Take of the week: Duke football has the potential to play itself into ACC Championship contention

Riley Leonard has been key to Duke's quick offensive starts this season.
Riley Leonard has been key to Duke's quick offensive starts this season.

Duke has been revitalized under first-year head coach Mike Elko, starting the season 3-1 alongside newfound passion from the Wade Wackos at Wallace Wade Stadium. As excitement builds into the start of the ACC schedule, there is hope that the program will build back to competitive status within the conference, after finding itself winless in ACC play last season. Is it possible that in year one of the Elko Era, Duke could find itself ready to compete at the top of the conference?

The first three games of the season provided some hope for a program that desperately needed it. The first game of the season against Temple provided the first FBS shutout since 1989 for Duke, showing that Elko, the former Texas A&M defensive coordinator turned head coach, had brought with him the leadership to build a strong unit. 

Against Northwestern, the defense yet again put its ability on display, coming up with a game-saving fumble to lead the Blue Devils to a 2-0 start. Against North Carolina A&T, sophomore Riley Leonard put his cards on the table, going 11-for-12 in the air for two touchdowns, with his one incompletion coming on an interception. On top of that, he added 66 yards and two more touchdowns on the ground, proving his ability as a dual-threat. 

While the team came up short against Kansas, it should not be seen as a regression to the Blue Devils of old. Last year, the team would have slowed down upon going down by 15 points late in the fourth quarter, but this team showed fight. With 1:49 left on the clock, Leonard and the Duke offense found themselves in Kansas territory down eight, with a chance to send the game into overtime. And while the drive fell short, it showed the Duke faithful that Elko has instilled a new mentality in Durham. 

This is the final season for divisions in the ACC, with the conference announcing that at the start of the 2023-24 season its 14 teams will no longer be divided in half. For Duke, this provides an opportunity to take advantage of a somewhat-weak coastal division. Don’t get me wrong, it will certainly be tough to finish at the top, especially with the final stretch of the season coming against top-25 teams Pittsburgh and Wake Forest, as well as tests against North Carolina and Miami. Each of these teams, however, have shown weakness that the Blue Devils can take advantage of.

Starting with the rival Tar Heels, North Carolina brings with it a fierce offense that has put up over 30 points in each of its outings. Its defense, however, has been questionable, to say the least. The only game in which they held their opponent to under 25 points came in the contest against Florida A&M. Since that game, its defense has given up scores of 61, 28 and 35. For an offense rolling with confidence like Leonard and Duke, there’s a chance to make an early statement in conference play. 

For Miami, play has been all over the place. With the talent on each side of the ball, it is hard to figure out exactly where it is going wrong for first-year head coach Mario Cristobal. Holding Texas A&M to just 17 points, albeit in a loss, was consistent for a team that had not yet given up over 20 points. The Hurricanes were torn apart on the long ball from Middle Tennessee State’s offense, however, giving up three scores of 69 or more yards. For the Blue Devils, Leonard has put his deep ball on display quite a few times this season, throwing for passes of at least 40 yards in each game this season. 

Pittsburgh and Wake Forest each present tough competition for Duke. Both teams have been on the rise in the ACC in recent years, putting together impressive seasons and challenging for the conference title. Yet, it is not completely unreasonable to think that a Blue Devil team, if all goes well leading up to these games, could build enough confidence and momentum to steal a win in one or both contests. 

Any step forward in conference play would be a step in the right direction for Duke. Elko has brought in a new mindset to the team, and reinforcements are joining in the coming years as he builds some of the strongest recruiting classes Durham has seen in a long time. What better way to boost a program up even higher than to compete for a conference championship in year one of the new era?


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