. Having said that, the unit is poised to have a solid run this season.

Eight of the eleven starters from the 2011 campaign will return for the Blue Devils, including pre-season fourth team All-American Conner Vernon. The senior is on pace to be the most successful receiver not only in Duke history, but also in ACC history.

Vernon is coming off of a season in which he caught 70 balls for 956 yards and six touchdowns, making him the only receiver in ACC history to catch at least 70 passes in back-to-back seasons. Looking forward to 2012, Vernon needs only 34 catches to match the record for the most catches by an ACC receiver ever.

Vernon isn’t the only reason that the Blue Devils’ passing has become one of the most dangerous in the conference. Both junior Brandon Braxton and preseason All-ACC sophomore Jamison Crowder will return and start for the receiving core alongside Vernon. Duke is also set at the quarterback position, with Sean Renfree passing for 3,000 yards for only the fourth time in school history.

Overall, the losses of Donovan Varner and Cooper Helfet will hurt the offense, considering how pass-heavy the offense has been, but the strength and maturity of the offensive line may take more pressure off the passing game and jump-start a dormant running attack.

Brian Moore and Laken Tomlinson will anchor an offensive line that returns four of five starters. The unit achieved success last season, helping the Blue Devils rank second in passing offense and third in sacks allowed per passing attempt in the ACC. Now, Moore and Tomlinson will have to take their games to the next level to open holes for senior Desmond Scott.

What may be the most important number to look at this year will be the point differential per game. In Cutcliffe’s first two years, Duke averaged about three points less than their opponents in each game, but that differential has ballooned to 10.12 and 8.66 points in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

With the loss of three defensive backfield starters, including All-ACC safety Matt Daniels, the x-factor this season will be stopping big offensive plays. Last season, 16 of the 45 touchdowns allowed by the Blue Devils were on plays of 10 yards or more.

The statistics can be overwhelming, but here’s the bottom line: Duke has a more favorable home schedule and perhaps the best overall offensive attack Cutcliffe has ever had. If the Blue Devils can prevent opposing offenses from getting too many big offensive plays, there’s a strong chance that Duke can return to postseason play.


Share and discuss “This year’s Blue Devils are bowl ready” on social media.