Duke has won seven consecutive season openers dating back to 2012.
Don't expect that streak to extend to eight.
The Blue Devils will travel to Atlanta this Saturday for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, taking on No. 2 Alabama at 3:30 p.m. in what many believe might end up being the most lopsided contest in the event’s history. The Crimson Tide are currently a 34.5-point favorite, though for Duke, it's a milestone for the program to just be in the contest.
“We have worked extremely hard as a program to put ourselves in a position to be in a game like this—really hard,” head coach David Cutcliffe, who graduated from Alabama in 1976, said. “We lost some good players on both sides of the ball. We got a lot of good football players coming back...[It is a] huge challenge. Huge opportunity for our program to take another step.”
There is reason for the expected point differential. Alabama returns the majority of an offense that finished 2018 third in points per game and sixth in total yards—head coach Nick Saban’s best marks during his 12 years in Tuscaloosa.
The leader of that offensive attack, 2018 Heisman Trophy finalist Tua Tagovailoa, rewrote the Crimson Tide record books last season, setting the single-season marks with both 3,966 passing yards and 43 passing touchdowns. Alabama’s previous program highs were 3,487 and 30, respectively.
Tagovailoa’s rise to prominence led to a new style of Crimson Tide football—one that boasted an elite aerial attack rather than the typical grit-and-grind Saban units. It certainly helped that the star quarterback had perhaps the nation’s best receiving corps by his side, one that returns almost all key contributors from last year, including the star of the pack, junior wideout Jerry Jeudy.
The former five-star recruit took home the 2018 Biletnikoff Award as the country’s top receiver, posting 1315 yards and 14 touchdowns as a true sophomore. Mel Kiper Jr. ranks him as the No. 1 overall prospect for the 2020 NFL Draft.
“I don’t know if there is a better prospect than [Tagovailoa],” Cutcliffe said. “But Jeudy may be equal. There’s no stopping [him]—you've just got to minimize damage. With people that explosive [and] that fast, coverage has to change, you have to get help [in] different ways...he’s not the only one they’ve got at receiver.”
That leaves the Crimson Tide’s running back unit as perhaps the only part of the offense that needed any rebuilding this offseason, losing both Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris to the draft. With those two gone, Saban will have to make do with what he’s got left—five-star Najee Harris and four-star Brian Robinson Jr., though both are suspended for the first half Saturday for missing a team meeting.
It’s rare to get this far along in a preview of Alabama without at least some mention of its defense, but that just speaks to the weapons the Tide have on the offensive end. Still, top-10 finishes in both points and total yards allowed per game last year is nothing to ignore, though injuries have continued to riddle Alabama leading up to this weekend. First, it was linebacker Joshua McMillon, who may miss all of 2019 with a knee injury. And now, star linebacker Dylan Moses—quite possibly Alabama's best player on the defensive end of the field—is believed to be out for the year with a torn ACL.
Even so, there is little doubt that Duke will have an extremely tough time moving the football.
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A big part of that will also be due to the changes Cutcliffe’s squad have experienced on the offensive end, with former quarterback Daniel Jones drafted No. 6 by the New York Giants. His departure makes way for redshirt senior Quentin Harris to take over under center, a player known far more for his legs than his arm.
“I have great confidence in [Harris],” Cutcliffe said. “I had great confidence in [Jones] his first full year as a starter. They're a little different. One of the things that I've been fortunate to do in my career is have to replace first-round draft choice quarterbacks. It's not an easy task.
“The thing that Quentin Harris didn't have to do, he didn't have to become a leader. He's been a leader in our program. If you just heard him speak, you realize what type of young man he is. He speaks volumes of the character in our program.”
Harris’ passing options, however, are not ideal. With Jake Bobo sidelined, not a single Blue Devil wide receiver playing Saturday will have posted more than seven receptions in 2018. Someone who did, though, is running back Deon Jackson.
Jackson enters 2019 as Duke’s only member of the preseason all-ACC team and is primed for a big year as an all-purpose threat. The backfield tandem of him and Brittain Brown—a more conventional running back—will likely be Cutcliffe’s biggest source of offense this season.
Overall, it’s not impossible that the Blue Devils escape Atlanta with a win. Their defensive line is perhaps the best front four Cutcliffe has had here in Durham, and a secondary led by Michael Carter II should be solid against most teams. Even Koby Quansah—who recently underwent surgery on his thumb—could be out there as early as this weekend to anchor the linebacking corps.
But sometimes, the talent difference is just too much. And that will most likely be the case on Saturday.
“Starting with them brings our game to the next level,” Quansah said. “So, we start hot, we play hot, we’re gonna carry that throughout the season. So being able to play again, the elite, helps us to know that we can play at this level. And carry that throughout the whole season.”