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Jim Sumner: How Far Can Duke Football Go This Fall?

A lot of variables will determine Duke’s fate

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NCAA Football: Independence Bowl-Temple vs Duke
Dec 27, 2018; Shreveport, LA, United States; Duke Blue Devils cornerback Jeremiah Lewis (39) celebrates during the first half against the Temple Owls in the 2018 Independence Bowl at Independence Stadium.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve looked at Duke football over the last few weeks, examining different position groups, some with more experience than the others, some with more depth, some with more talent.

Will the whole be greater than the sum of their parts?

That’s the question almost every football team is asking itself during this murky period between the conclusion of spring football and the start of fall football, a time when players break into smaller groups, running, lifting weights, maximizing their strengths and working on their weaknesses.

Duke lost talent but that applies to almost everyone. David Cutcliffe has a mature program and mature programs almost always recruit well enough that they have some senior starters every season.

Cutcliffe will begin his 12th season at Duke and it’s impossible to evaluate his program without acknowledging the train wreck he inherited. Duke won 18 games in the eight seasons preceding Cutcliffe’s arrival in Durham, 67 in the 11 seasons since.

Cutcliffe has done things at Duke many believed impossible. And he’s done it without compromising Duke’s academic standards. Just this week it was announced that Duke football had a 992 out of 1,000 on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Report, trailing only Air Force and Northwestern.

But has the program leveled off?

Duke won its only Coastal Division title back in 2013. Had Ross Martin not missed a chip-shot field goal against Virginia Tech, Duke likely would have added a second Coastal championship in 2014.

But Duke hasn’t had a winning ACC season since 2014, going 7-17 over the last three years.

Sure Duke has ended its two-generation long bowl-victory drought but against lesser competition than 2013 Texas A&M or 2014 Arizona State. And Cutcliffe has avoided the fate of former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, who won the ACC title in 2006 but ended his Wake tenure with five straight losing seasons, from 2009 through 2013.

Duke has gone 4-8, 7-6 and 8-5 the last seasons. A galaxy away from 0-12. But not 10-4, either.

Will this year change the trend line?

I try to make a distinction between a question mark and a problem, with the latter the more serious.

Duke has lots of question marks. Look at wide receiver, where Duke lost three starters. Offensive coordinator Zac Roper told me that he expects several wide receivers to become stars.

Which ones?

That’s a question mark. If none of them break out, that’s a problem.

Duke has ACC-level talent at every position, a veteran coaching staff and a competitive infrastructure. Question marks? Sure.


Let me throw out a couple. Football is a collision sport and guys get hurt. Cutcliffe says that you’re only as good as your two’s [second team] and the ability to replace injured players with a comparable level of talent is a big reason why. He said building depth was a priority this spring and he was pleased with Duke’s progress in that area.

But getting healthy would help. Duke is sweating out some key rehabs, the most important on defense, where cornerback Mark Gilbert, safety Dylan Singleton, linebacker Brandon Hill and tackle Edgar Cerenord all hope to make the move from injury to starter.

The offensive injury list is more about depth, with tight end Jake Marwede, running backs Marvin Hubbard and Mataeo Durant and linemen Jake Rimmer and Patrick Leitten not expected to start but expected to play. If healthy.

Then there’s the schedule.

Duke always plays four non-conference games. The Blue Devils won all four last season, Army, Northwestern, Baylor and North Carolina Central. That enabled Duke to leverage a 3-5 conference mark into a 7-5 regular-season record.

But Duke isn’t going to go 4-0 this season. Beating Notre Dame at home would be an upset but it might be doable. Duke did defeat Notre Dame in South Bend in 2016. That wasn’t a very good Notre Dame team. But it wasn’t a very good Duke team either.

But Alabama? C’mon. Not even Jim Carrey thinks Duke has a chance.

Middle Tennessee State and North Carolina A&T? Lose either of those and the season circles down the drain.

Still, 2-2 is more likely than 3-1. Which means Duke likely will have to go 4-4 in ACC play to become bowl eligible and that hasn’t happened since 2015. Duke has long losing streaks to Pittsburgh (four games ), Virginia (four) and Virginia Tech (three). The crossover game isn’t Clemson but Syracuse clearly was the second-best team in the ACC and they’re coming off a 10-3 season.

And Duke has had a recent tendency to throw in a where-did-that-come-from-stinker, with last year’s Wake Forest fiasco Exhibit A.

Most of the too-early prognostications have Duke in the 6-6 neighborhood, give or take a game, a not insignificant margin of error.

Consistency, good health, improvement individually and collectively. Check those boxes and Duke can easily be in the Coastal mix. But there’s not a lot of wiggle room for David Cutcliffe’s 12th Duke team to become a title contender.

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