For the first time in four years, David Cutcliffe will not be shaking Jerry Mack’s hand at the end of the game.

With Mack moving on as Rice’s offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator Granville Eastman has assumed the interim head coaching title, looking to boost N.C. Central back to the MEAC championship, which it missed out on last season for the first time since 2013.

Cutcliffe is still wary of the Eagles, though, who have been outscored by Duke 164-13 in the teams’ past three crosstown matchups.

“We realize the ability that [N.C.] Central has. I can tell you they’ve got some weapons that have hurt us before on offense,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m very impressed with what Coach Eastman and his staff have done. [Offensive coordinator] Coach [T.C.] Taylor does a terrific job. I like to watch what they do schematically over there.”

Similar to Baylor—the Blue Devils’ opponent this past week—N.C. Central will start a young quarterback who saw a lot of time last season, just not against Duke. Sophomore Chauncey Caldwell started eight games in his first season under center, but attempted just one pass in the Blue Devils` 60-7 romp last year. Caldwell succeeded throughout the remainder of the year as a dual-threat quarterback, accounting for 15 total touchdowns. 

Caldwell also has received an infusion of talent around him in the offseason. Redshirt sophomore running back Isaiah Totten will be back after being voted to the All-MEAC second team last season despite starting just six contests. For Duke fans, Totten is most memorably known for his 81-yard touchdown run at Wallace Wade Stadium last year, providing the Eagles’ only points.

Although N.C. Central lost a lot of its depth at receiver on paper, it may be its strongest position group this season. Alongside junior wideout Xavier McKoy—who leads the team in receptions and yards—the Eagles brought in three standout transfers, including former N.C. State wide receiver Daeshawn Stephens, who has already made his mark with seven receptions and a touchdown to his name.

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles boast two first-team all-conference performers. Junior Kawuan Cox headlines the front seven after being recognized last season as one of the top 29 players in HBCU football. Cox has already notched a sack this year, and at defensive end, may test an offensive line that did not surrender a sack last week in Waco, Texas.

In the secondary, redshirt senior Davanta Reynolds is responsible for the primary playmaking duties, notching six interceptions, which ranked second in the FCS last year. So far, the Tucker, Ga., native leads the team in tackles and quarterback hits.

“Defensively, that’s Coach Eastman’s area himself…. They know what they’re doing, they’re athletic in the back end, they play hard, they run from sideline to sideline,” Cutcliffe said. “They make you execute, and that’s what we have to continue to focus on.”

Every season, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, an FCS team will pull off a major upset, something Cutcliffe is keenly aware of. He knows his squad will need to get off to another hot start in order to avoid giving the talented underdogs hope of landing a season-defining victory.

“If you look around the country, it’s really been everything. We’ve seen a lot of circumstances where you may be looking at scores…and you’re seeing two minutes to go in the second quarter and somebody’s behind or it’s tied or whatever the circumstances may be,” Cutcliffe said. “Then you start thinking, ‘Wow, that’s going to be an upset.’ It’s always a part of football.”