Midseason check-in: Breaking down No. 19 Duke football's season on the bye week

Jason Calhoun celebrates a first down during Duke's defeat to Notre Dame.
Jason Calhoun celebrates a first down during Duke's defeat to Notre Dame.

After a grueling loss to Notre Dame, the Blue Devils have time to rest during their bye this weekend. With almost the entirety of Duke's conference slate staring it down, The Chronicle's beat writers answer the most pressing questions about the season so far and the path forward.

Has Duke exceeded, underwhelmed or met your expectations so far?

Andrew Long: At the beginning of last year, most probably had Duke pegged as a sub-.500 team. This year, the Blue Devils have one loss through five games — a last-minute loss to Notre Dame, at that — and the prevailing sentiment seems to be that they probably shouldn’t.

Head coach Mike Elko has worked absolute wonders in Durham from back to front. He has maximized the arm, and especially the legs, of junior quarterback Riley Leonard, shored up Duke’s secondary, crafted an elite rushing game and established one of the conference's best units at the line of scrimmage. Elko has never lost a game by more than a score with the Blue Devils, and before the loss to the Fighting Irish, hadn’t tasted defeat since November 2022. I predicted Duke well below its final standing last year and my 7-5 record pick for this year feels more incorrect by the day. The Blue Devils’ standards are lofty now, which in and of itself is a reason to believe expectations have been exceeded — and then some.

What games do you have circled on the calendar and why?

Caleb Dudley: Despite the loss to Notre Dame, every goal is still on the table for the Blue Devils in terms of ACC contention. For Duke, Florida State is undoubtedly the toughest opponent remaining on the schedule, but since that has been pegged as a likely loss I won’t circle it. For me, it’ll come down to the two big road tests left for Elko’s squad — Louisville and North Carolina. The Cardinals have been a surprise in the league this year, with their offense firing on all cylinders, and as the second road game in two weeks, they could do some damage to the Blue Devils. However, I believe the second ACC championship berth will come down to Nov. 11 in Chapel Hill. If Leonard returns from his injury in time to play the Tar Heels, his matchup with Drake Maye will be prime-time viewing. 

Ranjan Jindal: There are two games that I have circled on the calendar — N.C. State and Louisville. For the Wolfpack, new starting quarterback MJ Morris has serious potential and this is a well-coached team with a solid roster. N.C. State has one of the better defenses in the league and could make life difficult for redshirt freshman quarterback Henry Belin IV. The trip to Louisville will be even more difficult because of the road matchup and the potent offense of the Cardinals. However, Louisville has not faced elite competition yet, and the offense faltered against N.C. State and Indiana. If the Blue Devils get past these two unscathed, this season could be very special, even with Leonard’s injury

How will Leonard’s injury impact the Blue Devils going forward?

Dom Fenoglio: Leonard is indisputably one of the team’s biggest leaders and most impactful players. That being said, Duke has not relied on Leonard alone to win games, and while his injury significantly affects the flow of the offense and team morale, the Blue Devils can still put themselves in the position to win every game on their schedule without their top signal caller. Leonard is not the reason Duke took down Clemson or had Notre Dame beat with less than a minute left; rather, the defense — which sits at seventh in the nation with 11.2 points allowed per game — has dominated two extremely talented offenses. If the Blue Devils can continue to put together stops, especially while Belin gets comfortable commanding the offense, they will keep themselves in contention in every game.

Rachael Kaplan: This will be the first time that a quarterback not named Riley Leonard will start for an Elko-led Duke team. While it’s an incredibly small sample size, it’s all we know. The offense, and the locker room, for the past two years have been Leonard’s. Belin has seen some snaps in the Blue Devils’ nonconference blowouts, but we have no sense of him as a leader, especially against teams like No. 5 Florida State. While the level of quarterback play likely decreases without a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, my question is about Belin’s handle over the team. With the noise that now surrounds this program, the Cardinal Heyes product is about to step into the biggest moment of his career thus far. Success, over the next few weeks, hinges on his ability to take that in stride. 

What’s the key to a successful ACC slate for the Blue Devils?

Jindal: The key for Duke will be the fourth quarter. Last year, the Blue Devils were 1-3 in games decided by less than a touchdown, all in league contests. Many of the games moving forward will be very close and in tough environments. The experience of this roster is certainly helpful and having Leonard back sooner than later will be a plus, but late-game play-calling and execution will be essential. Oftentimes these league games come down to a few key plays, and while Duke has done a great job under Elko in forcing turnovers, the Blue Devils have to be able to find a way to win ugly, or come out on top when the team is not on its A-game. 

