What can FSU fans expect to see from its opponent? Laura Keeley covers Duke for the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, and she took time to answer some questions about the Blue Devils. You can follow Laura on Twitter: @laurakeeley
1. FSU players have said this Duke team is noticeably more athletic than in past seasons. The 10-2 record speaks for itself. Exactly how has David Cutcliffe go about revitalizing this program and improving its talent level?
"Every year, the incoming recruits have been a little more talented, at a base line, than the classes before them. This year, there was a pretty significant jump in terms of level of athleticism. You could argue that one of the freshmen, Breon Borders, is the most athletic person on the team, period.
Speaking of Borders, he is one of three true freshmen that play starter's snaps in the secondary, along with cornerback Bryon Fields and safety Deondre Singleton (neither of the corners actually start, as Duke still trots out senior Garrett Patterson for the first series, thus collecting the official start). Redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this year (99 and 100 yards) and returned back-to-back-interceptions for scores against N.C. State (only the second FBS player ever to do that, joining Duke's Leon Wright in 2009). When Ross Cockrell went down with an ankle injury in at Virginia Tech, Duke's secondary in its 4-2-5 alignment was Borders (Fr.), Edwards (r-Fr.), Singleton (Fr.), Jeremy ash (R-So.) and Fields (Fr.) for basically the entire second half. And it's not like they had any margin for error, as Duke's offense didn't complete a pass in that final half.
So there's an example of the rising athleticism. Also of note is the fact that, as the offensive and defensive linemen have grown older, they've developed as players, plain and simple. Cutcliffe says it's a developmental program, and he's right. If you can't recruit four- and five- star guys from the start, you need to do you best to mold players once their in your system."
2. Duke WR Jamison Crowder has put up some gaudy stats. What has made him so productive and is he as good as his numbers indicate?
"Whenever Jamison goes to the NFL Combine, his shuttle drill time will open eyes. He's quick, in an elusive way, more than he is straight-line fast. He's not big (Duke lists him at 5-foot-9), but what he lacks in size he makes up for with quickness and toughness. His touchdown catch on fourth-down against North Carolina last year -- during which he was flipped as he was hit by two defenders on opposite sides -- really told observers all they needed to know about his toughness."
3. FSU fans were in a tizzy when only one Seminoles defender made the All-ACC first team. Duke had three defensive players make it. Can you talk about the three players and what made these guys first-team caliber?
"First off, obviously, that was egregious that FSU only had one first-team defender, and I'm intrigued to see the coaches' vote. I don't vote, for the record, because I don't watch enough ACC football (because I'm watching Duke every week).
Ross Cockrell, the cornerback, is the undisputed leader of the secondary, a two-time team captain. He will have a shot to be a late-round pick this spring, and he'll certainly end up in someone's camp for the summer. He is Duke's top corner and has worked wonders getting the young guys around him ready to play. his three interceptions and team-high 12 pass break-ups speak to his ability to make plays on the ball, not just chase after receivers.
Jeremy Cash, who transferred from Ohio State and sat out last year, is Duke's top playmaker in the secondary. He's technically a safety, but he plays so close to the line he's basically a hybrid safety/linebacker. He "makes plays in space," as is popular to say, and can defend against the run and the pass. He, too, contributes to the rise in athleticism—he was a four-star recruit out of South Florida, the type of athlete that normally doesn't consider Duke (and he didn't out of high school). He leads Duke with 56 unassisted tackles.
Kelby Brown is having a great career renaissance. He's torn his right ACL twice, and he missed all of last season. He's not quite as explosive as before all his knee troubles, but, like Cash, he has just flat-out been a playmaker in the middle of the defense. A timely one, too, as his interception at Virginia Tech ended the Hokies' last drive. His 8.5 tackles for loss are second only to a defensive lineman.
Speaking of tackle stats and defensive linemen, all you needed to know about Duke's defense in the past was that the leading tacklers were safeties in the secondary. Now at the top of the list, it's more linebackers and linemen, as it should be."
4. FSU has a dynamic offense, how do you think Duke will try to slow the Seminoles down?
"Slow down is the right way to ask that question, because the Blue Devils are under no illusions that they will actually stop Florida State.
At the top of the list is not to give up explosive plays. The defense normally provides safety help over the top, so it will be key that the young guys stay disciplined, stay back and don't let anyone behind them. And then, really, it will start up front. Somehow, the four-man front has to make the quarterback uncomfortable. They don't necessarily have to sack him, but they have to pressure him into making quicker decisions than he wants."
5. The point spread for this game is more than four touchdowns. How do the Blue Devils view that, and does the fan base feel its team could hand FSU its first loss of the season?
"As the players will tell you, they've been underdogs for years, so this really is no different. And I think players and fans are realistic. Florida State is the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. Both Cutcliffe and his players have said the Seminoles give you everything you would want in a No. 1 team.
Don't confuse respect for resignation to defeat, though, as far as the players go. They believe in Cutcliffe and the coaching staff, and those guys have told them they have a plan to win the ballgame. Expect Duke not to fold, to fight until the end, and I won't be shocked if they cover.
But even if Duke doesn't cover and it's a blow-out, the Blue Devils will still have won 10 games for the first time ever. They are very likely still Chick-Fil-A bowl bound. If you would have told the fans that Duke would win 10 games and competed in a New Years Eve bowl at the beginning of the season they would have a) not believed you and b) been absolutely ecstatic. The result of the ACC Championship game won't change that."