Ben Swain was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions this week about Duke. He is a Duke man that just so happens to write for the ACC Sports Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @thedevilwolf.
STS: Duke is obviously having one of their most successful seasons in recent memory. Was it your expectation that they would compete for the Coastal division title this year?
Was it my expectation? Absolutely not. The run that Virginia Tech has put together in the Coastal makes them the hands down favorite every year. I've been joking around this week with other folks who were at Operation Kickoff that Miami and Duke were solidly everyone's 5th and 6th place teams in the Coastal during pre-season. Looking back, it might have been a reputation pick for Duke and maybe an over-reaction to the compliance fiasco at Miami, but that seemed to be everyone opinion across the board. Now you have a situation where if Miami beats Virginia Tech on Thursday night, we're looking at a likely Coastal division playoff on the final Saturday of the regular season in Durham. Before the season, I felt that the Miami game would be Duke's last shot at bowl eligibility, not Duke's shot to make it into the ACC Championship Game.
STS: Conner Vernon is inching closer to becoming the ACC's all time leading receiver. He's a heck of a player that doesn't get any national attention. Given the choice of Sammy Watkins, Nuk Hopkins, or Conner Vernon, who are you taking?
Can I take all three? There's not a defense out there that could stop that group of receivers. If I had to pick one, however, I'd take Watkins without hesitation. He's the guy out of those three that could take a busted play for a huge gain based on individual effort alone. Vernon and Hopkins could get you a nice gain, but Sammy Watkins can take any touch and turn it into a touchdown from anywhere on the field. Not that I would take him over any of the three that you mentioned, but Duke Sophomore Jamison Crowder deserves to be included in the question. He's had a fantastic year. Converted running back Desmond Scott
can be a factor on Saturday as well. Against Florida State, Scott became the third ACC player in history to gain 1000 receiving yards, 1000 rushing yards, and 1000 return yards. I'm still taking Watkins with my one pick, though.
STS: Duke's offense is ranked #47 by Football Outsiders and checks in defensively at #85 (out of 124 teams). Do those rankings seem accurate to you or do you think they are better or worse in one of those two areas?
I think the defense has performed a little better than their ranking, although they certainly didn't show that last weekend in Tallahassee. Duke had done a good job of pressuring the quarterback and avoiding the explosive play, but the Seminoles protected EJ Manuel extremely well which allowed him to throw big pass after big pass, which certainly bodes well for Clemson. Duke's given up a ton of yards, but has done pretty well keeping opponents off the scoreboard for the most part this year. Florida State certainly lit them up, and with four takeaways by the Duke defense, it could have been a lot worse. The offense isn't as explosive as some Duke offenses have been in the past under Cutcliffe, but they can run the ball better than any Duke team in years. That's important if you're going to upset Clemson. Control the clock, keep that offense on the sidelines, and score touchdowns instead of field goals. That's Duke's only chance on Saturday night.
STS: Clemson has failed to establish a consistent run game this year aside from the Auburn game. I know Chad Morris would love to get the run game going this week. How well does Duke stop the run? Does this seam like the week that Clemson gets their run game back on track?
Duke's not very stout against the run or the pass, but with Duke's thin secondary I'd do exactly what Florida State did and throw deep time and time again. Clemson could get the ground game going against Duke, but I'm just not sold that that's the right play. As weird as it sounds, I think a vertical passing game is more high percentage at this point.
STS: After seeing FSU roll last week I think a lot of Clemson fans are less concerned about this being a trap game. Is it possible that Duke springs the upset this week? Or do you think Clemson is too talented across the board for Duke to keep up with them for 60 minutes?
There's no doubt that Clemson is more talented across the board, but who knows. Duke's been a different team at home this year, and has shown tremendous improvement from one week to the next after a loss. I think this has the makings of a classic trap game. National TV. Primetime. Duke got smacked back into reality last Saturday, and they have a bye week coming up next week. Clemson's best bet is to throw the knockout punch early, which is why I'd say Morris should let Boyd loose as much as possible. If Duke can hang around, an upset is definitely in play. Like you said, Clemson's much more talented this year, but I'd be shocked if this is a "just show up and win" kind of game for the Tigers.