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Could Duke Go Undefeated This Regular Season?

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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In a rare alignment of talent and experience, circumstance and situation, the Blue Devils have the makings of a team that could make a very real run at a perfect regular season.

Top-to-bottom, the sheer talent level at Duke is the best it has ever been. The leading names have national pull.

Duke football has gone undefeated before. The last such occasion featured wins over Emory & Henry, Guilford, Elon and Lynchburg and a season-ending tie with Wofford for a famed 4-0-1 mark. The year was 1920. Wallace Wade, the namesake of the program's football stadium, was in his first coaching job at the Fitzgerald and Clarke Military School in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The camp barracks burned down that year, the rest of the institution in 1921; the school was not rebuilt.

Under the guidance of current head coach David Cutcliffe, Duke's glory days, eras that long ago settled like dust, have somehow been restored. From the ashes of four winless efforts from 1996-2006, Cutcliffe most recently led the Blue Devils to their first ten-win season in school history and an improbable berth in the ACC Championship Game. Duke finished the 2013 season ranked 22nd and 23rd, respectively, in the two major polls.         

Last season's success was nothing more than a feel good story for many, a traditionally-downtrodden program making one rare run at prominence. Most completely lost interest once Florida State finally scored, essentially ending an unthinkable upset bid, in the second quarter of the conference title bout. Throw in a near upset of Texas A&M in the Georgia Dome and it truly was a banner year for the Blue Devils. Though nobody will think it, and even fewer will believe it, Duke's encore performance has even more potential.     

In a rare alignment of talent and experience, circumstance and situation, the Blue Devils have the makings of a team that could make a very real run at a perfect regular season.

It's not like this past fall was that far off. Duke went 10-2 in the regular season, losing 58-55 to Pittsburgh and falling to Georgia Tech in a game where they surrendered four passing touchdowns to the option-based Yellow Jackets. From that point on, the Blue Devils won eight straight to claim the ACC Coastal Division crown.       

Duke returns a combined three first-team All-ACC honorees on offense and defense from 2013: wide receiver Jamison Crowder, linebacker Kelby Brown and safety Jeremy Cash. For point of reference, the rest of the ACC Coastal Division brings back that exact same total. The Blue Devils also return second-team offensive guard Laken Tomlinson, who was recently listed as a first-team pre-season All-American by Bleacher Report, as well as all-league third team members Braxton Deaver at tight end and DeVon Edwards at return specialist.

Including the accomplished aforementioned, quarterback Anthony Boone is one of Duke's most important pieces. A rising senior, Boone is entering his third season with starting experience. He is a respected team leader for the Blue Devils who has helped change the culture on campus. Statistically-speaking, Boone is more valuable than his numbers might initially indicate. Another year under Cutcliffe, a noted quarterback guru, will only further his maturation. 

What ties the seemingly-ridiculous notion of a potentially-perfect regular season to some semblance of reality is a schedule that likely won't feature a single team ranked in the initial top 25 polls. Out of conference, the Blue Devils face FCS Elon, Troy, Kansas and Tulane in consecutive weeks to open the year. Duke then has a very difficult test at Miami, who they beat by 18 last fall, and has a bye week to prepare, which they did not have a season ago, before playing at Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils host Virginia Tech and rival North Carolina, on a Thursday night, the final month of the year. 

Per college football prognosticator Phil Steele, Duke plays the 101st most difficult schedule in the country -- the easiest among teams from the ACC, Big XII, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Upcoming opponents of the Blue Devils had a combined 45.7% winning percentage this past fall.  

There will undoubtedly be major challenges for the defending division champions. Offensively, Duke will have to adopt a more traditional physical style minus transferring running quarterback Brandon Connette. The defense simply must find pass rush and needs a replacement to end Kenny Anunike. Though the division lacks star power, there is great depth throughout. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be playing with expectations and attention. The Blue Devils entered the season as a projected contender in a very long time.   

Top-to-bottom, the sheer talent level at Duke is the best it has ever been. The leading names have national pull.

Crowder might be college football's best wideout. Tomlinson is being projected as a first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Brown and fellow senior David Helton are the nation's most productive linebacker tandem. Cash is a former Ohio State transfer. The special teams grouping of kicker Ross Martin, punter Will Monday and Crowder and Edwards in the return game is as good as any unit around.   

It is extremely difficult to go unscathed considering the parity that is in today's game, that is well-understood. The reconstruction Cutcliffe has done in Durham and how it all might come together, however, is not. Though the Blue Devils most likely won't go 12-0 this regular season, they, based on the serendipitous fusion of skill and schedule, have a much better chance than most.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports