NCF Nation: Kelby Brown

If Duke is going to defend its Coastal Division title in 2014, it will have to do it without All-ACC linebacker Kelby Brown.

Brown was carted off the practice field with a left knee injury Monday, and the news was made official Tuesday morning -- he's out for the year with an ACL tear. Surgery to repair the injury is scheduled for Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeKelby Brown
Chuck Burton/AP PhotoKelby Brown has now suffered a torn ACL three times during his playing career at Duke.
It's a huge blow for the Duke defense, but equally devastating for Brown, a redshirt senior who will now be undergoing ACL surgery for the third time in his career.

Brown's emergence last season closely paralleled Duke's run to a division title. During a crucial three-game stretch when the Blue Devils upset Virginia Tech on the road, escaped NC State with a dominant fourth quarter and downed Miami, Brown racked up 41 total tackles, including four for a loss, and forced two fumbles.

With the loss of Brown, Duke's options at middle linebacker are a bit thin. Junior Deion Williams projects as the likely replacement. Williams has just one career start, coming last season against Navy. For the season, he recorded 17 tackles.

While Duke's defense made its share of big plays last season, the unit struggled with consistency. The Blue Devils finished 12th in the ACC in total defense, allowing 418 yards per game, and their 4.93 tackles for loss per game were the sixth fewest among all Power Five conference teams. Brown was responsible for 11 of Duke's 69 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, tops among returning defenders, and he was one of the key leaders in the locker room.

Brown tore his right ACL twice, including an injury that cost him all of 2012. He returned last season to help lead Duke to a 10-win campaign and a berth in the ACC championship game. His 114 tackles ranked third in the ACC, behind teammates David Helton and Jeremy Cash. Brown was named to the All-ACC team at year's end and was again a preseason selection this season.

Brown's brother, Kyler, is a reserve defensive end for Duke after moving from linebacker during the spring.

Because of his previous knee injuries, Kelby Brown could petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility and return in 2015.

Duke Blue Devils season preview

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Duke Blue Devils, the defending Coastal Division champs.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Boone playing with a chip on his shoulder could be good for Duke's ACC Coastal Division title hopes.
Key returners: QB Anthony Boone (64 percent completions, 13 touchdowns), RB Josh Snead (670 yards, 2 touchdowns), WR Jamison Crowder (108 catches, 1,360 yards, 8 touchdowns), TE Braxton Deaver (46 catches, 600 yards, 4 touchdowns), LB David Helton (133 tackles), S Jeremy Cash (121 tackles), LB Kelby Brown (114 tackles), CB Breon Borders (4 interceptions)

Key losses: QB Brandon Connette (27 touchdowns), RB Jela Duncan (573 yards, 11 touchdowns), LG Dave Harding, CB Ross Cockrell (3 interceptions, 16 passes defended), DE Kenny Anunike (13.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks), DE Justin Foxx (4 sacks)

Most important games: Sept. 27 at Miami, Nov. 1 at Pitt, Nov. 15 versus Virginia Tech, Nov. 20 versus North Carolina

Projected win percentage: .645

Vegas over/under: 8.5 wins

Instant impact newcomers: As freshman backups in 2013, corners DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields combined for seven interceptions and broke up 20 passes. All three are projected starters this season. Redshirt freshman Quay Mann could see time in the secondary this season, too. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk has never seen game action but figures to play a big role taking over for departed quarterback Brandon Connette, who was a key figure in the red zone last year.

Biggest question mark: Can the defense take a step forward? The unit made big plays last season and there’s plenty of talent returning. But this was still a defense that ranked 12th overall in the ACC, allowing 418 yards per game, and a unit that coughed up 30 or more points five times -- including a combined 97 points in its final two games against FSU and Texas A&M. With turnover on the defensive line and youth in the secondary, Duke needs to prove it's ready to take the next step on that side of the ball.

Number to know: 174. That’s the number of times Crowder was targeted in 2013, by far the most among any ACC receiver (the next closest was Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, who was targeted 134 times). Crowder’s targets accounted for a whopping 37 percent of all of Duke’s passing attempts. He is one of only three receivers nationally (and the lone representative from a Power Five conference) to have a chance at a third straight 1,000-yard receiving season in 2014.

They said it: "The biggest danger is in changing who we've been. We are a good program because we have great habits. What we want to become is a great program with great habits. We're still a work in progress." -- Duke coach David Cutcliffe

Top ACC players: Nos. 20-16

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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As we get set to open fall camps around the ACC, we're counting down the conference's top players -- five per day all this week.

20. Kelby Brown, Duke Blue Devils

Position: Linebacker
Year: Redshirt senior

Brown has been an integral piece to Duke's turnaround, bouncing back from a knee injury to record 114 tackles last season. He is one of three returning 100-tackle players on the Blue Devils' defense in 2014, and he will start for a fourth time in five years. Brown should also provide a boost to the pass rush, having made 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2013.

19. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State Seminoles

Position: Defensive back
Year: Sophomore

Ramsey has already made his mark on what should be another outstanding secondary, as the former five-star recruit earned freshman All-America honors last season as a 14-game starter. He is the first FSU corner to start as a true freshman since Deion Sanders did in 1985. Ramsey thrived again this spring, as he was one of three players to earn the Seminoles' Hinesman Award (spring standout). Ramsey now steps into the role formerly held by Lamarcus Joyner, the anchor of last season's secondary, which led the nation in pass defense.

