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Point: Duke football has too many veterans to miss the postseason in 2016

<p>Sophomore wideout T.J. Rahming is one of many talented playmakers stepping into a larger role for the Blue Devils this season.&nbsp;</p>

Sophomore wideout T.J. Rahming is one of many talented playmakers stepping into a larger role for the Blue Devils this season. 

This column is part of the dueling columnist segment in our ACC football preview. The counterpoint can be viewed here.

There are several reasons fans should be hesitant about Duke's 2016 season. The Blue Devils are relatively young up front on both sides of the ball, have a new quarterback and face a more difficult schedule than they have in recent years.

But none of those question marks matter because Duke is too talented and too well-coached to win fewer than six games in 2016 and miss a bowl for the first time in five years. 

Much has been made about the Blue Devils' daunting schedule, with Duke facing preseason top-25 opponents in Notre Dame, Louisville and North Carolina this season.

Have we forgotten about the other nine games?

The Blue Devils have three games this year that they should win if they execute—their season opener against N.C. Central, Week 2 at home against Wake Forest and Oct. 8 at home against Army. Duke outscored the Eagles and Black Knights by a combined score of 99-3 last season, and although the Demon Deacons have played the Blue Devils tough in recent years, a healthy Duke defense should make life tough on an offense that averaged 17.4 points per game last year—the second-worst mark in the ACC.

The remaining six contests are against teams that at this point are neither markedly better nor worse than the Blue Devils. Picking Duke to win three of those six is completely reasonable.

Although the Blue Devils play four of the six on the road—at Northwestern, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Miami—Duke has demonstrated its ability to score key road wins in the David Cutcliffe era. Cutcliffe's squad came away with a huge four-overtime win against the Hokies in Blacksburg last year, and picked up road victories against the Panthers and the Yellow Jackets in 2014.

With a steady running game headlined by veterans Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, the Blue Devils will be able to take pressure off redshirt freshman signal caller Daniel Jones. And now that cornerback Bryon Fields has recovered from a torn ACL, Duke's secondary should be able to limit the explosive plays that plagued the defense late in the 2015 season.

It's true that the Blue Devils are inexperienced on the defensive line, but they also have more raw talent and depth at the position than they have in recent years, with several talented recruits itching to make their mark and harass opposing quarterbacks. Duke's least experienced position group also has a new position coach in Ben Albert, who led a Boston College defensive line that was among the nastiest units in the ACC, keeping the Eagles in games despite an anemic offense.

These three factors give the Blue Devils a good chance against teams that struggle to throw the football, and there are at least three—if not more—such teams on the list in question. 

Northwestern ranked 119th out of 127 FBS teams in passing offense last season with 138.5 yards per game through the air. With its triple-option attack—one that Duke has defended successfully the last two times it has played the Yellow Jackets—Georgia Tech ranked 123rd with 121.8. And even with All-ACC wide receiver Tyler Boyd running crisp routes, Pittsburgh was 99th in the nation with only 190.6 yards passing per contest.

The Panthers get 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner back and have one of the most physical offensive lines in the nation, but the Blue Devils will have their fair share of chances against methodical offenses that lean on their running games.

And even if it falters once or twice against that trio, Duke will have more chances to make yet another postseason against teams adjusting to new head coaches.

Virginia's Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente and Miami's Mark Richt are among the most well-respected coaches in the country, but trying to make too many changes in their first years without the right personnel could lead to trouble, especially for the Cavaliers and Hokies.

Both teams are trying to transition to up-tempo offenses without quarterbacks who have shown they can excel in such systems against ACC competition. Virginia faces major questions at wide receiver as it adjusts to life with East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert, who was named the starter ahead of returner Matt Johns. And although Virginia Tech returns almost its entire offensive line and key playmakers at running back, tight end and wide receiver, the Hokies will still be inconsistent on offense unless Brenden Motley or junior college transfer Jerod Evans make an extremely quick transition to Fuente's fast-paced structure.

In contrast to those teams, even the new Blue Devil starters are familiar with Duke's offensive and defensive systems, having been in Durham for at least one year to learn from last December's historic bowl win. And let's not forget the importance of limiting penalties and turnovers and making big plays in special teams, areas where the Blue Devils should excel again—even with a new kicker and punter—thanks to the speed of their return men and tutelage of Cutcliffe and his staff. 

At first glance, it might appear that Duke is bound for a rebuilding year.

But with the level of talent growing each year, don't be surprised if the Blue Devils exceed expectations yet again and make it to another bowl game. 


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