Maybe the only team in the ACC that the Virginia Cavaliers have been able to figure out under Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall has been Duke. In his first two years, the Hoos have handled the Blue Devils, despite being underdogs in both contests. Last year, UVA won 28-21, highlighted by a pick-six from Quin Blanding and two Doni Dowling touchdowns. Duke’s quarterback, Daniel Jones, their expected starter again this season, went just 14-42 for 124 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
2017 Season: 7-6 (3-5 ACC)
Duke was an enigma last season. They came out fast, winning four consecutive games that included victories over Northwestern, Baylor, and rival North Carolina. Then, the Blue Devils ran into a red hot Miami team, falling 31-6, and things spiraled out of control. After a loss to an FCS Army team on the road, Duke’s bowl hopes seemed bleak. To their credit, the team showed resilience, rallying to beat Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, earning an invitation to the Quick Lane Bowl in the process. They trounced Northern Illinois to end their season that night, 36-14.
Players to watch:
QB Daniel Jones: As is the case with nearly every team, the quarterback play will make or break Duke’s season. The good news for Blue Devils fans is that Jones has now had two seasons of ACC play under his belt. The bad news is that he has not yet proven he can be a consistent threat through the air. During the team’s 6 game losing streak in the middle of the season, Jones’ completion rate was a mediocre 50%. Jones has solid weapons around him, including redshirt sophomore Brittain Brown, so we’ll see what he’s made of in year three.
WR T.J. Rahming: The rising senior totaled 795 receiving yards last year to go along with two touchdowns. Rahming has big play ability, recording a catch and run of over 50 yards in each of his three previous seasons. He was recently named to the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, an honor given to the nation’s top receiver.
LB Joe Giles-Harris: Giles-Harris is one of Duke’s enforcers on defense, recording a whopping 125 tackles last season, 15 of which came against UVA. In that game, he had 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack, as well as a pass break up and a fumble. Performances like these has given the redshirt junior plenty of praise in the offseason; he was named to the All-ACC Preseason Football Team, earned two votes for preseason conference player of the year, and named a candidate for the Bednarik Award, which goes to the top defensive player at year’s end. Yea, this guy is a problem.
CB Mark Gilbert: Also named to the 2018 All-ACC Preseason Football Team, Gilbert had 35 tackles, 21 passes defended, and six interceptions in 2017. Like Giles-Harris, Gilbert was especially effective against the Hoos at Scott Stadium last year where he had a career-high eight stops.
Mascot grade: D-
Devils are innately bad things, therefore I feel I cannot give the mascot anything but a failing grade. It’s also Duke, so...
Duke’s outlook is very similar to Virginia’s. The defense will be a very strong unit, as almost all of their linemen return, and all of their top four linebackers will be back. The starting experience on the offensive side of the ball pales in comparison; the team lost over half of their O-Line and their leading rusher, Shaun Wilson. Under Head Coach David Cutcliffe, Duke has not ranked higher than 69th in offensive S&P+ since they won the ACC Coastal in 2013. If Jones cannot take that next step in 2018, Duke could struggle, especially considering the difficulty of their schedule.
According to the S&P+, Duke projects to beat Virginia by 9 points. I’m not having that. Duke’s defense will be tough to crack, but so will UVA’s secondary. If we say the two offset each other, then the game comes down to whichever team can make more plays through the air and on the ground when the opportunities, however few there are, present themselves. I trust playmakers like Olamide Zaccheaus and Joe Reed to take advantage more often than Duke’s offense will. “Upset” time in Durham.
Score: Virginia, 21-14.