The first half of the season was much more successful than the second half, as the team won five of its first six games, with the lone loss coming in lopsided fashion at Stanford (50-13) in week two. Big wins over FIU (46-26), NC Central (54-17) and Memphis (38-14) had Duke hitting ACC play with a full head of steam, which the team used to upend both Wake Forest (34-27) and Virginia (42-17) to sit at 5-1 in early October.
However, even a record-setting year on the offensive side of the football for the Blue Devils, wasn't able to carry them the entire season, as the team dropped five of its last six ACC affairs, with the lone win over the last month and a half of the campaign coming against rival North Carolina (33-30). Losses to Virginia Tech (41-20), Florida State (48-7), Clemson (56-20), Georgia Tech (42-24) and Miami-Florida (52-45) took the wind out of Duke's sails, leaving it 3-5 in the ACC overall. good for just a fifth-place finish in the Coastal Division. Still, the work done early paved the way for a rare bowl bid for Cutcliffe and his team.
Fueled by a record-setting season in 2012, Duke's offense set the school's single-season mark with 410 points, while averaging 31.5 ppg (fifth highest average in school history).
With a lethal arsenal on offense, the Blue Devils headed to Charlotte in late December and were highly competitive in the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati, taking the Bearcats to the limit before succumbing in a 48-34 decision, ending a bid to earn their first bowl victory in over 40 years.
OFFENSE: There was plenty to like about Duke's offense in 2012 and the hope is that the unit can continue to evolve under the direction of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. He will have his work cut out for him though, as Duke must find adequate replacements for standout QB Sean Renfree (3,113 yards, 19 touchdowns) and equally talented WR Conner Vernon (85 receptions, 1,074 yards, eight TDs).
Junior Anthony Boone is the heir apparent under center with a strong arm. Boone has started just one game in his career, but has played in 22 games and should be able to adjust to his new role seamlessly.
"Right now, I've been here for four years so mistakes aren't really something I'm looking for - to be crisp and not have mental errors is what I'm looking for," Boone said. "As a team, we'll strive to be efficient as a unit, offensively and defensively - get the right calls, get the right checks, have 11 guys on the field flying around and having a good time and competing at a high level."
It will certainly help to have a reliable target in the passing game in junior Jamison Crowder. The 5-foot-9, 175-pounder was second on the team in receptions a year ago (75) and matched Vernon's numbers with 1,074 yards and eight TDs.
Duke's ground game has long lagged behind the passing game in terms of production and last year was no different. The hope is that with the team's top four tailbacks returning, Boone's threat to run under center and four of last year's five starters returning along the offensive line, the Blue Devils will start to show a little more balance on offense.
DEFENSE: The Blue Devils showed flashes of strong defensive play in 2012, but against the better teams on the schedule, they really struggled, suffering lopsided losses to Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Clemson.
The team returns eight starters from that squad, highlighted by a pair of All- ACC performers in senior rush end Kenny Anunike (6-5, 260) and senior cornerback Ross Cockrell (6-0, 180). Anunike was an honorable mention All-ACC selection after leading the team in sacks (5) for the second straight season, Cockrell was a First-Team All-ACC selection, finishing the year with 71 total tackles, 13 PBU and five interceptions.
Other defenders of note include senior DE Justin Foxx (46 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and LBs CJ France (60 tackles) and David Helton (55 tackles). Fellow LB Kelby Brown (6-2, 230) missed all of last season due to knee surgery, and could give the team even more depth if he maintains his health. Brown was a Freshman All- American in 2010.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Duke's kicking game is in fine shape heading into 2013. The team went with a pair of freshman last year and the youngsters more than held their own. Place kicker Ross Martin earned First-Team Freshman All-American honors and was All-ACC Honorable Mention, converting 20-of-23 field goal attempts (long of 52 yards) and 46-of-47 extra points. Punter Will Monday was a First-Team All-ACC selection in 2012 as the freshman averaged 44.6 yards per punt, placing 19 of his 67 attempts inside the 20-yard line.
OUTLOOK: Winning is infectious and Cutcliffe knows that the success from last year can carry the team in 2013.
"It started back in January with this football team, when they arrived back on campus for classes and conditioning and we had our first meeting," said Cutcliffe at the ACC media event in July. "This is a very hungry football team; hungry to win football games and return to a bowl game, hungry to win the Coastal Division of the ACC. Last year we were in the hunt for the division title in November. That's where we want to be again this year; playing late in the season for a title."
The non-conference schedule is void of any real momentum killers, as games against NC Central, Memphis, Troy and Navy are all within Duke's grasp. To take the next step however, Duke must find a way to turn close games into victories in the ACC. The team will get Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, NC State and Miami-Florida at home this year, while traveling to Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina. The team avoids powerhouses Florida State and Clemson altogether.
Two straight bowl appearances is almost unheard of when talking about Duke football, but if the new-look offense can find a little more balance and the defense finds more consistency, a winning season is there for the taking in Durham.