One of the biggest reasons why Duke is expected to challenge for the Coastal Division title again in 2014 is its returning experience.
In fact, college football guru Phil Steele notes the Blue Devils should have one of the most experienced teams in the country in 2014. Steele writes:
A first glance, you might expect that, after arguably their best season in school history, the Blue Devils are due for a fall in 2014. However, they return 14 starters, and seven of those players made my postseason All-ACC first or second team. The offense welcomes back eight starters ... On defense, five of the Blue Devils' top six tacklers are back, led by linebackers David Helton and Kelby Brown (combined 228 tackles last year).
In another post on his website, Steele goes one step further, calculating Duke has the most experienced team based on a formula that takes into account returning and departing all-conference performers.
A few teams in the ACC return more starters, including Virginia Tech, which essentially returns everybody but Logan Thomas on offense. But unlike the Hokies, Duke won 10 games last season and is trending up. The returning experience certainly gives Duke an edge, especially with both Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette returning, along with fantastic all-purpose player Jamison Crowder and a talented, young secondary that should only improve in 2014.
One of the biggest unknowns is how this team will do without the veteran leadership that got the program where it is today. Players such as Kenny Anunike, Ross Cockrell and Dave Harding were instrumental in establishing a foundation for their younger teammates to follow. They understood what it meant to rise from the basement into the Top 25, to work day and night to change the culture of the program.
Rising sophomores and juniors on this team have experienced the type of sustained success that has eluded Duke in the past. Their task is decidedly different from the one that confronted their departing teammates.
Duke might have a more talented team than it did five years ago, but veteran leadership cannot be discounted when evaluating its importance to a program. The good news for the Blue Devils is they have natural senior leaders returning in Boone and Brown to name two, along with experienced starters on offense, defense and special teams. The schedule favors Duke, too, making the Blue Devils a team to keep an eye on again in 2014.