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2012 ACC Previews: Duke with ACC Sports Journal

We're previewing the upcoming season with help from our team bloggers. Today, Ben from ACC Sports Journal discusses the Blue Devil's expectations with 17 returning starters.

If David Cutcliffe and Duke want to return to the postseason for the first time in 18 years, they will have to orchestrate some major upsets in 2012. Games at Stanford, Virginia Tech and Florida State precede a difficult final stretch that brings Clemson and Miami to Durham. The Blue Devil's will look to improve on a 1-16 record in November under Cutcliffe.

2011 Record: 3-9

2011 Bowl: N/A

2012 Bowl Projections:

Orlando Bowl History

N/A

Q&A with Ben Swain from ACC Sports Journal

Describe the 2011 season in two words.

Place kicker

With 17 returning starters, what does this team need to do to be David Cutcliffe’s best?

Staying healthy is always a big deal at Duke because of the lack of depth at key positions but that's such a simple answer that can really be used when talking about any college football team. With David Cutcliffe, it's always going to come down to quarterback play. He was successful at Ole Miss with Eli Manning, and he was (relatively speaking) successful at Duke with Thad Lewis. Sean Renfree threw 11 interceptions last season with only 14 touchdowns, and that's in an offense that throws the ball a lot. For a passer that's as accurate as Renfree (65% on the year), that interception number has to come down and the touchdown number has to jump significantly. He catches a lot of heat for relying too much on checkdown routes, but it's difficult for receivers to find any sort of room downfield because Duke couldn't run the ball last year. This is one of Duke's biggest offensive lines in some time, so if the line can give Renfree time, wide receiver Conner Vernon will get open. If the offense can mix in a successful running game and improve on last year's 3.1 yards per carry, they should score enough points to help out a thin, but capable defense.

As I joked before, true freshman placekicker Ross Martin may be the team's most important player. Duke kickers went 9 of 20 on field goals last season. That's 33 points left on the table, which really stings considering Duke lost to Richmond by 2 (0 for 2 on field goals), to Virginia Tech by 4 (1 for 4 on fields goals), and to Georgia Tech by 7 (0 for 2 on field goals). Five of those 7 field goals in those three games were from 38 yards or closer. That's not even mentioning the 36 times Duke chose to go for it on 4th down to avoid the kicking game.

How will Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone factor into the offense now that Sean Renfree is back under center at full strength?

Connette is a horse, and with two freshman on the two-deep at Tight End, you'll likely see him there instead of in the backfield. Of course, if Cutcliffe continues to have tenuous trust in Renfree in the red zone, Connette will probably be used as a run/pass threat again. Anthony Boone should see less action in those types of short yardage plays as he did last season because he's earned a shot to be a true backup QB. Renfree doesn't take sacks often, which means he's almost always getting hit when he throws, so Boone is certainly sure to see some time under center. I'd expect him to be safe on the sidelines until he's really needed, Cutcliffe's next QB project is a true freshman and Duke would really like to avoid burning his redshirt if possible. Boone's a good QB, though. If Renfree struggles early in the season, Boone will take over the offense.

On paper, what looks like the toughest game this season?

Man, so many to choose from. Away to Stanford? Away to Virginia Tech? Away to Florida State? At home against Clemson? Take your pick ... Duke does not have a favorable schedule. The truth is Duke is looking at 7 games ... Florida International, NC Central, Memphis, Wake Forest, Virginia, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina. Must win 6 of those 7, which is pretty much impossible if they lose Saturday against FIU. That's the biggest game of the season.

Best case/worst case scenario for the postseason.

The best case is 6 wins and an end to the bowl drought, although I do think this team is more talented and much deeper than past Duke teams that had a higher win ceiling. The schedule is just brutal this year, and injuries are already starting to pile up. Worst case is another 3-9 season. That doesn't mean 3-9 isn't likely, it means it would severely damage the program if there's not tangible evidence of improvement. A bowl, or at the least, a signature win would do wonders for David Cutcliffe and his program. If Duke is able to beat Wake Forest and North Carolina, you could start hiring artists for the statue outside of the football offices.

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