Happy Friday Blue Devil Nation! It feels good to be #1 again, doesn’t it? There’s still a lot of basketball to be played before a champion is crowned and it should be a great March. We made it through another week, which means it’s time for our Football Friday column. This week, we take a comprehensive first look at Duke’s 2011 schedule.
See, the internet can be a good thing
Since I mentioned the Auburn incident briefly last week, I thought I should commend the Alabama Crimson Tide fans for their generous support of Tide for Toomers, which has now raised over $45,000. I think many Duke fans are able to appreciate the general good nature of the Crimson Tide faithful after meeting them at last fall’s game in Durham. This generous campaign is an impressive demonstration of charity and respect; hopefully, the funds will be put to good use to help restore a popular Auburn tradition. The most important characteristic of any truly great rivalry is not hatred or competitiveness, but mutual respect. Well done.
Will Duke go bowling in 2011?
Of course, the fan in me says yes, and I’m excited to see this young team continue to develop on the field. That being said, the analyst in me says I’ve got another year to save up frequent flyer miles for our bowl trip. The Blue Devils will face 8 opponents who went to a bowl in 2010, including 3 ranked opponents. Duke will close the season with 3 of their final 4 games on the road. Coming off a 3 win season with a roster that features 57 underclassmen, the scheduling gods have not been particularly kind to the Blue Devils.
Two words should give Duke fans a ray of hope: starts with turnover, ends with margin. Put it together: turnover margin. I conveniently found two good examples to prove my point right in the ACC.
The Maryland Terrapins finished the 2010 season 9-4 after a dismal 2-9 season in 2009. Of course, the impressive turnaround earned Ralph Friedgen ACC Coach of the Year honors, but apparently was not enough to save his job. Sure, Maryland made improvements across the board and broke in a talented young quarterback in Danny O’Brien, but if you look at the statistics, most offensive and defensive improvements were pretty marginal in the ACC rankings. The big jump was in turnover margin, where they went from -6 in 2009 (11th in ACC) to +15 in 2010 (2nd in ACC).
The second example happened right down the road in Carter-Finley Stadium. The Wolfpack went from 5-7 in 2009 to 9-4 in 2010, and also simultaneously improved from -11 (12th in ACC) to +7 (4th in ACC) in turnover margin. It’s said all the time and it seems cliché, but the statistics show that winning the turnover battle is essential to winning football games.
Of course, the Blue Devils went in the opposite direction, from +2 (4th in ACC) in 2009, to -11 (12th in ACC) in 2010. If the Duke offense can do a better job of taking care of the football while the defense comes up with a few more opportunistic takeaways, maybe, just maybe, the Blue Devils can find enough wins to play in December.
2011 Duke opponents
September 3: Richmond (2010: 6-5)
Repeat after me: it’s not 2009, it’s not 2009… The Blue Devils certainly hope so; a repeat of the 2009 season opener would be devastating for the program. The Spiders took a step back in Head Coach Latrell Scott’s first year, but still posted their 6th consecutive winning season. Simply put, Richmond is a football team that expects to win, and having won their last 2 games in Wallace Wade Stadium, they will come to Durham confident. The Blue Devils will have to be ready to play on opening night and have every reason to be: they should have a full house of support, overall better athletes, and better coaching. They need to take care of business on their home field against an FCS opponent.
September 10: Stanford (2010: 12-1)
The Blue Devils had so much fun playing a top non-conference game in September last year that they decided to do it again in 2011. Jim Harbaugh may be gone, but Andrew Luck is still there; after watching the second half of the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech, it’s probably safe to say that Luck alone might be the toughest test for the Duke defense all season. But not so fast. The Cardinal are losing a lot of talent at key positions, including receiver, where Luck will have to find new targets. I also suspect he will do a lot of handing off to a talented group of running backs, led by Stepfan Taylor. There are question marks along the line of scrimmage, where the Cardinal lose 3 starters on offense and 2 on defense. Most fans and analysts won’t give Duke a chance in this game, but there’s reason to believe that it may be more competitive than expected.
September 17: at Boston College (2010: 7-6)
Last season, I circled the September matchup at Wake Forest on the schedule as a crucial game for the Blue Devils. This year, I’m circling this early season trip to Chestnut Hill. Well, not literally, since I can’t figure out how to do that on my iPhone, but you get the idea. Duke played BC down to the wire in 2010, and both teams return most of their key players. After struggling to score in 2010, the Eagles will have a new offensive coordinator, but still expect to feature a heavy dose of senior RB Montel Harris. Defensively, Mark Herzlich has graduated, but junior Luke Kuechly, who Duke fans may remember as The One-Man Defensive Highlight Reel, is likely to put up another All-ACC year. While I don’t think this is a must-win game, I think we’ll learn a lot about our young Blue Devils in their first road game in an unfamiliar stadium. Can Duke protect the football and score against an imposing, physical defense? Can the defense wrap up Montel Harris and do a better job against the run than a year ago?
September 24: Tulane (2010: 4-8)
Without a doubt, this is a game Duke should win, but it won’t be the cupcake most expect. Tulane went up to Piscataway and beat Rutgers a year ago, so they’re capable of beating BCS conference teams on the road. Also, the Green Wave are 2-0 all-time against the Blue Devils, but the last meeting was in 1973. Somewhat similar to Duke, Tulane was able to put up points fairly consistently in 2010, but struggled to slow opposing offenses. That being said, much like the Richmond game, Duke needs to take care of business against a lesser opponent in Wallace Wade Stadium.
