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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Duke

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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The least you should know about Duke...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 1-11 (0-8 ACC, 6th Coastal)
2003-07: 8-50 (3-37 ACC)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2003-07: 70 • 46 • 56 • 78 • 65
Returning Starters, Roughly
15 (6 Offense, 9 Defense)
Best Player
In addition to being an alleged drunk driving, road raging, knife-carrying, gun-wielding aggravated assailant, Mike Tauiliili and his impressive string of vertical letters were freshman all-America in 2005 and third in the ACC in tackles last year. The combination of the Devils’ general failure on defense and his sketchy rep probably kept Tauiliili out of even honorable mention on the all-conference team, but nevertheless: hundred-tackle seasons don’t grow on trees.
This Day In Duke History...
News of the world the last time Duke won a game against another team in the ACC, on Nov. 13, 2004:

• Palestinians mourn the death of Yasir Arafat.
• Madrid recovers from train bombing that killed 191 people and injured 2,000 two days earlier.
• Two days after a strong counterattack by insurgents, Army troops and tanks storm their last major stronghold in Falluja. • In a letter to three European governments, Iran promises to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
• Modesto, Calif. fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson is found guilty by a jury in Redwood City in the murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son.
• Rapper Russel Jones (a.k.a. Ol' Dirty Bastard) dies of a drug overdose in a recording studio in New York City.

For god’s sake, Duke, for ODB and his cherished memory, win a damn conference game.

*According to Rivals
What's Changed. David Cutcliffe has a reputation as a quarterback/passing guru, one largely borne out by the numbers, though there's also no separating his success from the fortune he's had to coach Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Romaro Miller, Eli Manning, Brady Quinn and Erik Ainge. Since he was promoted to Tennessee offensive coordinator in 1993, the only year Cutcliffe coached a quarterback who wasn't a drop-dead recruit turned entrenched career starter was 2004. That year, Ole Miss finished 103rd in scoring offense, Ethan Flatt, Michael Spurlock and Robert Lane combined to throw twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, and Cutcliffe got the boot. That was probably an overreaction on the Rebels' part - as Phil Steele notes in his annual "Baylored" section, and Ed Orgeron proved, it will probably be decades before another coach puts together six straight winning seasons in Oxford - but with no more Mannings coming down the pike, the shine was off.

Yes, coach, smile. They always start out smiling.
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Still, salvaging the simpering heap of neuroses that was Ainge's career after his dreadful sophomore year under Randy Sanders is a resumé-builder in my book, and if there's one area of Duke not mired in the hopeless Dukiness of Duke, it's the passing game. In terms of yards and efficiency, it's the only aspect of the offense that didn't finish dead last or next-to-last in the offensively-challenged ACC, often even rising to the level of solid mediocrity - 428 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-point effort against Navy, 246 and three scores with no interceptions at Northwestern, 241 and two TDs with no picks against Miami, 291 and four TDs against Wake Forest, two touchdowns and no INTs at North Carolina. Thaddeus Lewis is by all appearances the first legitimate I-A quarterback at Duke guide, help me...since...Spence Fisher (1992-95)! Fish is also the last Duke quarterback to take a snap in a bowl game, under the much-missed Fred Goldsmith.

If that streak is going to, who are we kidding? That streak is not going to end. But if it's even going to come close, against all odds, it will be by Cutcliffe's Herculean handiwork with Lewis, whose efficiency last year was almost identical to Matt Ryan's, and fellow junior Eron Riley, the only Blue Devil explosive enough (20-plus yards per catch each of his first two years) to earn so much as an honorable mention on last year's all-ACC team. The only other player on the offense remotely resembling a "playmaker," steady receiver Jomar Wright, is graduating.

What's the Same. There are probably three future pros on the defense, yet its collective incompetence can't be underestimated. It be not any responsibility of thine own, young Devils; nay, the cancer dwelleth in the very walls!

Duke Defense: ACC Rank, by Category
Rush Pass Eff. Total Scoring
2004* 11 10 10 10
2005 12 12 12 12
2006 11 12 12 12
2007 11 12 12 12
*The ACC had 11 teams in 2004.
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This is where you have to be careful not to let optimistic intangibles like "change" (Cutcliffe hired defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre from the New York Jets), "experience" (there are nine returning starters) or "talent" (linebackers Mike Tauiliili and Vincent Rey and ex-four-star DT Vince Oghobaase are generally liked by scouts) become a kind of mirage obscuring the vast wasteland. When the substantial accomplishment is not finishing last - when you're giving up at least four 20-plus-yard plays every single week - the problems go much deeper than mere optimism, whatever its source.

