It’s not very often that teams make the jump from a doormat to knocking on the door for a conference title in one year.
But a season after finishing 4-8, losing to Wake Forest and Virginia at home and making just three field goals, Duke has a good chance of doing just that.
After a perfect 3-0 start to the season, the Blue Devils have at least a 47.5 percent chance of winning all but two of their remaining games, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, which predicts them to go about 8-4—a number they may even best.
Granted, Duke didn’t look good Saturday against Baylor in a textbook trap game. North Carolina was calling the following week, and the Bears had just lost to an FCS team and looked hopeless in another defeat to Texas-San Antonio. It was hard to get excited to play them.
Going forward, however, the Blue Devils fit the blueprint perfectly of teams that have made an instant jump out of obscurity.
Since 2012, an average of exactly two teams per year have vaulted five or more wins to into the top 25. Out of those 10 teams, eight of them made huge strides in either running the football or stopping the run. One of the two that didn’t was Michigan in the first year of Jim Harbaugh’s reign.
On average, those teams improved by 1.3 yards per carry from the year before in rushing margin, which subtracts the yards per carry the team yielded on defense from the yards per carry they gained on offense. Although there have also likely been teams that made similar improvements which did not translate to the win column, Duke is on the right track with a rushing margin of 2.8 yards per attempt, a considerable improvement from its negative margin in 2016.
Auburn vaulted to the national title game in 2013 when it out-rushed its opponents by nearly two yards per carry, a year after being out-rushed by its opponents by nearly a yard per carry. This isn’t to say the Blue Devils are national-championship caliber—Daniel Jones isn’t Nick Marshall, and Shaun Wilson isn’t Tre Mason—but they have followed the script by controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
A more realistic comparison would be a 2012 Oregon State team that made a six-win jump to 9-4. Although head coach Mike Riley had helped Oregon State make four bowls in the previous six years, pulling the program out of obscurity, it fell on hard times in 2011 without a strong running game and feature back, despite having a good quarterback in Sean Mannion.
Then, the next season, the Beavers’ rushing yards per carry margin increased by 1.2 yards, boosted by running back Storm Woods’ emergence and a defense that went from giving up 4.8 yards per carry to fewer than 4.0.
Sound familiar, Duke fans?
David Cutcliffe’s team seems to be on a similar path—after suffering through years of mediocrity under past regimes, it made bowls in four straight seasons until last year’s dud. Last year, Daniel Jones eventually developed into a strong quarterback by the end of the fall, but didn’t have the potent rushing attack or defense up front to back him up.
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Now, with improvements up front on the offensive line and the addition of graduate transfer right tackle Evan Lisle, Duke’s rushing offense looks much more dangerous after an additional year to coalesce.
The duo of Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson has been deadly, and Jones picked up the slack with 108 rush yards in the only game where it faltered against Northwestern. Wilson and Brown have been explosive, giving the Blue Devils the two-dimensional offense that they sorely lacked last year. Their success has opened up the passing game even more, with teams forced to commit more personnel up front to slow the run.
And on the other side of the ball, the rush defense has been stellar, suffocating one of the most elusive running backs in the country—Northwestern’s Justin Jackson—and giving up just 1.8 yards per carry on the year. Although there were questions about the unit’s depth heading into the season, the front seven looks like it will be a force—Duke has the top defensive efficiency rating in the nation.
Certainly, the competition hasn’t been stellar yet, but with much better control of the line of scrimmage, the Blue Devils have the right foundation to make a big jump—and perhaps make a run to the ACC championship game in a wide-open Coastal division.
Virginia Tech and Miami are the only serious obstacles in their way—Duke’s schedule is looking weaker and weaker by the week. Pittsburgh is downright awful, and Army and Virginia should be easy wins. North Carolina has looked vulnerable, too, and Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are both very beatable opponents to wrap up the regular season. Even budgeting for one slip-up, that’s eight wins right there.
According to FPI, Duke is more likely than not to beat No. 14 Miami Sept. 29 at home, a game that could be pivotal in determining its fate. A road matchup with No. 13 Virginia Tech Oct. 28 will be a tougher test, but the Hokies have to play No. 2 Clemson, which could give them an extra loss in the ACC standings. If the Blue Devils can beat Virginia Tech or Miami, they would have a realistic chance to get back to the ACC championship for the first time since 2013. With a relatively soft schedule, they can crack 9-3.
Your eyes haven’t deceived you—Duke is for real.
Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.