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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 103: Duke

David Cutcliffe has already had a better career at Duke than Ted Roof, Carl Franks, Barry Goldsmith and Barry Wilson, even if Goldsmith was responsible for the program’s last winning season, way back in 1994. These coaches, including Cutcliffe, make up the A.S.S. era of Duke — the period After Steve Spurrier, and excuse the vulgarity. Cutcliffe has brought respectability to the Blue Devils, winning games at a better clip than each of his five predecessors, but for this program, respectability comes with an asterisk. Cutcliffe might be 15-33 over his four years with the program, averaging just shy of four wins per season, and in this day and age, that’s marvelous. Is it good enough for Duke — meaning, does Duke think that another head coach might be able to do more? It’s an interesting question, and one only the university can answer. From where I’m standing, however, I’d give a coach who can flirt with five wins every season a lifetime contract.

Atlantic Coast, Coastal

Durham, N.C.

Blue Devils

Returning starters
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 89

2011 record
(3-9, 1-7)

Last year’s

No. 100

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
  • Sept. 8
    at Stanford
  • Sept. 15
    N.C. Central
  • Sept. 22
  • Sept. 29
    at Wake Forest
  • Oct. 6
  • Oct. 13
    at Virginia Tech
  • Oct. 20
    North Carolina
  • Oct. 27
    at Florida St.
  • Nov. 3
  • Nov. 17
    at Georgia Tech
  • Nov. 24
    Miami (Fla.)

Last year’s prediction

The defense is not up to par, and that’s why Duke is at best a borderline bowl team in 2011. The defensive line is particularly poor, though the pass rush might improve if these young ends are ready – but I don’t think they are. The front seven as a whole is a tremendous question mark, even though the secondary has potential. Take that and add a tough schedule and you have the makings of a five-win team at best, in my mind. I know I thought Duke was ready last fall, but I was clearly off. Now I think we’re a year away.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Duke lost to an F.C.S. team and didn’t win a game after the first of October. That’s the season, in a nutshell. Neither of those facts are new to this program; the Blue Devils have lost three games to Richmond since 2006 and have only one post-October win over Cutcliffe’s four seasons with the program. Looking beyond the standings – Duke won only three games for the second straight year – the most disappointing aspect of last season was the steep decline on offense. The Blue Devils had increased their scoring total in each of Cutcliffe’s first three seasons, including back-to-back 300-point seasons from 2009-10. That total dropped to 270 points last fall, the second-fewest in the A.C.C. – ahead of only Boston College, and beating the Eagles in anything was nothing to write home about. That the defense took a step forward was lost in the shuffle, not to mention meaningless: Duke simply didn’t score enough points.

High point Duke’s three wins: at Boston College, home against Tulane and at Florida International. The last qualifies as the Blue Devils’ best win on the year. The Eagles were a dumpster fire last fall, though I wonder if Duke could have won that game had the two met in November, not September.

Low point Duke ran out of steam after two close-but-no-cigar home losses to Wake Forest (24-23) and Virginia Tech (14-10) to end October. That dropped Duke under .500 heading into November, and the season’s final month has long been unkind to the Blue Devils.

Tidbit As late as in the 2008 season, there were four F.B.S. head coaches with direct ties to Bear Bryant, having either played for him or, in one case, served as a student assistant as an undergraduate. That number has dropped to two as we head into September: Cutcliffe and Mike Riley. The latter played defensive back at Alabama from 1971-74 while Cutcliffe, at roughly the same time, was one of Alabama’s student assistants. Sylvester Croom, who played center at Alabama in the mid-1970s, was fired at Mississippi State following the 2008 season. Former Florida Atlantic head coach Howard Schnellenberger, who retired last December, played tight end under Bryant at Kentucky in the 1950s.

Tidbit (academics edition) Not that this is necessarily surprising, given the university’s reputation, but Duke did lead the A.C.C. last fall with 19 players on the conference’s all-academic team. And it wasn’t close: Clemson and Wake Forest came in second with five selections, ahead of Georgia Tech and Maryland, which had four apiece. What was surprising? That the only school with less than two players on the all-academic team was Virginia, which has a strong academic reputation of its own.