18. Nick O'Leary, Florida State

Position: Tight end
Year: Senior

O'Leary returns for his senior season as one of Jameis Winston's top targets, as FSU searches for answers at receiver behind Rashad Greene. O'Leary enters 2014 as arguably the nation's top tight end, this after a 2013 campaign that saw him haul in 33 receptions for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. He is back to 100 percent after missing the end of the spring following a motorcycle accident. And, in case you haven't heard, he comes from good lineage: His grandfather is golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

17. Karlos Williams, Florida State

Position: Running back
Year: Senior

Williams entered FSU as a five-star prospect at safety. He moved to running back last year and did not disappoint, finishing second on the team in rushing, with 730 yards. He scored 11 touchdowns and averaged 8.0 yards per carry. He helped turned the momentum of the BCS title game by converting a fake punt in the second quarter. Now Williams is the top man in the backfield for the Seminoles, and the possibilities seem endless for an athlete who finally has a full year of playing the position under his belt.

16. Kevin Parks, Virginia Cavaliers

Position: Running back
Year: Redshirt senior

Parks was one of the more overlooked players in the ACC last season, a byproduct of Virginia's winless conference campaign. Still, the Salisbury, North Carolina, native became the first Cavalier to rush for 1,000 yards since Alvin Pearman in 2004, tallying 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns. Listed at a generous 5-foot-8, Parks did plenty of speed training this offseason in hopes of making more explosive plays. He will be the leader of a crowded backfield that should help take pressure off new quarterback Greyson Lambert.
The preseason All-ACC team was released Wednesday, and naturally quarterback Jameis Winston led the way with the most votes. There were not too many surprises, beginning with Florida State players littered throughout the list of 26 names.

Here is the 2014 preseason All-ACC team, as voted on by the media at the ACC Kickoff:

 
 
 

Thoughts: While the ACC had the second-most NFL draft picks in May, there is significant talent returning to the conference for the 2014 season. Of the 26 players, 21 were named to one of the three All-ACC teams at the end of last season. That doesn’t include Parker, who will play his first season in the ACC this coming season. Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the leading vote getter (although not a unanimous one), and Beasley, who received the second-most votes, are two of the three returning consensus All-Americans from the 2013 season.

Few conferences would be able to rival that offense with Winston throwing to 1,000-yard receivers Crowder and Greene and a 6-foot-3 target in Parker. O’Leary is one of the best tight ends in the country. There was a seemingly close battle at running back behind Duke Johnson, Williams got the nod over Virginia running back Kevin Parks, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.

Defensively, that is one talented line. Beasley received the second-most votes for the preseason player of the year, and Edwards was the No. 1 high school recruit in the 2012 class. Maddy and Jarrett are two of the best defensive tackles in the country.

Duke has the second-most players on the team, which speaks to the program David Cutcliffe is building in Durham. The Blue Devils were not picked to win the ACC Coastal despite winning it last season and returning quarterback Anthony Boone. There is a constituency out there that still doesn’t believe Duke is the real deal and is bound for a letdown, but the media believes there is talent throughout the roster; the Blue Devils have a player at receiver, offensive line, linebacker and the secondary. Miami, which was picked to win the division, has two players on the list.

Even as Duke had four players, the Seminoles still had nine, only further signifying the gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference, although the league is undoubtedly improving. That list does not include Ronald Darby or Jalen Ramsey, two players who will almost certainly be on an All-ACC team by the end of the season. It is no surprise Florida State was ranked as having the most talent on its 2014 roster two weeks ago in ESPN.com's future power rankings.

Player list for ACC media days

July, 10, 2014
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The 2014 college football season is inching ever so closer, with ACC media days set to take place in less than two weeks.

The league released its list of players who will be attending the July 20-21 event at The Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here they are:

BOSTON COLLEGE
C Andy Gallik, R-Sr.
DB Dominique Williams, R-Sr.

CLEMSON
QB Cole Stoudt, Sr.
DE Vic Beasley, R-Sr.

DUKE
OG Laken Tomlinson, R-Sr.
LB Kelby Brown, R-Sr.

FLORIDA STATE
QB Jameis Winston, R-So.
CB P.J. Williams, Jr.

GEORGIA TECH
OG Shaquille Mason, Sr.
LB Quayshawn Nealy, R-Sr.

LOUISVILLE
WR DeVante Parker, Sr.
DE Lorenzo Mauldin, Sr.

MIAMI
RB Duke Johnson, Jr.
LB Denzel Perryman, Sr.

NORTH CAROLINA
QB Marquise Williams, Jr.
LB Norkeithus Otis, Sr.

NC STATE
RB Tony Creecy, R-Sr.
DE Art Norman, R-Sr.

PITT
WR Tyler Boyd, So.
DB Ray Vinopal, R-Sr.

SYRACUSE
OT Sean Hickey, Sr.
LB Cameron Lynch, Sr.

