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Too many question marks for Duke to return to a bowl this year

<p>Duke's secondary gave up numerous explosive plays last year and only returns one starter.</p>

Duke's secondary gave up numerous explosive plays last year and only returns one starter.

Duke’s players, coaches and fans have all been clear leading up to this season—last year’s 4-8 record was a disappointment and an unacceptable outcome if it becomes a trend.

Head coach David Cutcliffe said at his season-opening press conference that he never wants to forget the miserable feeling of wrapping up the recruiting period in December and getting off the plane with no bowl to prepare for and nothing to do.

It won’t be easy to forget, however, because I think he will go through the same thing this year.

Most of the reason for optimism this year surrounds redshirt sophomore Daniel Jones, the Blue Devil quarterback who closed the season with 173 straight passes without throwing an interception. It is true that he got better as the season went along—he threw eight picks in the first five games and one in the last seven—and he did play very well in an upset win against North Carolina in November. 

But those numbers conceal the fact that Duke didn’t close the year well at all.

The Blue Devils lost their last two games of the season to Miami and Pittsburgh by a combined 61 points, getting torched through the air and struggling to move the ball on the ground. Duke was depleted by injuries at that point—running back Jela Duncan and defensive backs DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders were all sidelined—but it’s not like those players are coming back. They all have graduated.

I’m not confident those question marks have been addressed entering this season. Starting running back Shaun Wilson has never been consistent, and though Brittain Brown is a talented freshman, it’s hard to expect much right away out of a player with no experience.

In the secondary, the Blue Devils will trot out the same group that gave up several explosive plays a game last November. It’s one thing to say they have taken steps to address that, as every defensive back has mentioned in the preseason, but it’s another thing to translate that into results.

Of course, that’s not to mention the biggest weakness of all from last season: kicking. After freshman A.J. Reed converted on just 3-of-10 field goals last season, Duke brought in several options for a wide-open competition for the job during fall camp. It appears that the Blue Devils have at least two options ahead of Reed on the depth chart in redshirt sophomore Austin Parker and Tufts graduate transfer Willie Holmquist, with Parker holding a narrow edge entering Week 1.

That makes sense because Parker is the only person besides Reed on the roster who is on scholarship to kick footballs, but Parker is a more natural punter than a placekicker, and it is rare to find a one-man show that excels at every part of the kicking game. If he slips up, Holmquist was decent at Tufts, but has never kicked in anything close to an ACC environment.

Jones is probably good enough to lead the Blue Devils to one or two big wins like he did against the Tar Heels and Notre Dame in 2016, but once again, there are not many guaranteed wins on the schedule that can be chalked up to pad the win total.

It is likely that Duke would play in a bowl if it finishes 5-7 due to its high Academic Progress Rate, but I think it is a stretch to even find five wins on the Blue Devils’ schedule.

Even if Duke rises to the occasion and gets another big nonconference win against Northwestern or Baylor, the Blue Devils could lose to Wake Forest and Virginia again to cancel out that win. My guess is the Blue Devils will finish with four wins, but ESPN’s Football Percentage Index only gives them a better than 62 percent chance to win in one game—the season opener against N.C. Central.

That means the floor for Duke is 1-11. Not even the Army game on the road is a guaranteed win after the Black Knights won eight games last year and kept it close against the Blue Devils in a monsoon at Wallace Wade Stadium.

On the other side of the continuum, there are not many games that can be written off as losses. Although the ACC’s rotating schedule did Duke no favors with a matchup against Florida State this year, the Blue Devils are likely to be in several close games, and games that are decided by a field goal or a last-chance two-minute drill against Duke’s secondary are more likely than not to swing against the Blue Devils.

There is still too much uncertainty in those areas for me to think the Duke’s chances of playing in December have improved at all.

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