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2018 Opponent Previews: Duke

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If you’re looking for an easy win, look elsewhere.

NCAA Football: ACC Media Days Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, Duke was a free win. Under the leadership of the vaunted Ted Roof, the Blue Devils went an astonishing 6-45 from 2003 to 2007 before finally turning to a new face. The first half decade or so went quite well for the Jackets, but recent Duke teams have given us some of the ugliest displays of Georgia Tech football of the Paul Johnson era. Will 2018 be a continuation of recent struggles or a reversion to the norm? We’ll see!

Last Season in Review

It’s a well-known fact that Duke head coach Mr. Magoo is no fan of the cut block. He [allegedly] whines about it all the time, which is probably why his Blue Devils went just 7-6 a season ago while still managing to thump the Jackets by a 23-point margin. We don’t like to talk about that. What we do like to talk about, however, is the rest of Duke’s season.

Ten years from now, Duke’s 2017 schedule might be the hardest-looking easy schedule in the history of football. They faced the Coastal, losing to Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami, and Pitt. They caught Florida State on arguably its biggest down year ever and lost by a score, then beat Wake to finish out the conference slate. From there they beat a 1-11 Baylor team, another remarkable down year, and the impressive 10-3 Northwestern Wildcats. Throw in a cupcake win over NC Central, a loss to Army, and a Quick Lane Bowl win over NIU to complete the season. That’s a 7-6 that will look much better in 2028 than it does today.

Returnees

If you ask me, Duke is probably a quiet darkhorse to win the Coastal in 2018. David Cutcliffe is easy to hate but it’s honestly impossible to deny his pedigree as a coach as well as the returning talent for the Devils this season. He’s kicked up his recruiting following renovations to Wallace Wade Stadium and could have his team poised for a run this season.

Chief among Duke’s key returnees is redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones, who has quietly become one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC. Though he took a small step back in 2017, throwing for 2,691 yards with 14 touchdowns and 11 picks after a 2,836-yard, 16 touchdown and 9 interception performance in 2016, Jones is an excellent signal caller who will have us in a world of hurt if the defense fails to improve.

Jones will also have his three top targets back for another go around: wideouts T.J. Rahming, Jonathan Lloyd, and Chris Taylor. The trio combined for 1,494 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2017 and figure to be even more productive in 2018 with a more experienced quarterback and another season under their own belts. Halfback Brittain Brown, a 700-yard rusher in 2017, is also back for a second season. If there’s a weak spot on the Duke offense, it’s the offensive line. More on that later.

On the defensive side of the ball, Duke returns a top-five linebacker in the ACC in Joe Giles-Harris and fellow stalwart linebacker Ben Humphreys. Those two alone will give Tech plenty of trouble with executing the option, much like hybrid safety/linebacker Jeremy Cash used to.

Departures

On offense, Duke will be without leading rusher Shaun Wilson in 2018. The aforementioned Brittain Brown is in good position to take over and be just as productive as Wilson, who ran for 800 yards in 2017, but hasn’t shown the same pass catching ability as Wilson, who led the team in touchdown receptions.

The offensive line is where Duke will struggle in 2018, as I mentioned in passing earlier. Gone are starting right tackle Evan Lisle, left tackle Gabe Brandner, and center Austin Davis, along with backup left tackle Sterling Korona. That’s a big blow for a team that relies so heavily on a sturdy run game.

Defensive back Alonzo Saxton II is the biggest defensive piece which won’t return for Duke. He finished up his college career with 5.5 tackles for a loss and 90 total tackles in 2017, creating a hole which will be difficult to fill. The secondary is one of few areas with plenty of turnover, as cornerback Bryon Fields Jr. has also exited stage left.

You’ll notice that the departures section is quite sparse. That’s because Duke’s two-deep features a remarkable 22 freshmen and sophomores at the onset of the 2017 season, leaving plenty of holdover talent for 2018.

Conclusion

Barring something unexpected, 2018 Duke is better than 2017 Duke. Do we feel confident that 2018 Georgia Tech has closed the 23-point performance gap we saw last season, despite Duke’s returning talent? That’s a bet I’m hesitant to make, even though a win over Duke feels like a necessity when it comes to achieving bowl eligibility versus a tough upcoming schedule. Duke’s offensive line and secondary (to a much lesser extent) seem to be areas of weakness, but Tech’s defensive line and quarterback play haven’t given us much reason to expect them to take advantage.