VIRGINIA
RB Kevin Parks, Sr.
SS Anthony Harris, Sr.

VIRGINIA TECH
WR Willie Byrn, R-Sr.
DT Luther Maddy, DT

WAKE FOREST
FB Jordan Garside, R-Sr.
CB Kevin Johnson, R-Sr.
Do you need a sign college football is close but still just a little too far away? The first preseason award watch lists were released Monday, a list of more than 70 players that could be the best in the country by season’s end.

It doesn’t matter if you have started only three games in your career and haven’t played a down since November 2012 -- there is a spot for you on the list.

That said, it’s college football and as ridiculous as these often are, I admit I enjoy looking at them. The watch lists for the Maxwell Award, given to the college player of the year, and Bednarik Award, given to the top defensive player, were released Monday. As the season progresses, the list will be pared down before a winner is announced in December.

Here is a look at the ACC players to make the cut and some justification for each player being on the list.

Maxwell Award

WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh: As a freshman last fall, Boyd was as good of a receiver as there was in the ACC. As the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver heading into the 2014 season, Boyd could put up monster numbers and follow in the footsteps of Pitt great Larry Fitzgerald.

[+] EnlargeJames Connor
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJames Conner set a Pitt record with 229 yards in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green.
QB Jacoby Brissett, NC State: This is not a knock on Brissett, but his inclusion is certainly puzzling considering he sat out all of 2013 after transferring from Florida, where he saw limited time as a starter and backup. However, the Wolfpack staff is high on Brissett leading the program’s turnaround, and Brissett was a blue-chip high school recruit.

WR Stacy Coley, Miami: Much like Boyd, Coley had a strong freshman season and is poised for a breakout sophomore campaign. One of the country’s elite recruits in 2013, Coley could make a national name for himself if he can build a connection with Miami’s quarterbacks, which have struggled with inconsistency and injury.

RB James Conner, Pitt: It’s almost unfair Conner was limited to just the Maxwell watch list Monday considering he is a two-way standout for the Panthers. Conner is already a huge fan favorite in the Steel City for his bruising and relentless running style, and he broke Tony Dorsett’s school bowl-game rushing record in December.

WR Jamison Crowder, Duke: Any time you catch more than 100 passes for more than 1,300 yards, you deserve to be on this list.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Johnson’s inclusion here is a credit to how dominant he was before the injury against Florida State and how woeful Miami looked after. If he can stay healthy, Johnson has the potential to be an elite back nationally.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: As the Cardinals’ leading returning receiver and now in Bobby Petrino’s offense, Parker should light up stat sheets this coming season.

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Seminoles’ receivers, but none of it includes Greene, who led the Noles in receiving in 2013. With Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw in the NFL, Greene will be looked upon to bail out Jameis Winston this fall.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Speaking of Winston, the Maxwell is about the only thing he did not win last season. Another spectacular season and it will be hard to ignore him again.

RB Karlos Williams, Florida State: Similar to Brissett, this is a bit of a projection pick, although Williams has done significantly more than Brissett. Williams was the third-string running back in 2013, but with his five-star talent base coupled with a senior-laden offensive line and Williams could set records in his final season in Tallahassee.

Reaction: While Brissett is obviously a surprise, overall it is hard to argue with much of the list. Williams' inclusion might be pushing it a little bit, although he certainly could be one of the best running backs in the country with his blend of size and speed. It's a positive sign for the ACC that several underclassmen are on the list, including special playmakers Boyd, Coley and Conner, who will all be true sophomores this fall. The biggest question is whether Winston will win the award if he performs the way most expect him to as a redshirt sophomore. AJ McCarron won the award last season over Winston, who was a semifinalist along with Johnny Manziel. Winston's off-the-field issues might have played a role, so it would be interesting to see if the Maxwell Award will continue to take those incidents into account.



Bednarik Award

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl win against Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: A semifinalist for the award last season, Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields. If he can show a little more consistency, he might win the award in 2014.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley is among the favorites to repeat as a finalist for this season's Bednarik Award.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second straight season this fall.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant impact player for the Blue Devils a season ago following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national championship. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Bednarik.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best.

DE Eli Harold, Virginia: Last season he finished sixth in the ACC with 15 tackles for loss, an impressive number. He could see his numbers improve drastically with five-star Andrew Brown now at defensive tackle.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the year.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but is as talented as they come.

DE/LB Norkeithus Otis, North Carolina: Otis is another player poised to possibly gain national recognition and it begins with his inclusion on this list. He had a very strong junior season with 6.5 sacks.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes’ defenses. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list.

Reaction: It was surprising Darby's name was not included on the list despite missing the spring. He could be the first cornerback taken in the NFL draft next year. The ACC is home to some of the country's best defensive backs with Williams, Fuller and Harris. Beasley is certainly one of the favorites coming into the season, but he was shut down by Florida State last season and will need to rebound against the Seminoles to make a push for the Bednarik as a senior. His sack numbers should be impressive once again, and if he can perform on the big stages, it might be the little extra that wins him the award this season. FSU's Edwards could be the best defensive lineman in the ACC and the country if he plays like he did against Auburn all season. What could hurt Edwards is he will not always be in a position to pile up sacks and tackles even when he is dominating opposing offensive linemen.

