Resurgent Duke out to prove 2013 was no fluke
Duke can certainly get used to the view from the top.
The perennial last-place pick in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division finished atop the standings last year and the resurgent Blue Devils believe they have enough talent and experience to stay there.
After winning its first division title last year, Duke believes it can do it again.
So do many voters: In the ACC's official media preseason balloting, no team received more first-place votes in the Coastal than the Blue Devils — who were picked to finish second behind Miami.
"People have given us a lot more respect, for sure," linebacker Kelby Brown said. "Luckily we have another season to prove that we deserve it."
They'll have to do it without Brown — who was lost for the season after tearing a knee ligament earlier this week.
Duke is coming off its second straight bowl appearance — the first time that's happened in school history — and now the Blue Devils want to make it three in a row and finally win one, for a change.
For the first time in years, Duke faces legitimately high expectations, after being picked last in either the division or overall in the ACC every year but once since 2000.
That could make it tougher and it will test the mental toughness and focus of a team that wants to extract confidence from its run of recent success without developing a sense of entitlement or complacency.
"The bowl games bring in better recruits and more talented players, and all they're going to know is bowl games," quarterback Anthony Boone said. "Obviously, the mentality is going to change a little bit, but when it comes to a work standpoint, that will never change. ... We're definitely making sure that these guys don't forget that."
5 things to watch while Duke defends its Coastal Division title:
THE NEW PLAYCALLER: Coach David Cutcliffe's longtime right-hand man is gone, with offensive coordinator Kurt Roper leaving to take the same job at Florida. Former Duke receiver and NFL assistant Scottie Montgomery was promoted to replace him, but the players say nothing about their zone-read offense should change. "We're going to stick to what we are," Boone said.
WHO REPLACES CONNETTE? One of the secrets to Duke's success last year was quarterback Brandon Connette, a short-yardage specialist who could rush for, catch and throw touchdowns. The California native is gone, having transferred to Fresno State for his final season to be closer to his mother during her fight with cancer. Among the top candidates to fill that role are redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk and redshirt freshman Parker Boehme. "We're going to go into Game 1 with somebody or more than one in some of those packages because I'm a big believer in that," Cutcliffe said.
GROUND GAME: One priority for Duke is getting its running backs going, with Cutcliffe saying "I want to become better in our toughest games at running the football." The Blue Devils had just four 100-yard rushing performances last year and three of those belonged to Josh Snead, who along with Shaq Powell will get the bulk of the carries — especially with Jela Duncan suspended for the season for violating university policy. "Me and Shaq know we've got a lot on our shoulders this year," Snead said.
CROWDER'S HOUSE: Big-play receiver Jamison Crowder might be the most versatile player in the ACC. The all-conference selection leads all active receivers with nine touchdown catches of at least 50 yards, and scored touchdowns three different ways — rushing, receiving, and on a punt return — last year against Pittsburgh.
COUNTING WINS: Duke's schedule seems made for a return to the postseason: The Blue Devils' navigable nonconference opponents include Elon of the FCS, Troy, Kansas and Tulane, and they dodge the Atlantic Division's toughest teams (Florida State, Clemson, Louisville). The key stretch comes late with home games five days apart against Virginia Tech and North Carolina.