Team: Duke Blue Devils
W-L: 6-7 (3-5)
Postseason: 48-34 Belk Bowl loss to Cincinnati
Top Offensive Performer: Conner Vernon, WR
Top Defensive Performer: Ross Cockrell, CB
It almost feels like two separate seasons for Duke. First there was the 6-2 start, culminating in their exciting last-minute victory over archrival North Carolina that gave the Blue Devils their first six-win season since 1994. And then there was the rest; an 0-5 finish that saw them outscored by a combined score of 246-130. So while we’ll certainly commend Duke for ending an 18-year postseason drought, it’s also difficult to look upon 2012 as a complete success in hindsight, considering how disappointing the end was. But when looking at the successful part of the equation, you don’t have to look past the offense.
Under David Cutcliffe, Duke’s program has mostly grown gradually as a result of their passing offense and the star tandem of QB Sean Renfree and WR Conner Vernon. However, in 2012, that improvement was sped up immensely, as the team scored 31.5 points per game (versus just 22.4 last season). The Blue Devils scored 35 points or more five different times, and most importantly, possessed one of the country’s best passing attacks. Whether it was Renfree or backup (and 2013 starter) Anthony Boone, Duke’s quarterbacks averaged over 280 yards per game through the air (good for 31st in the country). And while the passers were/are certainly a big part of that, there’s also plenty of credit due to the team’s expert wide receivers. Vernon and Jamison Crowder were outstanding this season, even by their elevated standards. Combined, they had 161 catches, 2,148 yards and 16 touchdowns — all among the most impressive figures in the country for a receiving duo. The running game, while underwhelming overall (ranked 100th in the FBS), also showed marked improvement over 2011 (115th), and was a big part of many of the team’s big victories this time around.
Where Duke ultimately came unraveled this season was on the defensive side of the ball. After a strong start, even standout corner Ross Cockrell was a liability as the team allowed each of its last five opponents to score 42 points ore more. Going back further, each of Duke’s final seven opponents scored at least 30 against them. And even worse, on the season, the Blue Devils were 110th in scoring D and 109th in total defense. As much as the “resurgence” story revolved around an improved defense, I just never saw it (and opposing offenses never did either). From the one instance I witnessed Duke’s defense in person — against a Stanford team then led by Josh Nunes — I saw a team that could not effectively rush the passer, and was easily burned by quicker and more physical receivers. So if you’re in search of the reason behind Duke’s second-half struggles, look no further than the D. Regardless of how effective your offense is, it’s difficult to win games when your defense can’t stop anyone. This team’s defense let its final five opponents all score well above their respective season averages, and predictably lost all of those games.
Looking toward the future, Cutcliffe seems committed to the program, but next year will sort of be like starting over. Vernon and Renfree were four-year projects who ended up leaving the university as some of the better players Duke’s ever had (and Vernon may be the best they’ve ever had, period). Next year, it’ll be up to Boone and Crowder to carry the torch. But in order for this program to consistently get to that six-win plateau, it’ll take a constant churn of quality recruits (like those mentioned). And now that they’ve broken the streak of futility, six wins should no longer be enough. Cutcliffe’s success has been measured by last season thus far. Now that bar has to be set much higher.