Chick-fil-A Bowl preview

December, 31, 2013
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It's been a wild ride for both Duke and Texas A&M this season.

The Aggies, with their effervescent quarterback Johnny Manziel and their high-flying offense, were so often a thrill to watch, full of touchdowns and big plays, but ultimately not enough wins to compete for an SEC title.

Duke, meanwhile, had what could only be called a dream season when compared to the history of the program. David Cutcliffe was named Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year after leading the Blue Devils to their first 10-win season and a spot in the ACC championship game.

How it will end for both teams depends on who shows up ready to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

Here's a quick preview of the game:

Who to watch: Manziel has been careful not to make any official NFL announcement yet, but all indications point to the redshirt sophomore leaving Texas A&M early to enter the draft. And he might not be alone. Receiver Mike Evans, another redshirt sophomore, is a prime candidate to bolt for the pros as well. So get your fill of them while you can because they're arguably the best at their positions in the country. Manziel's talents, by now, speak for themselves. But Evans might be the bigger concern for Duke because at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he's downright unstoppable. Just ask two of the best teams in the SEC, Alabama and Auburn, which combined to allow 566 yards and five touchdowns through the air to him this season.

What to watch: Don't forget to pay attention to those pesky Blue Devils, though, as wide receiver Jamison Crowder and linebacker Kelby Brown are ones to watch. But Duke, without suspended leading rusher Jela Duncan, is in a pickle. Throwing the ball often will be a temptation, but as quarterback Anthony Boone said, it's a fool's errand to try to outduel Manziel because "that doesn't win football games." Instead, Josh Snead, Duke's backup tailback who ran for 547 yards this season, will be asked to do more. If the Blue Devils stay balanced on offense, they have a shot against what has been a porous Aggies defense. But if Boone, who has thrown 11 interceptions to 10 touchdowns, is asked to do too much, Duke could be in big trouble.

Why to watch: Soak it all in because these two programs appear to be headed toward a crossroads. Duke has never had success like this before. How will it respond if its dream season ends with two straight losses? Can the entire coaching staff stay together? Is one player suspension a sign of more to come? And more questions can be asked of Texas A&M, which might shun the idea of rebuilding next season, but with the possibility of Manziel and Evans leaving, it's definitely a matter of hitting the "reset" button. Coach Kevin Sumlin is locked up under a new contract, but with so many NFL head coaches being fired this week, do the pros start beckoning him as well? Whatever the case, Texas A&M and Duke fans should savor the final game of their seasons and hope that next season holds just as much success.

Prediction: Texas A&M wins it running away from Duke, 48-28. Had the Blue Devils showed better against this season's Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, I might have been swayed to pick otherwise. But Florida State gave Texas A&M the blueprint to moving the ball offensively. Manziel will have his way against the Duke secondary and end his career as an Aggie with a flourish, accounting for a handful of touchdowns that should leave us as in awe of his penchant for making something out of nothing.

ESPN.com's All-ACC team

December, 16, 2013
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Florida State’s undefeated season is reflected in the Seminoles’ 10 all-conference selections by ESPN.com. Quarterback Jameis Winston was the highlight of the group, along with Boston College running back Andre Williams, who was also a Heisman candidate this year. This list differs just slightly from the choices of the coaches and writers, with the toughest decisions coming on defense.

Offense
Defense
Special Teams

ACC weekend rewind: Week 15

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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That wraps it up. The regular season is over, and the bowl lineup is set. Let's see how we ended up here as we take one last look back at the week that was in our weekend rewind.

The good: What's not to love about this past weekend if you're from the ACC? The conference set an NCAA record by placing 11 teams in bowl games. That's topped, of course, by No. 1 Florida State, which is bound for the VIZIO BCS National Championship, where it will face No. 2 Auburn. The ACC broke its NCAA record of 10 teams in bowls, which was set in 2008. (The league also placed seven of its nine teams in bowls in 2002, which was then the NCAA's highest bowl participation percentage ever, at .778.)

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin and No. 1 Florida State head an impressive group of 11 ACC bowl teams.
The bad: It is tough to be really harsh on Duke considering just how many firsts the program accomplished this season. That said, the Blue Devils did themselves few favors to make it a game Saturday in a 45-7 loss to Florida State. Ross Martin missed a 48-yard field goal on Duke's third possession that would have broken a scoreless tie. Anthony Boone threw two interceptions. Kelby Brown dropped a potential interception. Duke did come up with two on the night, but could not manage any points from them. Redshirt senior right tackle Perry Simmons left the game with a torn ACL and a torn MCL in his left knee. The two-time All-ACC selection had started 50 consecutive games.

The records: Jameis Winston broke FBS records for both passing yards and passing touchdowns by a freshman, as the Heisman Trophy front-runner was 19-of-32 for 330 yards with three touchdowns (and two interceptions) to finish with 3,820 passing yards and 38 passing touchdowns in the regular season. Duke receiver Jamison Crowder set a program single-season record in receiving yards Saturday and finished with 1,197. Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo's 45-yard second-quarter field goal helped him set an ACC record with 142 points.