October 1: @ Florida International (2010: 7-6)
Not that Duke football should be overlooking any opponent at this point, especially on the road, but prior to last year, most would have considered Duke a clear favorite in this matchup. The Golden Panthers played their first year in the FBS in 2005 (their football program played its first game in 2002), had never had a winning season at any level, and had a cumulative record of 24-68. This was all before their magical 2010 run to the Sun Belt Championship and a Little Caesars Pizza Bowl title over Toledo. The good news is that FIU is 0-4 all-time against ACC opponents, including a loss a year ago at Maryland. If the Blue Devils hope to continue that trend, they will need to contain dynamic senior T.Y. Hilton, the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year. Heading into the open date, this is a crucial road game for Duke.
October 8: Open date
The open date falls near the middle of the schedule, which is where the coaching staff prefers, but I think it comes a week too early this year, as you’ll see below. I expect Duke to enter the bye at 3-2, with an outside chance of a great 4-1 start (and of course the possibility of things going in the other direction, but we won’t think about that for now, it’s February!). Their first opponent out of the bye will be the preseason favorite to win the ACC championship, and the Blue Devils will need all the extra preparation they can get.
October 15: Florida State (2010: 10-4)
There’s not much to say to the preview of this matchup. Jimbo Fisher has done a great job of turning the Seminoles back into perennial ACC contenders, and I expect the momentum from his first year as head coach to continue in 2011. To put it simply, Duke will be overmatched at most positions on the field. That being said, Duke is capable of competing with the Seminoles; if they take care of the football, execute, and get some help from the football gods, there is no reason to think an upset isn’t a possibility.
October 22: Wake Forest (2010: 3-9)
I’m getting really tired of saying that we have to beat Wake Forest, but guess what? We have to beat Wake Forest. After several years of success, Wake Forest has struggled the past two seasons, and the Blue Devils have failed to take advantage. As I’ve said already, Duke has to take care of business in Wallace Wade Stadium against “beatable” opponents if they want to take the next step as a program. The outcome of this game is likely to be predictive of how Duke finishes the 2011 season, which is why I would have preferred the open date come a week later. I expect both teams to be improved from a year ago, and this should be another game that will come down to the wire between the Tobacco Road rivals.
October 29: Virginia Tech (2010: 11-3)
It’s conceivable that Duke could play very good football during this 3-game October homestand and end up without a win to show for it. The defending ACC champions beat the Blue Devils handily in Blacksburg a year ago, but lose ACC Player of the Year Tyrod Taylor, along with running backs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams. As always, under the guidance of Bud Foster, the Hokies’ defense will present another stiff challenge for the Duke offense, but I expect the Virginia Tech offense to experience some growing pains in 2011. I’m not going to predict an upset here, but I have to admit I like Duke’s chances if they are able to take care of the football and if they have momentum from a win over Wake Forest.
November 5: at Miami (2010: 7-6)
The Al Golden era begins in Miami, and the Blue Devils will make their second trip to sunny Florida in week 10, the first of three November ACC road games. It’s hard to predict how the Hurricanes’ season will go under their new head coach, especially with a big question mark under center. A great athlete, Jacory Harris has struggled to cut down on turnovers, which makes it tough to win. Stephen Morris showed flashes of potential last year, but is far from a sure thing at this point. Miami should have the better athletes, but with the program in transition, it’s not unreasonable to think that Duke could win two games in the state of Florida in 2011, though unlikely.
November 12: at Virginia (2010: 4-8)
Duke is 3-0 against Virginia under David Cutcliffe, but it has gotten more difficult every year. After a convincing victory in Durham in 2008, the Blue Devils pulled out a 4th quarter victory in Charlottesville in 2009, and a last minute victory in Durham in 2010 (cementing Desmond Scott’s place in Duke fans’ hearts). It won’t be any easier in 2011, as Mike London has done an impressive job turning things around for the Cavaliers. Virginia will be breaking in a new quarterback and running back, losing Marc Verica and Keith Payne to graduation. The Wahoos are likely to experience some youthful growing pains, but they will be hungry for a win against the Blue Devils in Charlottesville. This is a very tough road test for the Blue Devils and it comes during a difficult stretch in November.
November 19: Georgia Tech (2010: 6-7)
At first glance, this may be the most winnable game on Duke’s November schedule, which says a lot. Georgia Tech defeated the Blue Devils in 2010 without start QB Josh Nesbitt, so there’s no reason to think that Tevin Washington isn’t capable of leading them to victory again. That being said, Duke played one of their best games of the year in Atlanta last year, and may have pulled off the upset without a crucial second half red zone turnover. As has been my theme throughout this preview, if Duke wins the turnover battle in this game, they have a good chance of taking down the Yellow Jackets, which would be a good win on the program’s resume.
November 26: at North Carolina (2010: 8-5)
With all that’s gone on at UNC over the past year, the fact remains that they’ve dominated the Blue Devils on the field and remain an imposing opponent. Things could change in Chapel Hill before this game, but the Tar Heels showed an impressive toughness in 2010 by playing well through adversity. With key losses on both offense and defense, the Tar Heels have question marks heading into the season, but most should be answered by the final game of the season. This is another game that Duke simply must win to truly take the next step forward as a program.
The bottom line
Predictions when most teams haven’t even begun spring practice are generally meaningless, but you want me to make one, so I will. I already said that Duke enters the bye week at 3-2, but I expect Duke to play some of its best football during the second half of the season. Unfortunately, that coincides with some of Duke’s toughest matchups on paper. My gut really doesn’t like the way the schedule plays out for the Blue Devils, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended with 4 wins. However, I am optimistic that Duke has the athletes and the coaches to take a big step forward by pulling off an important upset late in the season over a team like Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, or even Miami, giving them 5 wins on the season.
Don’t worry, we’ll be back next week and we’ll talk some more recruiting and recap the headlines from Duke’s spring practice. Thanks for reading and don’t forget WE ARE DUKE.
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