Tidbit (November edition) Duke’s lone November win under Cutcliffe came in a 55-45 victory over Virginia on Nov. 6, 2010. Overall, the program is 1-12 under Cutcliffe over the final month of the regular season, bottoming out with an 0-5 mark in 2008, his first year with the program – though North Carolina later vacated its win, if that helps. Duke is 4-39 in November since the 2000 season, with wins over Georgia Tech and Tar Heels in 2003, Clemson in 2004 and the Cavaliers two years ago.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 S Matt Daniels (St. Louis), QB Thaddeus Lewis (Cleveland), LS Patrick Mannelly (Chicago), WR Eron Riley (New York Jets).

Arbitrary top five list

Former A.C.C. quarterbacks currently in the N.F.L.
1. Philip Rivers, N.C. State (San Diego).
2. Matt Ryan, Boston College (Atlanta).
3. Matt Schaub, Virginia (Houston).
4. Shaun Hill, Maryland (Detroit).
5. Christian Ponder, Florida State (Minnesota).


David Cutcliffe (Alabama ’76), 15-33 after four seasons at Duke. He improved Duke’s win total in each of his first two seasons, laying the ground work for an expected — by me, at least — return to bowl play in 2010. That didn’t happen, which was disappointing, as was last fall’s three-win finish. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Cutcliffe’s 15 wins over four years marks the program’s best stretch since Spurrier. His career mark, which includes parts of seven seasons at Ole Miss, is 59-60. Though he earned national praise for the job he did at Mississippi, Cutcliffe is most well-known for his long association with the University of Tennessee, where he spent 19 seasons as an assistant. That stretch began in 1982, when Cutcliffe started as a part-time assistant coach, and continued through 1998. After being fired from Ole Miss in 2004, health issues forced him to take one year off from coaching; he was hired to be Charlie Weis’s first quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame before stepping down before the start of the season. In 2006 Cutcliffe returned to Tennessee for a two-year stint before being tabbed as Duke’s next head coach. With the Volunteers, Cutcliffe spent six seasons as the tight ends coach (1983-88), a single season coaching the running backs (1989) and three as the quarterbacks coach (1990-92) before being promoted to the offensive coordinator spot, where he earned the well-deserved reputation as one of the nation’s best game-planners and play-callers. At Ole Miss, Cutcliffe finished a winning record in each of his first five seasons, including a 10-win 2003 season highlighted by a SEC West co-championship and a Cotton Bowl win. Cutcliffe can coach, we know that. But it takes a special kind of coach to win at Duke.

Players to watch

One area where Sean Renfree has already improved is in his ability to avoid the shield-your-eyes sort of performances that littered his 2010 season, his first as Duke’s starting quarterback. Then a sophomore, Renfree had five multiple-interception games, including four over a five-game stretch over the season’s first half. It’s not a stretch to say that his penchant for turnovers cost Duke more than one win: Renfree tossed three in a 54-48 loss to Wake Forest, another three in a 14-point loss to Army, five in a loss to Miami (Fla.) and a pair in a season-ending loss to North Carolina.

But steady progression was made over the second half of the 2010 season, in terms of limiting turnovers, and by and large, Renfree stayed error-free as a junior. He cut six interceptions of his 2010 total, suffering through only one multiple-turnover game — though Renfree did toss at least one pick in each of Duke’s last seven losses. He’ll need to continue growing as a decision-maker, cutting down further on his interceptions, but Renfree was absolutely better as a junior than as a sophomore, as expected. What can he do as a senior?

He can lead this offense back to its 2009-10 level, if not to greater heights — perhaps, if his teammates can join the party, to the program’s highest point total since 1994. Earlier this month, Cutcliffe touted Renfree as an N.F.L. prospect; I don’t doubt that point, even if his lack of all-conference production to this point has Renfree coming in under the radar. What Renfree has: strong accuracy, a nice rapport with his receivers, growing confidence, enviable experience and one of the best quarterback tutors in college football. All he lacks is help: Renfree is a strong college quarterback, but he can’t lift Duke into bowl play on his own.