The added bonus: The ACC title game had just kicked off when our Joe Schad reported that Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher had agreed to a five-year, $21 million contract extension with the program. Athletic director Stan Wilcox confirmed after the game that a deal had been reached, with details still being finalized. Just another bit of great news for the Seminoles on a night with no shortage of it.

Bowl subplots to watch: Boston College's Andre Williams (329) and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (322) lead the nation in carries and will square off in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl. … Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson will get a shot at his in-state program, Pitt, in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. … Miami can see its hometown product, Teddy Bridgewater, up close and personal in what could be the Louisville quarterback's final game, the Russell Athletic Bowl. (The teams face each other next year, too, when the Cardinals join the ACC.) … Let's not overlook the obvious historical note when Ohio State and Clemson meet in the Discover Orange Bowl, either, as the programs will meet for the first time since the 1978 Gator Bowl, which ended up being Woody Hayes' final game after the coach punched Tigers linebacker Charlie Bauman.


When Duke went on the road in late October and shocked then- No. 14 Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils did so without converting a single third down. Quarterback Anthony Boone threw zero touchdown passes -- and four interceptions. And yet Duke rolled out of Blacksburg having snapped a 42-year losing streak against ranked teams on the road.

The difference? Duke was finally able to win a game with defense and special teams.

[+] EnlargeKelby Brown
Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMIKelby Brown and Duke's defense will face their biggest challenge on Saturday against Florida State.
“To win a defensive game 13-10 is just such a boost of confidence on defense,” said linebacker Kelby Brown. “It was really encouraging. That’s when we showed people this defense is for real. This team is for real.”

If Duke is going to have a shot at upending No. 1 Florida State on Saturday in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, it will need to be sharp in every phase of the game. It will have to rely most heavily upon what has become an opportunistic defense, and a special teams unit that has the ability to score and create good field position.

Duke has scored four times on kick returns (two punt return touchdowns and two kickoff return touchdowns), and freshman safety DeVon Edwards leads the nation in kickoff return average (32.7).The defense has caused turnovers in 11 of 12 games (including three in the red zone), and enters the ACC title game with 16 interceptions, nine forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. Duke is tied for fifth in the ACC with 21 takeaways and the 16 interceptions are the most in the David Cutcliffe era.

“A lot of guys have stepped up into new roles, and our D-line is really experienced now,” Brown said. “They’re doing a great job up front of allowing the linebackers to fly around and make tackles. That’s something, just old-school, 4-3 style defense, the way Boston College has always run it, a great D-line that holds up the line and that’s been huge for us. And I think we’re the most athletic we’ve ever been in the secondary. Even though we have some young guys back there, they have speed and they can tackle. It’s all kind of clicked from the front line all the way to the back.”

Duke, a heavy underdog, knows it has no margin for error. The Blue Devils have never beaten Florida State in 18 tries, and the Noles have won every game this season by at least 14 points. In 2012, Duke’s defense was steamrolled by FSU in a 48-7 loss, and many are predicting a similar result. Of all the times these two programs have faced each other, though, only one other time has Duke been ranked -- in 1994, when it was No. 16.

The numbers prove, though, that Duke’s defense is the best it’s been in over a decade.

Duke is allowing just 23.0 points per game, which would rank as the program’s best mark since the 1994 season (22.45 points per game). Duke has 22 sacks this season, and linebackers David Helton and Kelby Brown and safety Jeremy Cash are the top three tacklers in the ACC.


We have a very good offense who can put up points on anybody. We've just got to make sure that we limit people, and the best way to limit people is by making them drive the length of the field on you and not giving up the 50 and 60 yard passes.


-- Ross Cockrell, on how Duke's defense can find success against Florida State

Duke’s fourth-quarter defense has also been outstanding. It's allowing an average of just 9.1 points in the second half compared to 13.9 in the first half. Duke has surrendered only 3.1 points and outscored opponents 113-37 in the fourth quarter.

“Well, we run better on defense,” Cutcliffe said. “First thing you've got to be able to do is get to them to get them on the ground. You can't get them on the ground if you can't run. We run better. We'd better run better in this one because these guys have I think more weapons than anybody in the country.”

Starting with Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

“We don't have anybody that can line up and match up physically with Benjamin,” Cutcliffe said. “He's just a monster and with great skills.”

Against Florida’s stingy defense last week, Benjamin single-handedly outgained the Gators’ offensive output (212 yards to 193). He scored three touchdowns, and had nine receptions. Last season against Duke, Benjamin had three catches for 77 yards.

“Yeah, we've done a great job, I think, defensively,” said Ross Cockrell, one of the top defenders in the ACC. “But one of the things that we took away from last year was that you can't give up a lot of big plays, especially in the passing game, the deep passes that we gave up. We can't give up those kinds of plays and expect to win ballgames. We know we have a very good team. We have a very good offense who can put up points on anybody. We've just got to make sure that we limit people, and the best way to limit people is by making them drive the length of the field on you and not giving up the 50 and 60 yard passes.”

Duke’s defense and special teams have been good enough to win the Coastal Division, but they will have to be great to win it all on Saturday.

AA put some distance between herself and HD with the picks last week. HD admits she choked with the vaunted predictions trophy on the line, going 4-5 in Week 14. AA kept chugging, going 7-2 to open up a four-game lead on HD in the overall standings. AA stands at 85-23 as we head into the postseason. Seems like a pretty insurmountable lead at this point.

