A cardinal rule of preseason predictions: The words "Duke" and "bowl game" don't go together. They haven't for 50 years – the Blue Devils have made exactly two trips to the postseason since 1960, under fast-rising coach Steve Spurrier in 1989 and then to everyone's complete surprise in 1994. It's possible, but it's a terrible bet.
Yet New York Times contributor Paul Myerberg was willing to make that bet over the weekend on his blog "Pre-Snap Read," pegging Duke to end the second-longest bowl drought in the country this winter. The Devils are coming off their best season in 15 years, and you know, it has to happen sometime.
Of course, it's not just Duke. With the expansion of the 2010 bowl roster to 36 games – 72 teams, a new all-time high – more than a dozen similarly long-suffering outfits are thinking the same thing going into the season: The drought has to end sometime. Why not this year? And at least six of them may actually have a chance:
• ARMY. The Black Knights were relevant in the December bowl picture last year for the first time in more than a decade, making UCLA sweat out a cross-country invite to the EagleBank Bowl until Navy finally dropped the Cadets from contention on the last Saturday of the regular season. The five wins in coach Rich Ellerson's first season was the most at Army since the 10-2 Independence Bowl team in 1996. And the veteran defense – eight starters are back from a unit that was 16th nationally in total D last year – gives this group a better chance of any West Point team in the last 14 years of breaking that slide.
Last Appearance: 1996 Independence Bowl.
Possible Destination(s): Armed Forces Bowl (Automatic).
Baseline Wins: Eastern Michigan, North Texas, Virginia Military.
Toss-Ups: Hawaii, Duke, Temple, Tulane, Kent State.
It's a sign of the Knights' progress that they can consider any game a likely victory after the depths of their Conference USA years, when they won nine conference games in seven years (1998-2004). It helps, too, that they're locked into the Armed Forces Bowl if they come in at 6-6. That makes the early three-game stretch against Duke, Temple and Tulane – all losses for Army in 2009 – the decisive point for the season. VERDICT: Nay. Three of the five "toss-ups" come on the road, and the Black Knights are likely slight underdogs in two others (against Hawaii and Temple). A losing record in those games would require Army to end its skids against Commander-in-Chief rivals Air Force (four straight losses) and Navy (eight straight), still a distant goal.
• BAYLOR. The Bears repeat in this role after having last year's early optimism snapped along with quarterback Robert Griffin's ACL three games into the alleged breakout campaign. They were 2-7 without Griffin and failed to top 14 points in all but one Big 12 game. Reset button, please.
Last Appearance: 1994 Alamo Bowl.
Possible Destination(s): Texas (Big 12 No. 6), Pinstripe (Big 12 No. 7).
Baseline Wins: Sam Houston State, Buffalo, Rice.
Toss-Ups: Kansas, Colorado, Kansas State, Oklahoma State.
If it's not in the bag by Halloween, there's trouble: The backloaded schedule brings certain losses from Texas and Oklahoma and rising Texas A&M over the last four games. Verdict: Yay, tentatively. Baylor has only managed three conference wins once in 14 years in the Big 12, but Griffin's presence alone in Art Briles' up-tempo offense is a nightmare for any defense not stocked with Oklahoma/Texas-level talent. The massive attrition from Oklahoma State and the absence of North Division frontrunners Nebraska and Missouri from the inter-division schedule gives them a tailor-made route to, uh, Yankee Stadium?
• DUKE. There was a point last October when Duke seemed not only destined for the postseason, but possibly for the ACC title game as the Coastal Division champ. Four straight losses later, the Blue Devils were resting comfortably in their usual spot near the bottom of the conference standings. But the sharp turn under David Cutcliffe is undeniable: With one more win, he'll have as many victories (10) in a little over two years as Duke managed from 2000-07 combined.
Last Appearance: 1994-95 Hall of Fame Bowl.
Possible Destination(s): EagleBank (ACC No. 8), Kraft Fight Hunger (ACC No. 9).
Baseline Wins: Elon, Army.
Toss-Ups: Wake Forest, Maryland, Navy, Virginia.
