The reigning ACC Coastal division champs, the Duke Blue Devils, enter 2014 as one of the favorites to win the division once again. And why not? Head coach David Cutcliffe is building something special in Durham, and he will have the benefit of returning the core of last season’s team.
The division could be better than it was last season, so Duke won’t have an easy path back to the ACC Championship, but don’t bet on the Blue Devils falling back into obscurity any time soon.
Why Duke could win the Coastal division:
The Blue Devils’ offense should be better than ever this season with the return of quarterback Anthony Boone. They did lose quarterback Brandon Connette, which could hurt, but it may just mean that Duke will only use one quarterback this season.
Boone will have the benefit of passing to two all-ACC caliber pass-catchers with the return of wide receiver Jamison Crowder and tight end Braxton Deaver. There are a couple of question marks like how the Blue Devils will replace offensive linemen Dave Harding and Perry Simmons.
They will also have a new offensive coordinator now that Kurt Roper is working the same job for the Florida Gators. But Cutcliffe is the real offensive mastermind in Durham, and he shouldn’t have much trouble keeping the Blue Devils’ offense rolling.
Duke will also benefit from a friendly schedule. They will play their final three games at home against the Virginia Tech Hokies, the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Wake Forest looks like a safe bet to finish last in the Atlantic division. Duke’s other cross-division game will be on the road against the Syracuse Orange, which should be tough, but at least the Orange are not the Florida State Seminoles.
Why Duke could finish last:
While the offense could be very good, the Duke defense could keep the Blue Devils from making a second straight appearance in the ACC Championship. The unit shouldn’t be too bad, but they do have to replace a lot of talent this season, and they are going to face a number of solid-looking offenses.
The Blue Devils will be without all-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell and his fellow starting corner Garrett Patterson. However, there is experience returning in the secondary. The Blue Devils will rely on Breon Borders and Bryon Fields to fill the void left by Cockrell and Patterson. Both played quite a bit as freshman last season, and Borders recorded four interceptions.
The real problem will be the defensive line. The Blue Devils have to replace three starters from a line that wasn’t even a strength last season. Complicating the issue for Duke is the fact that the conference’s top four returning rushers are all in the Coastal division, including Duke Johnson and two running backs from the Pittsburgh Panthers, Isaac Bennett and James Connor, who combined for nearly 1,600 yards last season.
They will also have to deal with a couple of dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks, including Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt and UNC’s Marquise Williams. And, of course, there is the always-dangerous triple-option to to deal with against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Duke brings back two of the conferences best linebackers, in David Helton and Kelby Brown, but it may not matter much if the defensive line doesn’t hold its own.
Duke isn’t likely to return to their traditional spot at the bottom of the standings this season, but they will have a difficult time repeating as the Coastal division champ. Their best hope for another division championship may be a logjam at the top, with Duke holding a tie-breaker. That kind of scenario wouldn’t surprise anyone in this division, but the Blue Devils could just as easily find themselves on the wrong end of a tie-breaker.
Second place might be the best-case scenario for Duke this season but considering where the Blue Devils were just a couple years ago, that would still demonstrate once again that Cutcliffe has this program moving in the right direction.