It’s not so much that Duke can’t run the ball as it won’t, or can’t afford to. Not to imply that Duke has a Virginia Tech-like running game — not even close — but Cutcliffe could stand to turn to the running game with a bit more frequency, in turn taking pressure off of Renfree. Oftentimes, however, Duke needs to throw in order to hang in games against A.C.C. competition: the Blue Devils had more than 30 carries as a team only three times during conference play. When Duke does decide to run the football, it will turn to the pairing of junior Juwan Thompson (457 yards, 4.2 yards per carry) and senior Desmond Scott (367 yards, 5.2 yards per carry), the team’s leading rushers over the past two years. This offense also has a pair of quarterbacks, sophomore Anthony Boone and junior Brandon Connette, with strong running ability — though Boone took many of Connette’s carries last fall.

Duke lost offensive line coach Matt Luke to Mississippi in late March, forcing Cutcliffe into his only staffing change of the offseason. Luke was replaced by former Akron offensive coordinator John Latina, who served as the Rebels’ line coach under Cutcliffe from 1999-2004. Latina will take on an experienced group, not to mention Duke’s deepest line of the Cutcliffe era — the Blue Devils have steadily increased depth with each passing recruiting class. Duke returns four full-time starters and another three linemen with past starting experience, including junior right tackle Perry Simmons, a starter since his freshman season. The strong side of the line, with Simmons joined by sophomore right guard Laken Tomlinson, is in fairly secure hands. Even with increased numbers and experience, the rest of the line needs some work.

The Blue Devils need to settle matters at center after using a revolving door at the position last fall. If he can remain healthy, senior Brian Moore — the former starter at right guard — can give the Blue Devils some much-needed consistency in the middle of the line: he missed nine games last fall with an arm injury, forcing the line to shuffle as a result. If Moore can remain on the field, Duke can move junior Dave Harding out to left guard and use junior John Coleman as a valuable swing reserve at both tackle and along the interior. Sophomore Takoby Cofield is a logical replacement for left tackle Kyle Hill, the lone lost starter. This line should be Duke’s best, but it’ll still be overmatched against the number of wonderful defensive fronts in the A.C.C. — Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and the like.

Just think: It could have been worse. Duke already needs to replace nose guard Charlie Hatcher and safety Matt Daniels — the latter the nation’s most under-recognized defensive back — but the Blue Devils nearly lost end Kenny Anunike, who suffered a season-ending knee injury four games into last season. Anunike landed a fifth season of eligibility from the N.C.A.A. in January, allowing him to return in 2012; he landed another hardship waiver in March, thanks to an injury suffered during his true freshman season in 2008, so Anunike will be in Durham through the 2013 season. That’s wonderful news for Duke, even if Anunike needs to prove he’s recovered after last season’s injury, not to mention prove that he can remain injury-free.

At the time of his injury on Sept. 24, Anunike was leading the A.C.C. in sacks. Even having played in only parts of four games, he still lead the Blue Devils with 4.0 sacks; no other teammate had more than 2.0, and the team as a whole made 17.0 sacks on the year. So he’s a big-time player, and the key to the whole deal for this defense in 2012. If Anunike returns to full health, he’ll change the way the Blue Devils get to the quarterback. A strong pass rush will help offset this defense’s many issues elsewhere, perhaps allowing Duke to make another subtle improvement after cutting more than a field goal off its 2010 scoring average a year ago.

There is no senior defensive lineman on the roster, if we count Anunike as a junior. In addition, one of Anunike’s running mates at end, Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo (17 tackles), was likewise held out of spring ball due to a lingering injury. One of the positives to Anunike’s injury last fall was the playing time it gave to a batch of then-freshmen, like Dewalt-Ondijo, Dezmond Johnson and Jamal Wallace, who join junior Justin Foxx and Anunike in completing Duke’s top quintet at the position. The group as whole will be better in 2012, if still at least a year away from reaching their potential.

Hatcher, a three-year starter, leaves a big hole in the middle of the line. With junior Sydney Sarmiento (32 tackles, 1.5 for loss) entrenched at tackle, the Blue Devils desperately need a big, run-stuffing presence at nose guard. Even with Hatcher, Duke’s run defense crumbled over the second half of last season. The Blue Devils have big bodies at their disposal in sophomores Steven Ingram, Will Bryant and Jamal Bruce, but the lack of experience is a tremendous concern. Even if Anunike makes a healthy return, it’s hard not to view Duke’s defensive line as the A.C.C.’s worst.

