Duke opens the season with a very favorable nonconference schedule. The Blue Devils will face back-to-back in-state opponents to start the year in Charlotte and NC A&T.
Over the years, playing neighbors has been the road to nonconference success at Duke. The Blue Devils are 11-0 against nonconference opponents from North Carolina since David Cutcliffe took over as coach. They are just 25-13 against nonconference foes from other states.
The Blue Devils haven’t just beaten the Elons, A&Ts and Centrals. They’ve dominated, winning by an average score of 51-12. By comparison, they’ve been outscored by an average of 30-27 in all other games.
In fact, the last time Duke lost a nonconference game to an in-state foe was back in 2005 against East Carolina. That was also the last time the Blue Devils went on the road in the state to face a nonconference opponent.
The Blue Devils will put that streak to the test on Friday at Charlotte. Duke beat the 49ers in Durham last year, one of just two wins the Blue Devils managed, running up a 53-19 win that produced 19% of all the points Duke scored last season.
Charlotte, meanwhile, will be looking for its first win over a Power Five team. In his third season at the helm of the 49ers, coach Will Healy has already taken the team to its first bowl game and now looks to conquer the next level of success.
Unlike Duke, who will be using its fourth different starting quarterback in as many seasons, Charlotte has stability under center. Chris Reynolds enters his fourth season as the 49ers’ starter and is on the watch lists for the Unitas and Maxwell awards. He might not be the best quarterback on the roster, however, as former top Texas A&M recruit James Foster is likely to see time as well.
Duke, meanwhile, will start Gunnar Holmberg, who battled back from a knee injury to serve as Chase Brice’s backup last season. His main task will be to cut down on turnovers. The Blue Devils led the nation in giving the ball away last year.
The Blue Devils will look to have improved protection for Holmberg from the offensive line. That starts at center where elder statesman Jack Wohlabaugh returns after missing most of last season with an injury.
“It’s been fun to watch him enjoy getting back full speed, scrimmaging and live. He’s playing really well,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s a big, powerful guy in there, and he brings something special.”
Wohlabaugh’s return allows Duke to shift personnel on the line to hopefully find a more cohesive unit than the one that had Brice on the run for much of last season. Holmberg will have a deep, veteran wide receiving corps, led by Jake Bobo and Jalon Calhoun. The running back position doesn’t have much depth behind Mataeo Durant, who will be in his first year as the primary ballcarrier.
Duke’s defense loses two pass rushers to the NFL in Chris Rumph and Vic Dimukeje. An inexperienced front seven will put a great deal of pressure on a secondary that returns most of its key pieces if the Blue Devils don’t find a way to produce pressure up front.
“One of the things we got to grade early is not just sacks but what kind of pressure you put a quarterback under,” Cutcliffe said.
Across the field, Charlotte will look very different from the team the Blue Devils pushed around last season. The 49ers have added several players through the transfer portal to add to a large group of fifth-year seniors and will have experienced depth to match up with Duke.
“We’re playing a team that is uniquely different,” Cutcliffe said. “I think they’ve added, you don’t know anything for sure, but looks like seven to 10 transfers that could be starters. New punter, new snapper in the kicking game. It’s truly an opener, and you have to adjust well as it goes on. … I mean, they have different players, so it’s really hard to have any idea what you’re going to see.”
The transfers include the heart of a bulked-up front four that includes former Notre Dame end Kofi Wardlow and Iowa State tackle Joshua Bailey. They’re backed by a pair of fifth-year linebackers and an all-transfer secondary that includes former Blue Devil Antone Williams.
The offensive line could be a concern, especially with right tackle Jon Jacobs missing the season after tearing his ACL in the spring. Reynolds and Foster have a deep receiving corps to target, however, led by fifth-year Victor Tucker.
Both teams will be looking to start 2021 on the right foot and put a disappointing two-win 2020 pandemic season behind them.
“I don’t want to say survived, but it’s close to that a year ago,” Cutcliffe said of last season. Charlotte, who had nearly half their games canceled, had just as rough an experience.
For at least one of the two teams on Friday night, the bad memories will fade into the distance.