While the rest of the college football world plays on, Duke stands idle on its bye week Saturday. With the Blue Devils halfway through their conference schedule, The Chronicle's beat writers take a look back and a look ahead at the questions that have defined—and will define—Duke's season.
What has surprised you most about Duke’s 5-3 start?
Jonathan Levitan: The most surprising thing, to put it plainly, is that Duke has been able to right the ship so comfortably on the heels of a 5-18 two-year stretch. From the first quarter of its season opener against Temple, the Blue Devils have looked like a different team with largely the same roster as before.
That comfortability comes down to a lot of things: the coaching staff, a revitalized defense, a quietly dominant backfield and offensive line. But what has made the Blue Devils’ start feel so simple has been the quarterback play of Riley Leonard. After a quarterback battle that endured long into fall camp, the sophomore has looked as comfortable at the center of things as the rest of his team. He is the answer moving forward, something this program has not had in years.
Rachael Kaplan: To be frank, the fact that it is 5-3. With a new head coach and a mass exodus of many of the Blue Devils’ veterans to the transfer portal or the draft, I had low expectations for head coach Mike Elko’s inaugural season, as any improvement from Duke’s abysmal 0-8 ACC record would be coined a success. Elko has blown those expectations out of the water. The biggest surprise for me has been the defense: The unit is only allowing 22.1 points per game as opposed to the 39.8 it averaged last year. Young players like Brandon Johnson and Joshua Pickett have stepped up and executed well in their new roles. The improvement from a winless conference slate to one win from bowl eligibility was unexpected, but has everything to do with Elko and the changing culture of Duke football.
Which of Duke’s remaining games do you have marked on the calendar?
Micah Hurewitz: With the Blue Devils looking like they have elevated themselves out of the bottom tier of ACC programs, it is Duke’s time to make a splash by knocking off one of the league’s top teams. On the road against Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils have a prime opportunity to use their defense to cut off star running back Israel Abanikanda and take advantage of a disappointing year from USC transfer Kedon Slovis under center. Stopping Abanikanda is a big if—but he might just be the Blue Devils’ biggest single test down the stretch.
Also important to mention—after playing top-25 teams North Carolina and Syracuse, the Panthers could find themselves at 5-5 entering the Nov. 19 matchup while Duke has a road to being 7-3 by kickoff on the banks of the Allegheny River. A win (and possibly being considered for—don’t say it—a spot in the top 25) would further prove the Blue Devils’ return as a respectable program under Elko.
Franck Djidjeu: Nov. 26 at Wallace Wade Stadium, Wake Forest comes to town for the final week of the regular season. In many ways, it serves as the final boss in Duke’s exciting first campaign under Elko. The 10th-ranked Demon Deacons are as intimidating a foe as it gets and are the one remaining opponent that the Blue Devils will almost certainly be massive underdogs against, which is exactly why I have it circled. More than any other game, this will serve as a measuring stick for exactly how far Duke has come and how far it can continue to go moving forward. The Blue Devils have yet to lose by more than single possession this season and they have already proven they can contend with anyone in the ACC Coastal Division. This game against Wake Forest will tell us if they are also capable of contending with the best of the Atlantic Division. If the answer is yes, that leaves the door open for Duke to be a legitimate ACC championship threat in the future.
What must Duke focus on down the stretch?
Sasha Richie: Pass defense has to be the team’s number one focus down the stretch. Every other unit has found its footing and can ride the rest of the way making small adjustments to get closer to its ceiling. However, defending the air attack has arguably been Duke’s Achilles heel. In each of their losses, the Blue Devils have had to face quarterbacks and receiving corps able to run up the score, making it nigh impossible for Duke’s potent offense to keep up. The team has said that pass defense has been the subject of the biggest philosophy shift this season, and in its rout of Miami, that started to show. Moreover, with the exception of Wake Forest, the teams the Blue Devils have yet to face are not offensive powerhouses. Still, Duke will get strong performances from its offense and its defensive line every night; it’ll be up to the secondary to show up in a big way throughout the rest of conference play if the Blue Devils are to dot the “I” on an already great comeback season.
