This is the first of a series of previews in collaboration with bloggers from around the ACC. First up is Duke...
Mike Kline from Bleacher Report has graciously answered questions on the upcoming season for the Blue Devils. He is Duke's Featured Columnist on the site. Please check out his work.
Q: Duke has won nine games over the last two years. Describe how David Cutcliffe has changed the program from one that won 10 games in the eight previous seasons.
A: Cutcliffe has definitely brought a winner's mentality back to Duke Football. Duke as a university had made it clear football was not a priority. The previous coaches were young which allowed the school to pay them little money that matched their level of experience. Cutcliffe represented a major paradigm shift. He was an experienced coach with a winning track record who had strong roots in the best football conference in America.
He immediately brought in a new attitude where settling for mediocrity was no longer acceptable. He started first with the players by making them football players whose conditioning and attitude would allow them to compete in the ACC and for bowl eligibility.
He got strong commitments from the university to improve the archaic facilities which are still in the works. He has worked hard to get a fan base dedicated to basketball to start to take notice of football. Hard to do at a small private school but that isn't stopping him from trying.
Q: What does it say about the Duke program when Cutcliffe turned down the job at Tennessee to stay in Durham?
A: It was an incredibly hard thing for him to do I can imagine. Tennessee was home for him. He knew the school, knew all the people and had been a long-time Volunteer. However, being the loyal guy he is he knew the job at Duke was not done. It was a surprising move given that Duke will never be the level that Tennessee has been.
What it means in the short term is that Duke continues to build confidence, recruit better, and build better facilities. What the long-term goal should be is to sustain a level of competitiveness that will allow them to compete for bowl berths and the occasional conference championships, although those will be less of a frequent occurrence.
Q: Will QB Sean Renfree be ready to go at the start of the season after tearing his ACL at the end of last year?
A: Renfree will be ready to go or he won't play. Cutcliffe, being a quarterback guru, will have Renfree mentally ready. That being said, missing out on most of the spring practices will put him behind physically. He will have to readjust to the speed.
The first game again Elon, an FCS school, might seem like a good tune-up, but the Phoenix aren't a team you can overlook. Duke got beat by Richmond in last year's opener. Duke's offense will need a bigger contribution from the running game to assist Renfree especially early. This would allow for a more balanced attack that would take the pressure off of Renfree.
Q: How much of a drop-off will there be (if any) at the QB position after losing four-year starter Thad Lewis?
A: There will be a bit of a drop-off, no doubt. Lewis is arguably the best quarterback in Duke's history. That includes some pretty good quarterbacks, although those names have been lost in the Blue Devils' long streak of mediocrity.
Renfree showed glimpses in early action. He threw for a couple touchdowns in the win against Army. Early on he traded snaps with Lewis, as Lewis recovered from preseason injuries. He does lack game experience and that will always show early on. It won't be easy so don't expect him to put up similar numbers to Lewis.
Q: Four starters return on the offensive line, but how is the depth for this group?
A: Depth will be an issue at Duke for at least the next two to three years. Cutcliffe is recruiting like a mad man but he is going to be forced to either redshirt players who aren't quite ready, or play them.
My guess is he will follow the method of Jim Grobe down the road at Wake Forest. He will have his experienced guys take some lumps for another year or two before adding to the depth. That isn't to say in critical cases like with the D-line this year he won't play freshmen a lot.
Q: Duke’s defensive coordinator left to take a head job elsewhere. What are the two new coordinators going to bring different to improve on a unit that ranked ninth in the ACC in total yards allowed?
A: This is going to be a bit of a challenge. It is never good to lose your D-coordinator, and I'm not sure how two of them will work out. Much like the two quarterback systems, they typically fail. Marion Hobby and Jim Knowles will be working together, and how well they do so remains to be seen. Hobby is returning and knows the players. Knowles is coming off being a head coach.
How will they mesh or will they mesh with a very young and inexperienced group? More questions than answers right now. However it has to be a good sign for the program when you start loosing coordinators to head coaching jobs.
Q: Who are some true freshmen that could get early playing time? What about the redshirt freshmen we may have forgotten?
A: Duke will definitely play some freshmen. A name that might not get immediate or lots of playing time, but who could figure in prominently is Josh Snead. The speedy freshman could get some time in the backfield or special teams.
Another is Brandon Connette. The California quarterback had a good spring and could compete for the backup job if he isn't redshirted. Laken Tomlinson could see some time on the O-line, while freshmen ends Jamal Wallace and Desmond Johnson could be forced into early action on the D-line.
Q: What game are Duke fans looking forward to the most this season and why?
A: Without a doubt it has to be the Alabama game. It is a measuring stick. Granted most fans aren't realistically expecting a 'W', but they are excited to be hosting the defending champs and Heisman winner. Duke fans hope for a competitive game to give them some hope for continued future success.
It is reminiscent of how the basketball team is perceived when they play other schools. They are happy to get a shot at one of the premier teams in the country, even if the outcome probably won't look very pretty.
Q: What would be considered a successful season for Duke this year? What would be disappointing?
A: Success would be six wins or more, and bowl eligibility. Less than that would clearly be disappointing, but shouldn't be surprising. Duke has to replace some key components on both sides of the ball. They will have to rely on a lot of freshmen, especially on defense, and that could be costly. So a drop-off or failure to win five or more games could be a reality, but doesn't spell long-term bad news for Duke.
They have a huge hole to grow out of, but with improvements come greater expectations, and a lot of fans are starting to take notice and expect a bowl season.
Q: What is the biggest hurdle to Duke making a bowl game this year?
A: Duke has started to win the games they should win, but now they have to knock some teams off that they probably shouldn't. This comes in conference play. They have to knock off a team like North Carolina, or Georgia Tech, or even Clemson. They have to win the games they should win, but will have to steal some as well to get the six games they need for a bowl.
Q: Do you have a prediction for the season?
A: Right now with so many question marks, I see Duke going at best 6-6, but I feel like another 5-7 or 4-8 season is more than a likely possibility. For the team to go 6-6 or better, they will have to win at least three games that are toss-ups or expected losses.
My take on Duke...
Cutcliffe is the program's best coach since Steve Spurrier was in Durham. However, his coaching ability is still not enough to make up for the lack the talent and depth necessary to compete for a division title. What you can say Cutcliffe has done is make Duke more competitive, and he's given fans the hope of a bowl game.
The out of conference schedule is a little more difficult this year, though, with defending national champion Alabama coming to town, and a road trip to Navy. In the ACC, the Devils have a fairly favorable draw from the Atlantic, but unfortunately have to play in what may be the toughest division the ACC has seen this year in the Coastal. A bowl bid will be determined by a several toss games at Wake Forest, at Maryland, and home vs. Virginia.
I see Duke falling just short this year of postseason play.
4-8, Fifth in ACC Coastal
Thanks again to Mike for his insight. Please visit his site on Bleacher Report.