Duke not satisfied with 1st bowl berth since '94
Here's a sign of how far the once woebegone Duke football program has come: Simply going to a bowl game is no longer enough.
Now that the Blue Devils' streak of bowl-less seasons is finally over, they want more.
They want their first postseason victory since 1961. They want to beat a Top 25 team for the first time in nearly two decades. They want the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title that, for much of 2012, was unexpectedly within their reach.
And despite some major graduation losses, they might be closer to reaching those goals than they were last year.
Gone are three-year starting quarterback Sean Renfree, who's now with the Atlanta Falcons, and Conner Vernon, who caught an ACC-record 283 passes in four productive years.
Those two helped bring Duke from the bottom of the conference to the middle of the pack — and that's significant progress for a program that went winless four times in the 11-year span from 1996-2006 and won a total of two games in the three seasons before David Cutcliffe was hired.
Duke was 6-2 and in control in the Coastal Division following a last-seconds win over rival North Carolina but lost its last five games, including a loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, to finish with its 18th straight losing record.
"I have no doubt in my mind that Duke football's moving forward, but we wanted to continue on a pace that's dictated by us and our commitment to excellence," Cutcliffe said.
Five things to know heading into the season:
1. THE EXPECTATIONS HAVE CHANGED. Maybe not from the outside — the Blue Devils were picked last in the Coastal for the eighth time since 2005, when the ACC split into divisions — but certainly from within. Cutcliffe, who led Mississippi to five bowls in six-plus seasons at Mississippi from 1998-2004, says the bowl loss "left you wanting more, and that's what you wanted to see." A manageable schedule should allow Duke to claim one of the ACC's nine bowl berths — especially if the Blue Devils can go undefeated in regular-season nonconference games for the first time since 1994.
2. SO HAS THE OFFENSE. That pro-style offensive scheme of Cutcliffe's that helped groom Peyton and Eli Manning into Super Bowl MVPs has been tweaked. Sure, the Blue Devils will still throw it plenty, but they also are incorporating some elements of the trendy zone-read option to better take advantage of new starting QB Anthony Boone — who's exponentially more mobile than Sean Renfree ever was. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper says Boone won't necessarily rush for 100 yards per game "but the schemes that we can use in the run game, that's another factor the defense has to account for."
3. PUT THE "D'' IN DUKE. The Blue Devils' 4-2-5 defensive system should be better this year — mainly because it'd be tough to be worse. Duke ranked 10th or lower in all four of the ACC's main stat categories, allowed a league-worst 36 points per game and gave up at least 41 points in six of its final seven games, going 1-6 in that span. Duke needs its experienced front six (with three redshirt seniors) to avoid being overmatched, after two years when DBs had to lead the team in tackles. LB Kelby Brown, who missed all of 2012 after having knee surgery, and Ohio State transfer Jeremy Cash at "strike" safety will be key.
4. REMEMBER NOVEMBER. The season's final month has been particularly rough on the Blue Devils. They have gone 1-19 in November in Cutcliffe's five seasons and haven't had a winning record in that month since Steve Spurrier's final team went 3-0 in 1989. After an 0-3 fade kept them out of the ACC title game last year, quarterback Anthony Boone says the Blue Devils have put even more importance on "just being able to finish strong (in) everything we do around November when the games really count."
5. BUILD IT AND THEY'LL COME? There's another reason this is a big season at Duke: After the season ends, a multiyear makeover at dilapidated Wallace Wade Stadium is scheduled to begin. It will include the removal of the track to bring the stands closer to the field, a new press box with suites and other luxury seating options, and the filling-in of the open horseshoe in the end zone that will increase capacity by about 10,000. If the wins continue to come, filling those seats could become less of a challenge that it had been when Duke was arguably the nation's worst football program in a major conference.
Predicted finish in the ACC: Fifth in the Coastal Division.