Andrew Long: The same things that have helped the Blue Devils bushwhack to 5-3: a fantastic turnover margin and the Leonard renaissance. Elko has worked magic with this bunch in just under a year, helping Duke to sit second (second!) nationally with an astounding +14 turnover margin with 15 fumbles and five interceptions. Granted, eight of those turnovers came in last weekend’s demolition of Miami, but the point remains: The Blue Devils are suddenly really good at forcing the ball out, and because of it, Duke’s revitalized offense has benefitted massively. For a program struggling for consistent quarterback play since the first-round departure of Daniel Jones, Leonard has been one of college football’s surprise packages in 2022-23. He has been immense so far, and any hopes of the Blue Devils going bowling—and beyond—rest on the 6-foot-4 Alabama native’s shoulders. Regardless of the record, it has been a season to remember.
What will Duke’s final regular-season record be?
What I found most impressive in Duke’s blowout win at Miami was that the Blue Devils actually seemed to have their backs against the wall, although the final score might not show it. After outscoring opponents 59-0 in the first quarter of its four prior wins, Duke trailed late in the third quarter before going turnover-crazy and scoring four unanswered touchdowns. For the first time under Elko, the Blue Devils won a game in which they did not immediately seize control, flipping the script in the wake of late-game debacles against Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
All that is to say that on the flip side of its 5-3 start, Duke looks like a more poised and tested team, one ready to win when things go off the rails. Look for the Blue Devils to secure that coveted sixth win Friday at Boston College before numbers seven and eight against Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, with a home loss to Wake Forest in November capping the regular season.
I said it before and I’ll say it again—Duke has climbed out of its hole and is here to make some noise. No game proved that more than the Blue Devils’ demolition of Miami on the road. Elko wants to tear up the script that his team is not here to stay, but I foresee some scrappy wins against Boston College and Virginia Tech before battling Pittsburgh in what is sure to be a chilly affair featuring both teams’ ground games. A win against Pittsburgh—or even Wake Forest—is not out of the question, though the latter may pose some additional challenges via its aerial attack (refer to Duke’s loss to North Carolina).
After dropping three of four, the Blue Devils are primed to clinch a trip to a bowl game and some as they get back on their feet. A seven-win forecast would be a modest guess. This Blue Devil team is beyond modesty. Eight wins is well within reach, marking just the second time a Duke team would have done so under a first-year head coach.
Count me among the optimists that Duke will finish its season strong. It has two very favorable matchups in Boston College and Virginia Tech, and a game against Wake Forest that, for all the Blue Devils’ improvements, would take a miracle to win. The question of Duke’s final record is whether it will beat Pittsburgh. This is a predicament. Usually a juggernaut, the Kenny Pickett-less Panthers have significantly less bite than in previous seasons. If the Blue Devils pull that one off, it will be their statement win and put them in contention for the top of the ACC Coastal Division. That’s still a big if, but Duke has shown how it can reinvent itself each week.
I wrote after Duke’s defeat to Kansas that before thinking about bowl games or ACC records, the Blue Devils needed to prove their doubters—myself included—wrong. Two-thirds of the way through the season, I can confidently say that it has done just that. While I am still not entirely sold on these Blue Devils as the finished article just yet, if this season has shown us anything, it is that there is some special sauce in this group. I predict that Duke heads to Chestnut Hill, Mass., and confidently takes Boston College down before beating Virginia Tech at home. Pittsburgh and Wake Forest will be a bit too much for the Blue Devils, but 3-9 the season before to 7-5 the season after is nothing to scoff at.
With four games left in the regular season, I think Duke will split its remaining slate. While much improved, the Blue Devils are by no means perfect—their losses to Georgia Tech and North Carolina highlight that. However, the resiliency of this group is not to be understated. It completely flipped the switch from last season, and I will now confidently state that Duke has at least a chance in all four of its remaining games. Its date with Wake Forest will definitely prove the most difficult, but the Blue Devils will take two of their three matchups with Boston College, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh and earn themselves bowl eligibility.
If we take the Duke team we have seen so far this season, I would expect them to split their final four games. However, each subsequent week, I do not expect them to be the same team, I expect them to be better. The Blue Devils have found and are beginning to embrace their identity on both sides of the ball and that makes them dangerous. An undefeated final stretch is a tough ask for this up-and-coming squad, especially with a formidable Wake Forest team waiting at the end. Going 3-1, however, is well within the realm of possibility. Boston College and Virginia Tech are among the worst teams in the ACC with a combined 4-11 record, while Pittsburgh is reeling after its ACC championship run last year. I think the Blue Devils can cement their status in the upper echelon with wins over all three.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.