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Column: Duke football at risk to have growing pains early on

<p>Duke will no longer be playing Middle Tennessee in its revised 2020 schedule after dominating the Blue Raiders en route to a 41-18 win last year.</p>

Duke will no longer be playing Middle Tennessee in its revised 2020 schedule after dominating the Blue Raiders en route to a 41-18 win last year.

Winter is for ski trips, summer is for beach vacations and fall is for football.

A fall in the United States without football would just not feel quite right, and at the moment, it looks like that scenario might be avoided. While COVID-19 concerns could lead to the suspension or cancellation of the season as the only options, the ACC’s intention to have fall sports is a glimmer of hope for the time being. After the conference’s formal announcement, each school continued with its season planning and on Aug. 6, Duke released its 2020 football schedule.

The ACC is a conference in limbo and outside of Clemson, Notre Dame and North Carolina, it is anyone’s guess as to how teams fare. In Duke’s case, the recent scheduling changes have the potential to disproportionately hurt the Blue Devils. 

There is too much uncertainty amidst Duke. The first kickoff of the season is set for Sept. 12 and there is still no official word on who the starting quarterback will be. Uncertainty at the quarterback position is one of the last things a team would want in a normal year, and with this shortened, restricted preseason, it will likely create problems for at least the first few games. 

The open quarterback position has led to meticulous studying habits from all of the signal callers on this year's roster. As the team opened preseason camp Aug. 7, head coach David Cutcliffe expressed his satisfaction with how diligently his quarterbacks have been analyzing the Xs and Os, but he noted that it will ultimately come down to performance on the field. 

"If you want to be the all-time quarterback on the playground at school, guess what you better do? You better throw it better than everybody else," Cutcliffe said. "Otherwise you don't get to be the all-time quarterback."

Complementing the quarterback confusion is a huge question mark on what Duke’s offense is going to look like this season. We know Cutcliffe will be calling the plays, but this Blue Devil offense has no idea what their identity is and there is not much to build off from last year, with Duke ranking 11th in the conference in both points and touchdowns.

The Blue Devils have a talented young receiving corps, and Deon Jackson will hold down the backfield, but the concern is with the cohesiveness of the entire offense. Duke was a screen-heavy, run-centric team last year that resulted in an offense that averaged only 18.7 first downs per game, so success this season will have to come via different schematics than a year ago. 

This wouldn’t be as much of a problem regularly, but the condensed summer practice schedule will make it even more difficult for Duke to create its 2020 offensive brand. Regardless of the blockades in the Blue Devils' path though, Cutcliffe is confident in his team.

"I think our [offensive] skill people are exceptional," Cutcliffe said. "We just got to make sure we get this quarterback thing right and that's going to be a competitive nature. Not displeased at all with the start of any of [the quarterbacks] today."

The success Duke has had since 2012 has had a common foundation at the beginning of every season: winnable nonconference games.

That 2012 campaign marked the Blue Devils' first bowl appearance in 18 years, with five additional bowl appearances since then including plenty of nonconference wins prior to ACC play as well. Not having these contests—Duke's lone nonconference matchup will take place Oct. 31 against Charlotte—to work through any early roadblocks is alarming, especially when looking at the Blue Devils' early schedule.

September has proven to be crucial to Duke’s run at bowl games, and this September is not going to be an easy one. After traveling to South Bend, Ind., to take on Notre Dame, Duke will host Boston College to open its home slate. The Eagles had an ugly 6-7 overall record last season but finished second in the ACC in rushing yards and added Notre Dame transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who is eligible to play right away.

Following Duke's first bye, the team hosts Virginia Tech, which was tabbed No. 24 in the first Coaches Poll. While superstar Hokie cornerback Caleb Farley has opted to sit out the season due to COVID-19 concerns, the Blue Devils need to have their quarterback woes figured out by then if they are going to take advantage. 

If Duke can fight through its first three games and manage to steal just one victory, it has a chance to gain the confidence needed to get through the rest of the gauntlet. The Blue Devils' only game outside of Notre Dame that will overwhelmingly favor their opponent is their matchup with North Carolina Nov. 7. Other than that, Duke will have a legitimate chance in each and every contest.

The Blue Devils' success this season will hinge directly on how fast they can figure out who they are. If by Oct. 1 we are looking at a team with an established quarterback that knows its offensive strengths, then we just might see Duke back in a bowl game.

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