The Blue Devils hit the gridiron one final time this year for a Birmingham Bowl battle with Troy. Ahead of today’s noon kickoff, read up on what The Chronicle’s beat writers forecast for the finale of an eventful season:
Andrew Long: Troy 31-28
The only thing giving me pause in picking Duke — a healthy, nearly full-strength Duke at that — in this matchup is a truth which has emerged numerous times throughout the year. The Blue Devils, for the most part, beat the teams they are supposed to, and lose to the ones they are supposed to — they don’t really get upset, but also don’t do a whole lot of upsetting either. Even in potential exceptions to that rule, like a bad loss at Virginia and a dominant home win against Clemson, there’s a case to be made that the Cavaliers boasted the conference’s best receiver and a resurgent quarterback, and the Tigers really weren’t all their preseason billing projected. In keeping with a trend I believe to be pretty rock-solid given what I’ve seen over the last two years of Duke football, I feel like Troy fits into the category of a team the Blue Devils are supposed to lose to.
Mind you, this is not because I think Duke is bad. The opposite, actually — with new found life on the sidelines next season in head coach Manny Diaz, the cleansing of hands from Mike Elko’s late-night departure, the return of many key starters from long-term injuries and the senior class looking to close the book make me think this will be the strongest team we’ve seen since the early weeks of the season. But Troy is no slouch, and in front of a crowd that will lean heavily in its favor, buoyed by a freight train of a running back in Kimani Vidal and a group of players riding two successive years with double-digit wins makes me hesitant to think Duke can eke it out. It totally could, and I acknowledge that I may be completely missing the mark here, but form counts just as much as rejuvenation does, and the Trojans are simply in better form right now.
Rachael Kaplan: Troy 28-20
Turbulent, eventful, chaotic: None of the words used to describe the last month for Duke football are not nearly strong enough. My hesitation to pick the Blue Devils, even after a strong final showing to close out the regular season, stems from that uncertainty. From Elko’s midnight departure to the slew of imminent transfer departures (many of whom are listed on the depth chart), Duke is currently a team in flux. It will likely be Grayson Loftis’ last start before Maalik Murphy arrives and the 19-year-old is relegated back to the bench. Loftis has been up-and-down through his starts, and I just don’t know if he can deliver a calm and stable enough performance in Birmingham, especially if Graham Barton isn’t holding down the offensive line in front of him. Troy is in a transition period of its own, with Jon Sumrall’s departure to Tulane, but with Vidal powering the Trojan offense and question marks surrounding the Blue Devils, the in-state team is going to take this one.
Ranjan Jindal: 27-23 Duke
Here’s why the Trojans can win. On paper, a team like Troy is built to defeat Duke. The Trojans have a stifling defense which is the best in the Sun Belt, and has a ground game behind Vidal that can control the clock. Watson is a solid decision maker and there aren’t that many weaknesses on this team. In addition, the crowd will heavily favor Troy, and this will be a quasi-road game for the Blue Devils.
However, while most college football teams are a shell of themselves come bowl season with a flurry of opt-outs, injuries and transfers, nearly all of the Week 1 Duke starters are playing, and this is some of the healthiest the Blue Devils have been all season. Impact players including Myles Jones — who has not played since the N.C. State game — are available, and I think the depth of the defensive line can combat Vidal’s strength. There is another factor in Duke’s favor, which is its mentality. The Blue Devil players were not shy in their reaction to Elko leaving for Texas A&M, and they have a lot to prove as a team and program. It could really go either way, but I see Duke winning a close one in Birmingham.
Dom Fenoglio: Duke 24-20
Duke is entering its bowl game in extremely different circumstances than it did a year ago, but I predict that it will be every bit as successful. Why? Because the majority of the players — even those who have entered the transfer portal in the last few weeks — are back from last year’s Military Bowl win. Despite all of the turbulence the postseason has brought, the Blue Devils are largely still the same football team they were all season. Troy will be a difficult opponent, and I think this game will not be decided until the fourth quarter. And, with what looks to be a friendly crowd on their side, the Trojans will have plenty of momentum behind them. However, I believe in the DNA that makes up this Duke roster, and I think it will find a way to engineer some late-game heroics one last time.
Caleb Dudley: Duke 21-17
The Blue Devils have certainly gone through a lot since season’s end, with their head coach darting for greener pastures in the middle of the night and several key players entering the transfer portal over the past few weeks. Despite that, I think Duke, led by interim head coach Trooper Taylor, will be ready to go when the opening kickoff comes around Saturday. The roster should be at nearly full strength minus Riley Leonard, and the talent is certainly there to match up with the Trojans. In the end, I think the group will use its offseason hardships to rally together for one last game as a unit, allowing Duke to send its spectacular senior class off into the sunset and usher in the Diaz years with its fifth-straight bowl victory.
Micah Hurewitz: Troy 31-21
Duke has itself a handful in Troy, which boasts both an excellent quarterback in sixth-year Watson and a dynamic back in Vidal, who is second in the nation in rushing yards. Both teams have a lot to play for, though, with the Blue Devils looking to start the sort-of Diaz era with a win and the Trojans aiming to finish off a second-straight 12-win season, also with a new head coach taking the reins. Additional shuffles among the coaching staff and the possibility of some players who have declared that they are transferring sitting out could lead to some struggles on both ends in terms of crafting and sticking to a well-practiced yet aggressive game script. The teams are fairly evenly matched on paper, but the departures plus the broader magnifying glass on the Blue Devils may put a damper on Duke’s quest for repeat bowl wins.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.