With a disappointing season in the rear view mirror, Duke looks to get back to its recent winning ways when it opens the 2017 campaign at home against FCS foe North Carolina Central. The Blue Devils fell to 4-8 last season after recording three consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the 1960s.
Duke averaged over 30 points per game from 2012-15, culminating in bowl appearances each season, but tallied just 23.3 a contest last year while yielding 28.2 points. Daniel Jones, who last season became the first freshman to start at quarterback since 1997, should continue to grow, but coach David Cutcliffe wants to see more reliability from his receivers. “The quarterback should throw the ball where it’s most easily caught, and the receiver should catch every one of them,” Cutcliffe told the Raleigh Observer during preseason camp. “So how do you manage that? We manage with each rep by having a greater purpose in practice. So if it sounds like pressure, it is. That’s the level of college football we are playing.” NC Central won its third straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship last season and is ranked No. 24 in the FCS Coaches poll - its first preseason ranking in its Division I era.
TV: 6 p.m. ET, ACC Network. LINE: NL.
ABOUT NC CENTRAL (2016: 9-3): The Eagles must replace three-year starting quarterback Malcolm Bell (2,431 yards, 26 total touchdowns last season) and four offensive lineman from an offense that set a school record with 384.5 yards of total offense. Sophomore quarterback Micah Zanders, a transfer from Hines (Miss.) Community College, will take over from Bell, while Ramone Simpson (632 rushing yards) and fellow junior Dorrel McClain (453), the 2015 MEAC Rookie of the Year who battled injuries last season, will fight for carries. Senior linebacker Reggie Hunter (84 tackles, four interceptions) and senior linemen Antonio Brown (14.5 tackles for loss, 56 tackles, eight sacks), both second team All-MEAC selections in 2016, lead a talented front seven that averaged nearly three sacks per game and yielded 22.9 points per contest.
ABOUT DUKE (2016 record: 4-8): Scouts believe the 6-5 Jones (62.8 percent, 2,836 yards, 16 TD, nine interceptions in 2016), has an NFL future, forcing the transfer of former starter Thomas Sirk to East Carolina for his senior season. Senior Shaun Wilson ran for 623 yards last season - the most by a Blue Devils’ top rusher since 2003 - and junior wide receiver T.J. Rahming (70 catches, 742 yards) heads a receiving core that is looking for consistency from tight end Daniel Helm (21 catches) as well as wideouts Chris Taylor (29), freshman Scott Bracey and sophomore Keyston Fuller (both missed last season with injuries). Linebackers Joseph Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys (combined 213 tackles, 8.5 sacks) lead a group of five returning starters on a defense that surrendered 28.2 points and 6.3 yards per play – the most since 2012.
1. Duke is 5-0 all-time against NC Central, including a 49-6 victory in the opener last season. Jones completed 10-of-15 passes for 189 yards and two TDs in his college debut as the Blue Devils outgained the Eagles 535-112.
2. After throwing five interceptions in an Oct. 1 loss to Virginia last season, Jones threw 10 TDs against just one pick over the final seven games.
3. The Duke offensive line, which returns three starters, also adds RT Evan Lisle - a graduate transfer from Ohio State.
PREDICTION: Duke 42, NC Central 10