No headway to be made this week, either -- not when the easy choice to win the ACC championship game is Florida State. Here is how we both see the game playing out.

AA picks: Exactly zero media prognosticators had Florida State playing Duke in the ACC championship game when the season began. Of the 120 ballots tabulated, only 15 declared the Seminoles their preseason choice to win the ACC. That handful of voters will turn out to be right after Saturday comes to a close. Florida State is too talented and too deep to have much of a problem with the Blue Devils. Duke has been such a terrific story to watch unfold throughout the course of the season, and the Blue Devils do have some rising stars in Jamison Crowder, Kelby Brown, DeVon Edwards and Jeremy Cash. They deserve an inordinate amount of credit for turning around a moribund program. But they still have a ways to go to match the upper echelon not just in the ACC, but in the nation. Florida State lost 11 NFL draft picks off last season's team; Duke has had eight players drafted in the last 20 years. So you see the talent disparity. Duke has never beaten Florida State and has lost by an average margin of 34.5 points per game. The Blue Devils are a much better team than they were the last time these teams played last season. But the problem for Duke? Florida State is a much better team, too. Florida State 48, Duke 10.

HD picks: The magic ends here, where good meets great. Duke will play better than many expect, as it has an opportunistic defense and the ACC’s coach of the year, but it won’t be enough to overcome the matchup problems the Noles’ elite talent will create. This won’t be as ugly as it was last year during the regular season, but it won’t be pretty, either. Duke has recruited talent and speed, but not enough to match the likes of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin or quarterback Jameis Winston. Florida State will win the turnover battle, and Duke’s defense will give up too may big plays and struggle to get FSU off the field on third down. FSU has given up more than 17 points just once this season (to Boston College). Duke’s preparation, discipline and determination will get it to 20, but it will only be good enough for a moral victory. Florida State 45, Duke 20.

ACC helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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In a week of sluggish performances around the ACC, a handful of players stood out, carrying their teams to much-needed wins. Here are the five who made the biggest impact.

Miami running back Duke Johnson: Twice on Saturday the Hurricanes' undefeated season appeared doomed, and twice Johnson responded with a game-saving run. The sophomore finished with 168 yards on 30 carries -- eight more than his previous career high -- and scored twice in the fourth quarter to help Miami sneak past Wake Forest. The Hurricanes took their first lead of the game with 5:36 left on a 51-yard TD drive in which Johnson carried six times for 44 yards. Wake responded with a score of its own, but Johnson clinched the win by carrying seven times for 42 yards, including the 1-yard go-ahead TD.

Duke linebacker David Helton: On a day when the Blue Devils' offense struggled mightily, it was Helton and the defense that came up with one big play after another. Helton finished with a game-high 19 tackles -- he was one of three Duke defenders with double-digit tackles -- and deflected a Logan Thomas pass on Virginia Tech's final drive that was picked off by Kelby Brown. Brown's INT was one of four by the Blue Devils, and he finished the game with 14 tackles.

Florida State receiver Rashad Greene: Jameis Winston was sharp once again, throwing three TD passes in Florida State's win over NC State, but plenty of credit is due to his receiving corps, which was led, once again, by Greene. The junior finished with eight catches for 137 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown grab. It's Greene's fourth 100-yard game of the year. Seven of his eight catches went for Florida State first downs.

Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Roderick McDowell: The Tigers rebounded from last week's devastating loss to Florida State and this week's slow start against Maryland largely because of two of their best offensive weapons. Watkins caught a career-high 14 passes for 163 yards, while McDowell carried the ground game, rushing 30 times for 161 yards and two touchdowns.

Georgia Tech running backs: The Yellow Jackets had three runners top 100 yards in their win over Virginia, led by junior Zach Laskey, who rushed 16 times for 133 yards and two touchdowns. David Sims scored twice as well, and finished with 107 yards on 12 carries, while Robert Godhigh's 65-yard TD run highlighted a five-carry, 111-yard performance. The 394 rushing yards matched a season high for Georgia Tech, while Jemea Thomas (15 tackles) and the defense sealed the game.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
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Garry PetersStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThanks to a solid defensive effort Thursday from the likes of Garry Peters, No. 3 Clemson was able to remain undefeated despite not playing its "A" game.
What did we learn in the ACC in Week 4? Glad you asked.

1. Clemson is not perfect: The way Clemson won on Thursday night at NC State will not win the Tigers any beauty contests. They were sluggish on offense for most of the game, and nobody could quite figure out why afterward. Was it the long layoff between games against FBS teams? Was it more a product of NC State harassing Tajh Boyd? Were they playing too tight and not relaxed? Clemson finally got a few drives going in the second half (thanks to a call that may or may not have been botched) but the offense still needs some work. The defense, meanwhile, has made huge strides. Coaches thought this front seven could be good, and it was strong against the Wolfpack. But what stood out most of all was the way Clemson was able to overcome its mediocre play and win. That might not have happened two years ago.

