Talent and experience separate the good from the great when it comes to college football.
Although Duke has won two bowl games in its last three seasons, the Blue Devils have not reached the hallmark of a great season since 2014, the second of back-to-back nine-plus win seasons, under head coach David Cutcliffe.
Since then, Duke has had three seasons filled with ups and downs, largely due to inexperience at key positions, such as quarterback, defensive back, linebacker as well as on special teams. Now, some of that experience will pay off—as well as the fruits of four impressive recruiting classes.
Offensively, Duke is loaded at each of its skill positions. Redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones is in his third year under center, redshirt sophomore running back Brittain Brown will look to improve on a stellar first year, and the wideouts and tight ends are full of veterans, highlighted by T.J. Rahming and Daniel Helm, respectively.
While the offensive line will be tasked with replacing three starters from last season, two of the projected newcomers—redshirt senior offensive tackle Christian Harris and sophomore guard Rakavius Chambers—both have more than 400 snaps under their belts, and projected starting offensive tackle Robert Kraeling was one of the Class of 2017’s top recruits as well as co-most improved offensive player this spring.
On the other side of the ball, the Blue Devils will have to replace just two key contributors in all-ACC defensive tackle Mike Ramsay and cornerback Bryon Fields. For Ramsay's spot, there appears to be a position battle between three players who all saw time on the field last season, while Myles Hudzick, one of recipients of the co-most improved defensive player award, will likely slide in across from a reigning first-team All-ACC honoree in cornerback Mark Gilbert.
In terms of talent, outside of the wealth that comes with strong recruiting classes, the Blue Devils have two players who may very well be drafted in the first or second round of the NFL draft next year, if they choose to depart.
Gilbert, who was ranked as a top-75 player in the nation by Sports Illustrated, is a ball-hawking defensive back who finished second in the ACC in interceptions last season. At 6-foot-1, the junior can matchup with any wideout, and will be relied upon as a shutdown cornerback for the 25th-ranked scoring defense in the nation.
At linebacker, redshirt junior Joe Giles-Harris enters the season ranked 99th in the nation and was named a preseason All-American by multiple publications. At 240 pounds, Giles-Harris is a run-stopping force with enough foot speed to contain speedy tailbacks, and should benefit from having senior Ben Humphreys healthy as the other linebacker in one of the top units in the country.
Of course, due to the overall strength of the ACC, it will be nearly impossible for Duke to go undefeated in conference play. However, to start the season, Duke will face the same four nonconference opponents as last season. Against N.C. Central, Northwestern, Baylor and Army, the Blue Devils finished 3-1, losing in a sloppy upset to the Black Knights.
To reach the nine-win mark, Duke will almost certainly have to win at least three of those contests. The Blue Devils have generally won easily against the Eagles, including a 60-7 romp last season, and will be playing a group of Bears that finished 1-11 last season. The Wildcats, this time on the road, will be a tough matchup despite last season’s surprising 41-17 rout.
But even if Duke drops one of their matchups on the road, it should be in good shape. With the Blue Devils’ experience and a healthy Humphreys sniffing out Army’s complicated triple option attack, they should win their season opener in front of a home crowd.
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As for conference play, the Blue Devils will unfortunately have to face preseason No. 2 Clemson on the road as its opponent from the Atlantic Division. The Tigers boast the best defensive line in the nation, and have reached the national championship the past two seasons as well.
The only other contest that would require a monumental upset is perhaps No. 8 Miami, who came into Durham last season and walloped Cutcliffe’s squad 31-6. The Hurricanes return a majority of their key players from a season ago, including preseason first-team all-American safety Jaquan Johnson.
Now, even if Duke drops a nonconference game as well as at Miami and Clemson, it can still afford to drop another contest against the likes of Virginia Tech—who lost many of its defensive stalwarts responsible for a defensive that surrendered just 13.5 points per game a season ago—North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, and reach nine wins with a bowl victory.
In the past, Cutcliffe’s experienced teams have played up to their talent level, even perhaps exceeded it at times. Inexperience from the past three years will finally pay off, as the Blue Devils will win the games they need to this season in order to reach that nine-win mark.
While it still might not compete for an ACC championship berth—with Miami the clear favorite in the Coastal Division—a Cutcliffe-coached, experienced, and probably most talented team since he arrived in Durham 10 years ago, does not need much else to reach nine wins in 2018.