The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 101: Duke
Coach: David Cutcliffe (15-33, fifth season)
2011 record: 3-9 (1-7 in Atlantic Coast Conference, 11th in ACC)
Look back: After starting the 2011 campaign with a 3-2 mark — that was aided by an early-season three-game winning streak — the Blue Devils had high hopes that they may have finally begun seeing tangible progress under Cutcliffe. A school deeply rooted in academics with a sports leaning heavy on basketball, the football program has seen its share of troubles throughout its history, but particularly in the lionshare of the past 20 years. From a recruiting standpoint and from an actual gameplay standpoint, Cutcliffe would argue that he has seen improvement. Certainly, four losses in a season all decided by seven points or less is a real sign that it has taken place. But another three-win season proved that the Blue Devils still have a ways to go.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 2/9
Defensive starters lost/returning: 3/8
Key losses: WR Donovan Varner, LT Kyle Hill, CB Johnny Williams, PK Will Snyderwine, S Matt Daniels
Top returnees: QB Sean Renfree, WR Conner Vernon, RB Juwan Thompson, C Dave Harding, DE Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, DT Sydney Sarmiento, S Walt Canty
Strengths: The passing game has been a strength of Duke’s from the time Cutcliffe, Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach at Tennessee, took over. The loss of former Blue Devils receiver Donovan Varner could hamper the program this season, but with Connor Vernon still catching passes from a more tenured Sean Renfree, the passing game shouldn’t struggle much. After all, the senior Renfree has passed for 300 yards or more eight times during his career.
Having a deep rushing game could help, as well. Tailbacks Juwan Thomspon, Desmond Scott and Josh Snead all return to the position. Last season, an injury to Snead forced Thompson into action. He ended up finishing the season as Duke’s leading rusher with 457 yards on the ground. Snead missed the entire year.
Weaknesses: For the last three seasons, it could be argued that special teams was a bit of a strength Duke had. Place kicker Will Snyderwine had his share of success in the kickoff and field goal kicking games. As a member of the All-ACC second-team, punter Alex White did, as well. The Blue Devils ranked second in the ACC in net punting last season as a result of White’s efforts. Since both will have to be replaced, special teams could be a weakness this season for Duke.
Outlook: Duke shouldn’t expect to finally break through as a serious contender to win the ACC this season. With so much in transition for the team this season and so many strong, balanced teams in the conference, 2012 doesn’t appear as if it will be the year anything along those lines happens.
What could happen, however, is a bowl berth. Duke hasn’t been to a bowl since 1994. That year’s 8-4 record marked the last time the Blue Devils have had a winning record in a single football season.
But while the Blue Devils may be optimistic about potentially putting an end to that long bowl streak, their schedule shows that it will be a rather tough task, too. There are very few games on it that they can look at as possible cakewalks. Seven of the 12 teams on Duke’s 2012 schedule had eight wins or more last season. Still, a greater than three-win campaign could be in the cards for the Blue Devils.
Sept. 1 Florida International
Sept. 8 at Stanford
Sept. 15 North Carolina Central
Sept. 22 Memphis