July 20, 2011
The least you should know about the 2011 Blue Devils. Part of ACC Week.
• First, something nice. The passing game under coach David Cutcliffe is legit: Senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis led the ACC in total offense and broke the school's career passing record in 2009, and successor Sean Renfree may be right on his heels after filling the void with another 3,000-yard campaign as a sophomore.
Don't mistake it for an explosive attack — the top five returning receivers combined for just eight touchdowns on 215 catches — but with eight starters and 94 percent of last year's total yards en tow, there is more than a little potential. At any rate, top wideouts Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner have both showed up on postseason All-ACC teams the last two years, and at 25 points per game in both seasons, this is a far cry from the impotent units that routinely finished in the conference cellar pre-Cutcliffe.
• Now, the reality. Despite skirting the brink of respectability with a 5-3 start in 2009, Cutcliffe's Devils have ultimately embraced their inner Duke-itude: The promise of that "fast" start went up in the flames of four consecutive losses to close the season, followed by an immediate return to last place in 2010. As it stands, Duke opens a new season some 17 years removed from its last winning season or bowl game, in 1994, with no end in sight.
The second-longest bowl drought in the "Big Six" BCS conferences: Eight years, at Washington State, which hasn't cracked the postseason since 2003. The longest droughts after that: Just four years, at Colorado and Indiana.
• Rumors of life have been greatly exaggerated. For one very, very brief moment in 2009, it looked like Duke's long-dead defense may have discovered a pulse in the transition to Cutcliffe. Alas, last year proved it was only a blip:
The 2010 D can take some solace in holding Navy's lethal triple option attack to 148 yards on the ground in a 34-31 win, barely half the Midshipmen's season average. But not much else. And with five new starters, there's not a whole lot to look forward to, either.
• Think of it as an investment. If they can summon any semblance of momentum this, the Devils are in position to make another run at the end of the bowl-less streak in 2012, when they'll get back Renfree, Vernon, half-a-dozen seasoned juniors who started last year as freshmen and all but 12 scholarship players from this fall's roster. If this team takes a step forward, that one may have something to look forward to. But even then, it's going to have to look pretty hard.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.