Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Florida International (8-5)
At Stanford (11-2)
NC Central (2-9)
ACC home games
ACC road games
At Wake Forest
At Virginia Tech
At Florida State
At Georgia Tech
Gut-check time: Sept. 1 vs. FIU. Last year, Duke’s bowl bubble burst in Week 1. A loss to FCS Richmond in the season opener -- the second such loss under coach David Cutcliffe -- sapped the optimism surrounding the program. Duke had the potential for a breakthrough season, but instead got off to a start looking much like the same old Duke. In order to change that perception, Duke needs a win against a talented FIU team that returns 17 starters and has been to back-to-back bowl games.
Trap game: There is no such thing in Durham -- at least not now. Until Duke proves it can beat the likes of Richmond on a regular basis, and wins more than it loses, this category is somewhat obsolete.
Snoozer: You’d think at least NC Central would be a gimme, right?
Defining stretch: Sept. 29-Oct. 6. It’s only two games (at Wake Forest and home against Virginia), but they’re both must-wins if Duke is going to get to the postseason. Let’s give Duke some credit and assume the Blue Devils go 3-1 in their nonconference schedule with the lone loss to Stanford. It won’t be easy to find three more wins in the ACC, but in Cutcliffe’s fifth season, his program should be able to earn back-to-back wins against teams the caliber of Wake Forest and UVa. In order for Duke to go bowling, it must “win the winnable games,” and those opponents top the list in the ACC.
Final analysis: Duke should go bowling this year. It’s that simple. After five seasons under Cutcliffe, enough pieces should be in place for the Blue Devils to reach the six-win mark. They have one of the most talented (albeit underrated) quarterbacks in the ACC, and a nonconference schedule conducive to a 3-1 start. The key for Duke to actually become bowl eligible is to beat a team it’s “not supposed to,” – a Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech, for example. Duke has a bye week before it has to travel to Atlanta on Nov. 17, but the players won’t get a break until mid-November. That means they’ve got to be strong and well-conditioned to win the close games in the fourth quarter. Duke has lost a total of eight games over the past two years by seven or fewer points, including last year to bowl-bound Virginia Tech (14-10) and Wake Forest (23-22). If Duke is going to take the next step under Cutcliffe, it has to find a way to win the close ones.