2. Georgia Tech is in good shape: Say this for the Yellow Jackets, they came into the season relatively under the radar but have played themselves into the Coastal conversation after a 2-0 start in division play. It is the second time under Paul Johnson that Georgia Tech has started Coastal play 2-0 (it also happened in 2011), but just the third time in the past 15 years it has won its first two league games. Georgia Tech has now won six straight regular-season ACC games dating back to last season, tied for the second-longest league winning streak in school history. Without question, this is the toughest stretch of the season for the Jackets, and if they can keep this up, they will be in the driver’s seat to get back to the ACC title game. Next up is a Virginia Tech team that needed three overtimes to beat Marshall on short rest Thursday in Atlanta. Given the way the Hokies looked on Saturday, there is a decent chance Georgia Tech and Miami will be undefeated when the two teams play in Miami on Oct. 5. But it’s too early to look ahead. To beat Virginia Tech, the Jackets are going to need a lot more consistency on offense than they got in their win over North Carolina.

3. Virginia Tech D is not perfect: The Hokies went into the game with the No. 2 ranked defense in the entire nation, but they did not play that way in the first half against Marshall, giving up 21 points and 205 yards while staring at a deficit. Virginia Tech had a much harder time slowing down the hurry-up offense Marshall runs. I called this group the “hands down best defense” in the ACC but that title appears to be up for grabs right now. Virginia Tech did regain its composure in the second half and allowed just 156 yards the rest of the way, with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. But this was the most uneven performance out of this group this year. You have to wonder how much the struggles of the offense are going to start taking its toll on the defense.

4. The ACC could have another Top 25 team: When the polls are released later today, the big question is whether Georgia Tech or Maryland (maybe both?) will be ranked for the first time this season. The ACC has five unbeaten teams to this point, a great accomplishment for a league that has struggled to change its national reputation. Maryland (4-0) completely embarrassed West Virginia in all facets, winning 37-0 while holding the Mountaineers to six first downs and 175 yards of total offense. Maryland has not beaten anybody with a winning record yet (Week 1 opponent FIU just lost 72-0 to Louisville), so its undefeated start is not wildly unexpected. Still, it is quite an achievement for a program that has won six total games over the past two seasons.

5. Pittsburgh and Duke could use some defensive help: Both teams went into the season with high expectations for their respective groups. Pitt had a veteran group returning; Duke believed it had made strides from a unit that crumbled in the second half of 2012. Neither one showed much progress in a 58-55 Pitt win. The early results we saw from the Duke defense have been put into perspective now that the Blue Devils have played better teams in Georgia Tech and Pitt. The Blue Devils had a hard time getting off blocks Saturday, Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe said. To make matters worse, linebacker Kelby Brown got hurt. Pitt is a team that clearly misses defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable. That was made more apparent after watching his game plan to slow down Boyd and Clemson in his new job as NC State defensive coordinator. Pitt has given up 123 points in three games. If it can get a defense to pair with what looks like a solid offense, watch out.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
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With all 12 teams playing in Week 1, including two conference games, there will be plenty to watch in the ACC, from Friday through Labor Day. Here are 10 things to keep an eye on, in no particular order:

1. NC State’s secondary vs. Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray. The Pack will be without starting cornerback C.J. Wilson, who has an “eligibility issue,” according to coach Tom O’Brien, but All-American David Amerson returns to help the Pack against Bray. Despite missing five games last season with a fractured thumb, Bray threw for 1,983 yards and 17 touchdowns.

2. Clemson in the trenches. Much of the focus leading up to the Auburn game has been on how Clemson will survive without suspended leading receiver Sammy Watkins, but more important is how Clemson will fare up front, on both the offensive and defensive lines. Depth on the offensive line remains a concern, and overall, Clemson had to replace six starters up front from last season.

3. True freshmen in College Park and Chestnut Hill. Maryland and Miami both will be depending heavily on true freshmen in their season openers. The Terps will have true freshman Perry Hills starting at quarterback, are likely to use two freshman running backs and will use receiver Stefon Diggs in several roles. Miami has more than a dozen freshmen in its two-deep.

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas, Jeremiah Attaochu
AP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu gets another chance to bring down Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas this weekend.
4. Special teams in Blacksburg. Georgia Tech’s group was abysmal last season, but the Jackets hired special-teams coach Dave Walkosky, the first special-teams coach Paul Johnson has hired during his tenure in Atlanta. The Hokies are trying to get Beamerball back, but questions in the kicking game persisted through summer camp.

5. Jeremiah Attaochu vs. Logan Thomas, Part 2. In this game last season, Attaochu was about to complete a third-down sack of Thomas but couldn’t bring the lumberjack down. Attaochu let his frustration and adrenaline get the better of him, and took a swing at Thomas, drawing a personal foul. The two have been friendly since, but getting pressure on Thomas will be key in this game.

6. Florida State’s offensive line. If there is one reason not to snooze on the Murray State game, this is it. The Seminoles showed a lot of progress up front this offseason, but they must continue it if FSU is going to live up to the expectations this season.

7. ACC vs. SEC. The ACC hasn't had a winning record against the SEC since it went 5-4 in 2003. The ACC could help itself change that this weekend with a 2-0 start against the SEC with victories by NC State and Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.

