Duke looks to make first bowl since ’94

Published 6:15 pm Monday, August 8, 2011

DURHAM  — Matt Daniels sees a turnaround taking place before his eyes at Duke.
In three years under coach David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils went from being one of the laughingstocks of college football to finally resembling a legitimate team.
Now, as the coach enters Year 4, Daniels is looking for even bigger things — like a winning season and the end of the longest bowl drought in the Bowl Subdivision.
“Those fans who stuck by our side … just hold on, that Duke program’s coming, I promise,” Daniels said. “This year’s the year for us to be that Cinderella team, that team that no one expects to do anything big. But I think this year’s ours.”
The Blue Devils return eight offensive starters — including their starting quarterback and his top two targets — and 16 starters overall from a group whose 3-9 finish last season was marked by close losses and near-misses, with four losses by a total 21 points.
Progress is measured in small increments in Durham. Cutcliffe has won 12 games in three seasons — or, one fewer than Duke did in the nine years preceding his arrival.
While nobody on the outside expects much from Duke — a last-place pick in the Atlantic Coast Conference 11 times in 12 years — the internal expectations are much higher.
“We’re definitely on the verge of turning it around,” quarterback Sean Renfree said. “We’re going to be more talented, but being smarter and not turning the ball over — if we can do those things, then I think we’ll have a better chance of turning this around.”
Not often does a team’s schedule actually get tougher when powerhouse Alabama drops off, but that seems to be what happened at Duke.
It’s entirely possible they could be significantly better than the group that finished 3-9 in 2010, yet wind up with a similar record.
Duke plays host to both Orange Bowl teams from last year — Stanford and Virginia Tech — and the ACC’s cross-divisional rotation means the Blue Devils will face preseason league favorite Florida State. Plus, the Blue Devils play only one home game in November, a month in which they’ve won only once since 2004.
So, if the Blue Devils claim their first bowl berth since the 1994 team went to the Hall of Fame Bowl, they will have earned it.
“We always try to look at the little picture before we get to the big picture,” Daniels said. “I mean, Duke hasn’t been to a bowl game since I was 5 years old. I don’t even remember what I was doing when I was 5 years old back in 1994. So you know, (Duke is) absolutely looking for it.”
The Blue Devils have a few players coming back who seem capable of delivering that long-awaited postseason berth, with the ACC’s top returning passer and the league’s top two returning receivers. Renfree threw for 3,131 yards last season while Vernon averaged six receptions and 81 yards per game and Varner added five catches per contest.
On defense, Daniels is the focal point of a 4-2-5 scheme that has to show improvement after Duke allowed an ACC-worst 450 total yards per game last season and ranked last in the league against both the pass and the run.
“Matt Daniels expects a championship, just like the rest of the Duke community should expect, just like the rest of my teammates should expect,” Daniels said. “We started up, just ‘Road to the ‘ship,’ road to the championship. That’s the only thing that’s on my mind. We’re taking it one day at a time, one step at a time, and just continue to get better over the summer. … From there, it’s just getting it running.”