Tallahassee, FL – Having already secured bowl eligibility, the surprising Duke Blue Devils take their act on the road, as the head to Tallahassee for an ACC showdown against 11th-ranked Florida State.
David Cutcliffe has led the Blue Devils to a 6-2 record thus far and with last week's thrilling 33-30 win over North Carolina, Duke became bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. The Blue Devils enter this contest at 3-1 in league play, good for first place in the Coastal Division standings.
Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles lost a key component of their offense last week at Miami, but FSU was able to overcome it with stingy defensive play en route to a 33-20 win over the Hurricanes. With the victory, FSU is now 7-1 overall and leads the Atlantic Division with a 4-1 mark.
Duke has never beaten Florida State on the gridiron, with FSU holding a 17-0 series advantage, including a 10-0 ledger at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Duke is not exactly known for a balanced offense, but that is exactly what the team got in the come-from-behind win against the Tar Heels last weekend, churning out 510 total yards, with 234 yards coming on the ground and 276 through the air. Duke trailed 30-26 with just over three minutes remaining, but quarterback Sean Renfree led the team on a 14-play, 87-yard drive capped off by a five-yard TD pass on 4th-and-2.
Renfree has had a solid season thus far, completing 69.2 percent of his passes, for 1,793 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has had the benefit of the ACC's all-time leader in receptions in senior Conner Vernon, who recently became the school's all-time leader in receiving yards. Vernon has 51 receptions this year, for 749 yards and five TDs. Fellow wideout Jamison Crowder has mirrored those numbers with 51 catches, for 629 yards and five scores.
Although the ground game was effective against UNC, running backs Jela Duncan (339 yards, three TDs), Juwan Thompson (273 yards, one TD) and Josh Snead (265 yards, two TDs) aren't exactly dominating.
Snead spoke after the win against UNC about Duke's bowl eligibility.
"We know we wanted to go bowling, but this [isn't] it. We [have] our eyes set on winning this division and going to the ACC Championship, and then going bowling."
The Duke defense is a few steps behind the offense in terms of production. The Blue Devils are allowing 27.8 ppg this year, on nearly 400 yards of offense (396.5).
Senior safety Walt Canty has been all over the field for Duke this season, leading the team in tackles with 74, which ranks in the conference, and nationally. Junior cornerback Ross Cockrell has highlighted the play in the secondary as well with a team-high four interceptions, while senior rush end Kenny Anunike (31 tackles) leads the team in TFLs (6.0) and sacks (5.0).
FSU's offense has emerged as one of the nation's best this season, with the team averaging 44.4 ppg, while getting great production with the run (231.2 ypg) and the pass (288.9 ypg).
The Seminoles kept their standing atop the Atlantic Division with the win over Miami, but it came at a cost, as tailback Chris Thompson was lost for the season with a knee injury. Thompson (687 yards, 7.5 ypc, five TDs) gave the team a real threat in the backfield, but wasn't the only one. Now it will be up to James Wilder Jr. (369 yards, seven TDs) and Devonta Freeman (287 yards, three TDs) to pick up the slack.
The good news is that quarterback EJ Manuel can take the pressure off the ground game with his efficient passing. Manuel is completing 71.5 percent of his passes thus far, for 2,033 yards, with 14 TDs and just four INTs. Spreading the ball around has been the name of the game, with eight players recording double-digit receptions this season.
Still, Manuel knows it won't be easy to replace everything Thompson meant to this team on the field.
"Chris is a better person than he is a football player," Manuel said, "and that says a lot because he's a great football player."
The defense is still the driving force for FSU in 2012. The Seminoles rank fifth nationally in scoring defense (12.6 ppg), second in rush defense (69.1 ypg), seventh in pass defense (157.4 ypg) and second in total defense (226.5 ypg).
The 'Noles lost a key contributor on this side of the football as well when Brandon Jenkins went down early on in the year. Others have stood up along the defensive line in his place, led by rush ends Cornellius Carradine (48 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 8.0 sacks) and Bjoern Werner (24 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 8.0 sacks). Xavier Rhodes (24 tackles, two INTs) possesses All-American talent in the secondary.