Every linebacker who made a start last fall in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense returns in 2012. The group’s best, Kelby Brown (65 tackles, 7.0 for loss) and Austin Gamble (43 tackles, 5.5 for loss), have shown some disruptive ability. But they’re often hamstrung by a defensive line that doesn’t lend much assistance against the run, and could certainly use stronger play along the interior of the line. They still produce, which reflects well on this pair. Duke also brings back sophomores C.J. France (23 tackles) and David Helton (25 tackles, 2.5 for loss), each of whom made spot starts at freshmen. There’s your present and your future: Brown and Gamble may hold it down today, but France and Helton are the next in line. This isn’t a great group, but the Blue Devils have some nice potential along the second level.

Daniels should be considered the finest defensive back in Duke’s history, if not one of the finest defensive players in school history, if not one of the finest players in school history regardless of position. Imagine Duke’s defense over the last two or three years without Daniels cleaning up mess after mess against both the run and the pass, if you dare. It’s a scary premise. The line is thrown around too often, but in this case, it’s true: Duke cannot replace Daniels. No way, no how. He’s irreplaceable.

But one way that Cutcliffe hopes to replace Daniels’ production is by moving receiver Brandon Braxton (40 receptions for 352 yards) over to safety. You don’t move your second-most productive receiver — especially with that being a questionable position for the Blue Devils — over to defense without eyeballing him as a starter, so it stands to reason that Braxton will step right into a major role in the secondary. Braxton will thus join returning starters Walt Canty (87 tackles), Jordan Byas (40 tackles) and August Campbell at safety, though one player will get squeezed out of the starting lineup.

That’s some nice depth, however. Campbell dealt with injury issues during the spring, perhaps giving Byas a chance to cement a starting role. Both will see the field, even if we say that Braxton is a sure starter next to Canty — the latter takes on a leadership role in this secondary and on the defense as a whole. The starting cornerbacks should be Tony Foster and Luke Cockrell, with Foster claiming a full-time role following Johnny Williams’ graduation.

Position(s) to watch

Wide receivers Renfree has developed a wonderful relationship with Conner Vernon at receiver, though like his quarterback, Vernon could use some help. Vernon (70 receptions for 956 yards and 6 touchdowns) enters his senior season right on the doorstep of the A.C.C. record book: he needs 35 more catches to break former Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly’s career record and another 843 yards to break Peter Warrick’s record for receiving yards. Vernon and Renfree, though unheralded, might form the best quarterback-receiving pairing in the conference. But the Blue Devils are hurting for proven depth after losing Donovan Varner and tight end Cooper Helfet to graduation; there are only seven receivers on the roster altogether, though two, including Vernon, made at least 10 receptions last fall.

In a way, you have to trust in Cutcliffe’s faith in his returning receivers. Why else would Duke have moved Braxton, the team’s fourth-leading receiver, over to the defensive side of the ball? With Braxton now a safety, the Blue Devils will rely on sophomores Jamison Crowder (14 for 163) and Blair Holliday to take some pressure off of Vernon in the passing game. This pair constitutes one part of a fresh-faced receiver corps — outside of Vernon, of course — that includes wholly unproven targets like Nick Hill, Jack Wise, Corey Gattis and Brandon Watkins.

In addition, Duke signed a pair of true freshmen in February who might be able to squeeze into the rotation. Only Vernon saves this group from being a disaster. Even with one of the most prolific passers in A.C.C. history, this is one of the weakest receiver corps in the conference. You wish Renfree had a bit more at this disposal.

Game(s) to watch

Duke needs to win games in September, because few teams will face a tougher slate over the year’s final two months. September’s schedule includes a Sun Belt team – one Duke beat a year ago – a team from the F.C.S. and Memphis. Each of Duke’s last eight opponents won at least six games last fall; five of the eight won at least eight games; and two, Virginia Tech and Clemson, met last December for the A.C.C. championship.