Micah Hurewitz: Stopping the run. The Blue Devils have a good defense and were recently introduced to one of the best backs in the country in Notre Dame’s Audric Estime. The Duke front did a remarkable job of containing him to less than three yards per carry until the final minute of the defeat. But Duke has the fifth-lowest mark in the ACC for opponent yards per attempt at 4.0. It’s just about average nationally, but several ACC rushers including North Carolina’s Omarion Hampton and Louisville’s Jahwar Jordan are a handful out of the backfield and the Blue Devils will have to keep them behind the sticks and out of the end zone. Duke’s front seven will need to keep their opponents below their season marks and force some turnovers.

What will Duke’s final regular-season record be?

Long: 8-4

Before the season started, I picked the Blue Devils to finish 7-5, with losses to Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville, North Carolina and Florida State. One of those is already ticked off, so if I stick to my guns, Duke should finish the season as perhaps the country’s best four-loss team. I think Leonard’s injury is a blow, to be sure, but the offense has hardly flowed entirely through him anyway so far this season, and the run game remains strong even if the Blue Devils’ shiny No. 13 isn’t under center. Despite probable growing pains for Belin, though, I have a hard time believing the Blue Devils will abjectly fall off. The defense is still excellent, Elko is still a fantastic coach and the line of scrimmage on both ends of the ball is still among the conference’s best. In my opinion, a slide to 8-4 is not an indication of Duke’s failings as much as it will be an indication of its opponent’s successes — and there are plenty of dangerous foes lying in waiting.

Kaplan: 8-4

Leonard’s injury is the big black cloud hanging over this prediction. Belin’s got a great arm, but is that enough to push Duke past Florida State? Louisville? Earlier this season I predicted losses to the Seminoles and the Tar Heels. I think those still hold. However, it’s the resurgent Cardinals who add a fourth loss to the Blue Devils record. Whether or not Leonard is back, whether or not he’s at 100%, the bounceback after Florida State will be too much. The loss to Notre Dame not only deflated the fans watching, but the team’s momentum. This will be Elko’s biggest locker-room test yet — can the Blue Devils ignore the outside noise? Can they keep playing to the standard that brought ESPN College GameDay to Durham? Or will they falter?

Jindal: 9-3

While Duke’s schedule is still difficult, some teams don’t seem as daunting now than at the beginning of the season, namely N.C. State and Pittsburgh. I actually like how the Blue Devils matchup against North Carolina, because despite the road environment, Maye has been mistake-prone and Duke’s defense is great at forcing turnovers. While North Carolina’s defense is slightly improved from a season ago, the unit is still not elite and the Blue Devils could come out of Chapel Hill victorious with Leonard possibly back. Even if Duke loses, 9-3 is certainly attainable with just one other top-20 matchup on the schedule — an Oct. 21 date in Tallahassee, Fla. 

Fenoglio: 9-3

Elko should be far more comfortable in his second go around in the ACC, so I do not foresee any surprising losses like the overtime heartbreaker against Georgia Tech last season. However, the absence of Leonard will weigh on the team and its confidence, especially when it heads into a hostile environment in Tallahassee. The Blue Devils’ trials do not end there, and I predict a second loss in one of the two other ranked road games against Louisville and North Carolina. While two conference losses would likely put Duke out of contention for the ACC title game, they would put the Blue Devils in their second-straight bowl game and with a chance to win 10 games for the first time since 2013.

Dudley: 10-2 

Duke will encounter some big-time opponents down the stretch, but the Blue Devils have proved that they can hang with anyone so far. I think Belin can captain the ship until Leonard returns, but Elko’s squad will need its signal caller back for its date in Chapel Hill. Until then, Duke will continue to lean on its strong run game and defense, taking down N.C. State before losing to the Seminoles. After the clash in Florida, I think the Blue Devils win out, and Leonard’s return whenever it happens will inject a second wind into the team, carrying them to a rematch with Florida State in Charlotte. 

Hurewitz: 8-4

Yeah, yeah. You read that correctly. I get to be the pessimist of the group by projecting the Blue Devils to finish their remaining schedule with a 4-3 record. But it is not without reason — of course centered around the quarterback situation. Belin is good, but it will surely take at least a few games for him to catch his footing should he see extended time as the starter while Leonard recovers from his injury. That being said, Duke’s test against Florida State at its home field looks even more daunting than it did already and the rivalry battle with the Tar Heels and their solid defense may give the Blue Devils some trouble. One more surprising loss may be in the cards whether it is with Belin under center or Leonard freshly back in the lineup. Duke is still in good shape to beat this mark (which, by the way, was my preseason win-loss pick) and contend for a conference title, but the road ahead looks a bit foggy.

Micah Hurewitz

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Dom Fenoglio | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Sports Editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


Share and discuss “Midseason check-in: Breaking down No. 19 Duke football's season on the bye week” on social media.