8. North Carolina’s tempo. We finally get to see the “Fed Spread” in Chapel Hill, as UNC will unveil its new up-tempo spread offense under first-year coach Larry Fedora. How many more plays will the Tar Heels be able to run, and how well will they execute them? Bottom line: How fast can this team score? Time of possession could be deceiving.

9. Duke’s backups. The Blue Devils will be missing about a dozen injured scholarship players against Florida International, including receiver Blair Holliday, tight end Braxton Deaver, defensive tackle Jamal Bruce, safety Jordon Byas and linebacker Kelby Brown.

10. Virginia’s revamped secondary. UVa has no seniors in its secondary after having three senior starters last season. Only three other schools (Florida State, LSU and North Texas) have a senior-less secondary. More specifically, there are no upper-classmen at the cornerback position. Sophomore Demetrious Nicholson is now the elder statesman of the group.

Duke so close, yet so far away

November, 3, 2011
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Duke coach David Cutcliffe said you could use the words “frustration” and “anger” to describe the mood in the locker room following his team’s 14-10 loss to No. 12-ranked Virginia Tech last weekend.

Cutcliffe was spot-on, at least according to linebacker Kelby Brown.

“It’s terrible,” Brown said. “Anyone who watched that game, we had the momentum the whole second half. I was sure we were going to win. That’s just the worst feeling I can remember. That was probably one of the hardest losses I can remember for me.

“When it hurts is that Saturday night, watching the highlights on ESPN,” he said, “but come Sunday morning, we had one of our best Sunday practices this week and right now as far as I can tell, we have more energy than I can remember. We always play Miami hard. We know it’s time to finally get that victory in the end.”

[+] EnlargeDuke's Sean Renfree
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images"We're right there," quarterback Sean Renfree said of Duke. "The last two weeks have been a pretty good indicator."
That’s what Miami should be afraid of. Duke has come painstakingly close this season to turning the corner, losing three of its games by no more than four points each. Duke lost the season-opener to Richmond, 23-21, and has lost back-to-back games to Wake Forest (24-23) and Virginia Tech. Ten more points and Duke (3-5) would be bowl-eligible by now. The good news, Cutcliffe said, is that emotions like anger and frustration -- which are to be expected -- “can be turned into positive emotion.”

“Discouraged we're not,” Cutcliffe said. “We're not going to be. We have nothing to be discouraged about. We're playing well.”

Cutcliffe knows, though, that they’re not playing well enough.

Duke has struggled with turnovers in recent weeks, the offense is averaging just under 23 points per game, and they’ve come up short too many times on third downs and in the red zone. Self-inflicted wounds like four turnovers against Virginia Tech and six penalties against Wake Forest are the kinds of things that will keep Cutcliffe up at night.

“I have my private moments like anybody would,” he said. “I've never gone through anything like this in my career. I've been relatively spoiled. I get over here really early Sunday. I kind of dive into the tape. Before I go to church, I get a little look at the opponent. Then I find sometimes some way, somehow, I'm going to find some peace in that morning. By Sunday afternoon, I'm generally ready to go once I see the squad. I have my mind set on what we have to do.”

And his players have picked up on that.

“We look to our head coach,” Brown said. “It’s difficult for him, obviously, more than anybody, but he turns the page so quick, because he knows it’s so vital we move on to the next team. Every week we have a great opportunity, and we have a great group of guys, too. It’s never easy to lose, especially the last couple of weeks like we lost, but we move on quickly, and we’ve done that with Miami so far.”

It’s not going to be easy to win on the road against a Miami team that is also looking to rebound from a disappointing loss. Instead of backing down, though, Duke continues to believe it can finally get over the hump.

“We’ve felt like that the last two weeks, like we’re going to seal it this week,” quarterback Sean Renfree said. “It’s certainly heartbreaking to lose the last couple of weeks like this, but I think are guys are as confident as we’ve been in the last two weeks, that we’re going to go out and get a win and there’s no way we can come home with a loss.”

What does Duke have to do in order to actually do that? Brown said the defense, which has allowed just one second-half touchdown in each of the past two games, has to bring the same level of intensity to the first half.

“It usually seems like we’re one big play away, you know?” he said. “If we could just get that one big turnover, whatever it be, we’re right there on the edge of it.”

Offensively, Renfree agreed the Blue Devils need a faster start.

“Offensively, I’m going to have to play a little bit better and we’re going to have to get off to a little bit quicker start,” Renfree said. “The last two weeks we’ve kind of come out to a slow start and we’ve been playing catch-up. We have to score in the red zone more effectively. Those are the three biggest things I see, but I think our defense has been playing lights out. If we can do those three things, we’ll have a much better chance of actually getting the W.”

Renfree said the team is as close to being where it wants to be as the scores in each of the past two weeks have indicated.

“We’re right there,” he said. “The last two weeks have been a pretty good indicator. It’s just one or two plays here or there and our record for the season could be a winning season. If we go make a couple of plays, it can turn the whole season around. We’re very confident we can get three or four more wins. It’s definitely not going to be easy, we’re playing great ACC teams, but that’s the way we want it. I know that’s the way we want it. We want to be playing the best teams in the ACC to finish off the season. It will make it that much better.”

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