Tidbit (U.N.C. edition) Duke has not met rival U.N.C. in October since World War II. The two played twice in 1943 – Duke won both games – presumably due to the fact that Virginia Tech disbanded its football program during the war years. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have played at some point between Nov. 7 and Nov. 27 in each season since. Not so in 2012: Duke and U.N.C. meet on Oct. 20, in the seventh game of the regular season.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The bowl-less streak continues if Duke doesn’t beat Florida International in the season opener. The run of three-win seasons continues if the Blue Devils don’t have three wins by the end of September. The program’s first double-digit loss season since Ted Roof is in play if, somehow, Duke loses to both F.I.U. and Memphis before turning to A.C.C. play. The lack of optimism is largely due to a factor outside of the Blue Devils’ control: the conference schedule. Simply put, Duke will be lucky to win two games in A.C.C. action. Each of the eight teams in conference play reached bowl eligibility last fall; even if two, U.N.C. and Miami, take a step back, this is still a whale of a gauntlet for Duke to face, especially with the team’s own issues. If the schedule alone isn’t enough cause for a pessimistic outlook, the Blue Devils do have concerns of their own to address. Begin with a dearth of options in the passing game beyond Vernon — who’s terrific, but not good enough to do it on his own. Continue with the annual lack of a running game, and continue with a deeper yet still unproven offensive line. The defense continues to improve after bottoming out in 2010, yet remains far removed from the middle of the A.C.C., let alone the league’s best. Three things we can say with almost certainty: Duke isn’t winning a game on the road; Duke isn’t winning a game in November; and there are only three games on this schedule — F.I.U., N.C. Central and Memphis — where you can say that Duke should either be favored or have a good chance at victory. Cutcliffe may get this team to four wins, which would be great, but the Blue Devils remains entrenched at or near the bottom of the A.C.C. — again.

Dream season Not only does Duke start strong, winning five of its first six, but it also beats U.N.C. in October and Georgia Tech and Miami (Fla.) in November. Eight wins, a program-best since 1994.

Nightmare season At the least the Blue Devils dispatch their F.C.S. opponent, unlike last year. And they beat Memphis. But that’s all.

In case you were wondering

Where do Duke fans congregate? There are a number of options out there to talk to Duke sports, though more than a few are focused mainly on the university’s basketball team. Still, if you’re interested, check out Duke ReportDevils Illustrated and The Devils Den. As always, drop a comment with any blogs, message boards and local beat reporters that I may have missed.

Duke’s all-name nominee QB Mackenzie Sovereign.

Word Count

Through 22 teams 73,068.

Up Next

Who is No. 102? Tomorrow’s university is one of two in its home city, joining a school with one of the nation’s most dominant gymnastics programs.

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  1. Joel says:

    Eastern Michigan, which shares Ann Arbor with gymnastics power Michigan? I suppose you could call Ypsilanti a suburb.

  2. David says:

    North Texas — Texas Woman’s University gymnastics

  3. Dr. Nick says:

    Sna Jose State is my best guess (the gymnastics powerhouse being Stanford).

  4. Dan says:

    Gymnastics has the big four. Georgia, Alabama, UCLA and Utah, who have won all the national titles in the sport. But Cal is the only school I can come up with that fits the criteria. They can’t have fallen this far have they?

  5. Parker says:

    Brutal, Paul!!

    Did you really mean to put a UNC player running the ball against Duke for the Duke preview picture?

  6. Hokieshibe says:

    Tyrod Taylor is backup qb for the Ravens…

  7. Hokieshibe says:

    Oh, nevermind, that was a top 5 list… Yeah, I guess that’s right. My bad. Although I’d put Schaub above Ryan (IMO)

  8. Machavelli says:

    Sorta sucks for Duke that they play in the Coastal and not the Atlantic. If they were in the Atlantic, they could definitely compete with the likes of Maryland, Boston College, and Wake Forest for league wins; then, beat FIU, NC Central, and Memphis and you have your bowl eligibility. However, in the Coastal, its tough and unlikely for Duke to get to six. They draw Florida State and Clemson as rotating crossovers. That’s a horrible “luck of the draw.”

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