You do, however, have to give it up for the cultural and syllabic diversity of the middle of the defense since Michael Shawn Brown changed his name to reflect his Polynesian heritage, meaning both tackles and middle linebacker will be manned by Oghobaase, Okpokowuruk, and Tauiliili, respectively.

Yes, Virginia, There Is an Offensive Line. If the passing game is not-horrible, but the offense as a whole is (man, is it: 117th in total yards, 114th in scoring, last in the ACC in both) then what does that say about the running game? All 113 Duke fans respond: what running game? We have a running game? Not really - before the 145-yard finale in the near-upset at North Carolina, Duke was averaging a little more than 56 yards per game on the ground on less than two per carry. Re'quan Boyette led the team on 36 yards per game and two touchdowns for the season; the team broke a single, lonely run longer than 20 yards all season. Three times, against Miami, Wake Forest and Clemson, the Devils had as many fumbles as rushing first downs.

Still, despite the obvious failure to run, an abundance of must-throw deficits and the concentration of skill talent in the passing game, the offense was split almost down the middle between run and pass: 376 runs (including sacks) to 383 passes. Don't expect Cutcliffe to have any of that - his offenses at Tennessee the last two years were pass-oriented (52 percent passes in 2006, 54 percent last year) even with a boss who traditionally favored the straight-ahead business and viable personnel to succeed at it. Neither exists at Duke. He won't necessarily spread the field like June Jones, Mike Leach or Hal Mumme, but the short, quick passing game Cutcliffe used to great effect with Ainge ought to be the order of the day. The line can't hold long enough to allow much else.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Spread out among 100 guys, 1,000 pounds is not an unmanagable responsibility. When the first order of the new administration to the team was to drop half a ton, it was as symbolic as anything else:

Cutcliffe said his first goal in turning around a team that has struggled to win games in recent seasons-particularly in late-game situations-is conditioning. With the team's 15-day spring practice period beginning March 19, Cutcliffe already has set weight-loss and endurance goals for his players.

"We're not going to have a fat football team," Cutcliffe said. "And we're a fat football team right now."

One of the chief struggles for the Blue Devils last season was the ability to close out games. Duke was outscored 100-50 in the fourth quarter last season and lost contests against Navy and UNC in the final period...
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Duke was indeed outscored in the fourth quarter, but not by nearly the margin it was beaten in the second and third quarters. The Devils did actually outscore opponents by a couple points in the first quarter, but if the subsequent dropoff can be racked up to conditioning, half a ton might not do the trick.

Duke on You Tube. Actually, though you can catch the short version on YT, the extended version of the celebration following the win at Northwestern comes from some site called Revver. Having not experienced a win on campus since early 2005, the Dukies are enthusiastic and predictably rusty at the "victory" business, but there's no reason it has to end like this:

The girl on the business end of the upright is okay, according to posters, though she stands as a grave reminder: victory never comes without a price.

See Also: Just a little something about how bad Duke football is. These kids were immediately offered scholarships in 2014. ... Season tickets last year started at $84, or about $14 a game. How do Duke fans feel about those generous rates? Judging from this, they're still a ripoff.

No matter what, you can always count on at least one vote.
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Best-Case. Cutcliffe has a chance for a fast start: the Devils open against I-AA James Madison, against whom they should be favored, and then face Northwestern, the only I-A team they've beaten in the last three years, and Navy, which is also breaking in a new coach and can't claim any kind of advantage in talent; the Midshipmen had to rally from behind for a three-point win at home last year. A 3-0 start is not out of the question. Beyond that, eh, two wins in ACC play would be a giant leap forward - the team hasn't won even one ACC game in George Bush's second term. The conference losing streak is 25 and counting. Five wins overall would be the most in 13 years and would be good enough to get Cutcliffe my coach of the year vote. I mean, if I had one.

Worst-Case. This is a program with as many zero-win seasons as ACC wins this decade (three apiece), and has gone winless four times under three different head coaches since 1996, so the o-fer is never more than a I-AA loss away. James Madison was an FCS playoff team last year and played Appalachian State within a point; the Bulldogs Dukes [see comments-ed.] probably match up fairly well with Duke and could cast a pall over the entire season with a win in the opener, just like Richmond did when it shut the Devils out to start 2006. The earlier the holdovers start to think "Here we go again," the more likely they are to, uh, go again.

Non-Binding Forecast. There was a brief period of time a couple years ago when the Devils could steal a conference game here and there (against Georgia Tech and North Carolina in `03, against Clemson in '04), and they've been so hopeless since that just re-opening that window would be a significant achievement. Really, if Duke wins once against Northwestern, Navy and/or Vanderbilt and sneaks up on N.C. State or somebody to break the oppressive, four-year-old ACC streak, Cutcliffe should get a raise and extension. There is nothing in the last decade that suggests this team can be better than 2-10.