2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: David Cutcliffe is definitely building something special at Duke and 2013 proved to be his best season in his tenure. It just so happened to be one of Duke's best seasons ever as well, as the Blue Devils won a school-record 10 games, won their first-ever Coastal Division title and participated in a bowl game for the second straight season. Duke captured the division title with a 6-2 league ledger, as Cutcliffe was named the National Coach of the Year.
The season opened with a bang, as Duke blanked an overmatched NC Central squad (45-0) and then followed by doubling up on Memphis (28-14). However, the Blue Devils put themselves in an early hole in ACC play, losing back-to-back games at home to Georgia Tech (38-14) and Pittsburgh (58-55).
Cutcliffe rallied the team after that though, and Duke did not lose another game during the regular season, including big wins over the likes of Virginia Tech (13-10), Miami-Florida (48-30) and North Carolina (27-25).
At 9-2 overall and 6-2 in-conference, the Blue Devils earned a spot in the ACC Championship Game against top-ranked Florida State and unfortunately for them, they were no match for the Seminoles, who routed Duke in Charlotte in early December (45-7).
A spot in the New Year's Eve Chick-fil-A Bowl was the reward for a stellar campaign nonetheless and Duke did not disappoint, despite a narrow loss, as the Blue Devils went toe-to-toe with the explosive Texas A&M Aggies, falling 52-48 in one of the most exciting games of the bowl season.
OFFENSE: The Blue Devils finally found offensive balance in 2013, as the team churned out over 425 yards of total offense, with 178 coming on the ground and just under 250 through the air. Duke employed a two-quarterback offense last year but with Brandon Connette's transfer to Fresno State, the job is all Anthony Boone's. While not quite the playmaker with his legs that Connette was, Boone had a strong season passing the ball, completing 64 percent of his throws, for 2,260 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Now a senior, Boone will have the luxury of having some other veterans returning to the mix this season, including leading rusher Josh Snead (6.1 ypc, 651 yards, two TDs) and first-team All-ACC wideout Jamison Crowder, who set an ACC record with 108 catches last season, for 1,360 yards and eight TDs. Tight end Braxton Deaver (46 rec, 600 yds, four TDs) should provide another reliable target in 2014.
Three of the five starting offensive linemen are back as well, giving the unit some continuity heading into the new season. The best of the bunch is senior guard Laken Tomlinson (6-3, 320), who earned All-ACC first-team honors as a junior.
Tomlinson has seen the growth in the Duke program over his tenure and knows there is still work to be done.
"Coming in as a freshman at Duke University, obviously Duke wasn't a strong program, but working under the leadership of Coach Cutcliffe and some fantastic staff members we have there at Duke University, it's just been an extraordinary experience to be a part of a team that's come from so little, like everyone expecting so little from us, to being one of the top teams in the ACC.
"It definitely means a lot to me, and we're going to keep working hard every day to try to be No. 1."
DEFENSE: The Duke defense allowed over 400 yards of offense per game last season, but made a lot of crucial stops when needed. The hope is that with six starters returning to that side of the football, the unit will take another step in the right direction.
Gone are cornerstones like defensive end Kenny Anunike and cornerback Ross Cockrell, but the top three tacklers from last year came back in the form of senior linebackers David Helton (133 tackles, one sack) and Kelby Brown (114 tackles, 10 TFL, one sack) and junior safety Jeremy Cash (121 tackles, 9.5 TFL, four INTs), who was a first-team All-ACC member a year ago. Unfortunately, the defense took a big hit recently, as Brown, tore an ACL in summer camp and will not play this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Familiarity will continue in the kicking game, as both place kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday return in 2014. Martin was a perfect 58-of-58 in PATs and went 13-of-19 in field-goal attempts, with a long of 53 yards last season. After earning first-team All-ACC in 2012, Monday picked up second-team honors last season, averaging 42.7 yards per punt, placing 21 of his 69 total punts inside the 20-yard line. Starting safety DeVon Edwards earned All-America accolades as a freshman in 2013, averaging 30.2 yards per kick return, including two returned for touchdowns. He will reprise that role as one of the nation's premier return men this season.
OUTLOOK: Duke is no longer the doormat of the ACC and with each successful season is now much closer to the top of that ladder than the bottom. Duke reveled in its role as the underdog last season and came up with some big wins. The Blue Devils won't be taken lightly this time around.
Cutcliffe addressed the new role the team will play within the division.
"Be true to what we do. You don't have to change anything. The biggest danger is in changing who we've been. We are a good program because we have great habits. What we want to become is a great program with great habits. We're still a work in progress. And I hope and believe our leaders understand that.
"I'm kind of watching our young people that have known nothing but success. We've got guys going into their third and second years that think this is just what you do here every year, and I'm anxious to see if that's a good thing or if that's something we're going to have to challenge them with.
"But I think being true to our habits, being true to what we believe in helps you become a champion, and we've got to maintain those same habits."
The team should get off to a fast start, taking care of all non-conference business in the first month of the season. All four games outside of the ACC are winnable, with home dates against Elon, Kansas and Tulane and a road trip to Troy all before the end of September.
The ACC slate could be a little tricky though. The team does avoid the big three in the Atlantic Division (Florida State, Clemson and Louisville), but will have tough road games at Miami-Florida, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Home dates in-conference include Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest.
The Coastal Division is wide open once again, and Duke should earn a third consecutive bowl bid. While matching its 10-win season from a year ago may be a bit much to ask, Duke shouldn't finish far off that mark.