Cutcliffe has made this a passing team, largely out of necessity since the running game was the worst in the nation in '09. Duke returns arguably the best receiver in the ACC, Donovan Varner. But the real miracle is that the defense no longer finishes dead last in the conference in every conceivable category, once an annual lock. VERDICT: Nay. The Devils play in a death trap of a division that features four legitimate top-25 outfits (and four certain Duke losses) in Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Add an early pounding from Alabama, and even a favorable draw from the Atlantic Division doesn't change the fact that they have to go 4-0 in the "toss-up" games to have any hope.
• KENT STATE. No current I-A school that has actually been to a bowl game in its history has waited as long to return as the Golden Flashes, whose only postseason appearance featured teammates Jack Lambert, Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel under head coach Don James in 1972. They lost to the University of Tampa, which shuttered its football program two years later.
Last Appearance: 1972 Tangerine Bowl.
Possible Destination(s): Humanitarian (MAC No. 3), EagleBank (MAC No. 4, if no ACC team eligible).
Baseline Wins: Murray State.
Toss-Ups: Miami (Ohio), Akron, Toledo, Bowling Green, Ball State, Temple, Army, Ohio U.
As a rule, the MAC standings are basically one big toss-up, but Kent stands out by virtue of a sophomore quarterback who more than held his own as a true freshman (Spencer Keith), arguably the best defensive player in the conference (Michigan transfer Cobrani Mixon) and a prolific 5-foot-5 running back returning from a lacerated kidney to set the school rushing record (Eugene Jarvis). VERDICT: Nay. Too much competition for too few slots makes the Flashes a long shot even if they manage to break .500. When your best hope is for another conference to fail to fill its tie-ins, you're a bad bet.
• SAN DIEGO STATE. A 4-8 debut in coach Brady Hoke's first season is nothing to write home about, but it doesn't take much to generate optimism at a program still scarred by the embarrassing, protracted end to the Chuck Long era. In this case, an experienced quarterback (Ryan Lindley) aiming at a pair of All-MWC receivers (DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown) will do, especially against this schedule.
Last Appearance: 1998 Las Vegas Bowl.
Possible Destination(s): Humanitarian (Mtn. West No. 5).
Baseline Wins: Nicholls State, New Mexico State, Utah State, New Mexico.
Toss-Ups: Wyoming, Colorado State, UNLV.
If the Aztecs don't get out of September halfway to bowl eligibility after getting Nicholls State, New Mexico State and Utah State, Hoke may as well sell this rebuilding job for scrap. VERDICT: Yay. Trash bottom-barrell non-conference scheduling all you like: After eight years of bottom-barrell finishes under Tom Craft and Chuck Long, you take what you can get. If the Aztecs can take two of three in the "toss-up" category, that should be a .500 record, the fifth bowl bid out of the Mountain West and a nice contract extension for Hoke.
• WASHINGTON. The Huskies' seven-year absence from the postseason is the longest by far since the Pac-10 began allowing also-rans to go to bowls other than the Rose Bowl in the '70s. The 1-10 season under coach Keith Gilbertson that kicked off the current slide in 2004 was the first losing season in Seattle in 27 years. Nowhere on this list, though, is the optimism more palpable after last year's effective rebound from 0-12 to 5-7 with wins over USC, Arizona and Cal in Steve Sarkisian's head-coaching debut. On a more talented team, quarterback Jake Locker would be a serious Heisman contender; with nine other offensive starters and all but one player who touched the ball last year en tow this fall, he's willing to settle for breaking the bowl drought on his way out.
Last Appearance: 2002 Sun Bowl.
Possible Destination(s): Las Vegas (Pac-10 No. 5), Kraft Fight Hunger (Pac-10 No. 6).
Baseline Wins: Syracuse, Arizona State, Washington State.
Toss-Ups: BYU, Oregon State, Arizona, Stanford, UCLA, California.
The overcrowded middle class in the Pac-10 has a way of throwing cold water on obvious momentum here. Barring a home sweep over Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA, U-Dub will have to win at least one (and probably more) tough road game in Provo, Tucson and/or Berkeley to get to 6-6. VERDICT: Yay. I don't think the Huskies are ready to move into the top half of the conference, especially on defense, but they will have a strong claim on the sixth spot, at least. And USC's ban from the postseason opens up another spot that's basically Washington's to lose if it can find that extra win to crack .500
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.