After making a fourth consecutive bowl game and snapping a 54-year streak without a bowl win in the Pinstripe Bowl against Indiana, Duke’s football program appeared to be turning the corner.
In addition to the improved recruiting classes which led to more talent on the field, the Blue Devils’ renaissance led by head coach David Cutcliffe included a renovated stadium, better training facilities and even a new mantra—the “year of the beast”—to emphasize the team’s commitment to getting stronger and faster.
But instead of looking like a team on its way to another bowl, the Blue Devils find their season teetering and the progress they have made to get to this point is in jeopardy.
If losing to perennial ACC cellar-dweller Wake Forest wasn’t enough, Duke’s setback against a Northwestern team that lost to Western Michigan and Illinois State at home was alarming. And perhaps the most striking aspect of the team’s slow start is what lies ahead—road matchups against traditional blueblood Notre Dame, as well as a pair of top-15 teams in Louisville and Miami.
That's not to mention road tilts at Coastal Division rivals Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech and a Thursday night game against North Carolina, which has outscored its Tobacco Road rival 111-50 in the last two meetings.
At this point, the problems facing the Blue Devils are apparent, but the solutions simply don’t appear to be in sight. Starting quarterback Thomas Sirk isn’t walking back onto the field anytime soon, and my preseason prediction of 20 passing touchdowns for Daniel Jones—he has two through three games—makes me look borderline insane.
For every Duke positive, such as linebacker Joe Giles-Harris’ strong start on defense, there seems to be a matching negative, such as the struggle to find consistency at tight end and wide receiver.
The issue that should leave fans most worried is the trouble the Blue Devils have had in the trenches. The best programs in the country excel on both the offensive and defensive lines, and although I won’t confuse Duke with Alabama anytime soon, it would be a change to see running backs Shaun Wilson or Jela Duncan not run into an apparent brick wall of defenders on seemingly every carry.
Combine the team’s struggles with a tough schedule, and the result is a team that’s only favored by ESPN’s Football Power Index to win two games the rest of the season—home contests against Virginia and Army. Even the Army game is expected to be close, with FPI giving the Blue Devils a 52 percent chance to win.
It is for this reason that the next nine games for Duke may be some of the most crucial in program history.
Although the Blue Devils have attracted three- and four-star recruits away from in-state powerhouses in recent years, the program will have a tough time continuing to do so if it can’t stay competitive against conference opponents the rest of this season. Nonconference games against Notre Dame this year and Baylor in 2017 and 2018 will certainly attract attention to Duke football, but getting blown out in them may be worse than simply scheduling a few cupcake opponents.
The Blue Devils' effort to turn the season around faces a looming time constraint. With the footsteps of Duke men's basketball creeping up from behind, the Blue Devils will have to show improved play on the field in the coming weeks before all eyes and ears turn to the hardwood.
Of course, no one will mix the importance of men's basketball and football on Duke’s campus, but renovations to Wallace Wade Stadium haven’t exactly paid major dividends in terms of fan engagement and attendance at games so far this fall.
The remainder of the season also holds plenty of importance for Cutcliffe—better known as the magician that led the Blue Devils to 48 wins in his first eight seasons. Cutcliffe has stressed his desire to continue the transformation of Duke football, and after signing an extension through June 2019, it is unlikely that the head coach would be on the move anytime soon. But one has to wonder how things may change if the likes of Auburn, LSU or even Oklahoma—all traditional powers that might have openings if their struggles continue—come calling this offseason.
In many ways, the difference between 5-7 and 3-9 will never be more significant, even though the end result is the same—the Blue Devils missing out on a bowl game. Squeeze out five wins and the season looks like a rebuilding one that the program can bounce back from. But fall in the three or four-win range, or even worse, and it becomes possible that the new Duke football takes a major step back.
The first three weeks of the season have been far from what some imagined, even considering the loss of many important seniors and Sirk.
But this is where the Blue Devils find themselves, and how they respond could change the course of the program.
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