DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Duke took a big step forward last year and the Blue Devils want to keep moving in that direction.
Coach David Cutcliffe's team opens the season Saturday against Championship Division opponent North Carolina Central looking to build on its first six-win season since 1994.
New quarterback Anthony Boone says these Blue Devils are playing at a higher level than they did before last season, when they contended for an ACC Coastal Division title and reached the Belk Bowl.
"I saw how we practiced last year ... and right now we're at a higher level than we were last year, and I think we've really bought into what we want," Boone said. "We have a lot of guys from that team last year that won six games, so they kind of know what it takes to go out, compete and win games, and that's just going to take us to a higher level."
Not often has Duke been able to boast of having experience at winning games. While some key playmakers are gone from last year's group — including three-year starting QB Sean Renfree and ACC record-holding receiver Conner Vernon — these Blue Devils return enough starters to make a return to the postseason a realistic possibility.
But nothing could undercut that momentum quite like another loss to an FCS team — especially one from across town that has only in its third year of full membership in Division I.
Duke has three FCS losses since 2006 — all to Richmond — but has won the two previous meetings with the Eagles by a combined score of 103-31.
"We have to get our guys going the way we want them to play, at a high level, and be concerned with what we do in terms of eliminating mistakes and playing fast and focusing on what we can control throughout the game," interim Central coach Dwayne Foster said.
Five things to watch heading into the N.C. Central-Duke matchup that's been billed as the Bull City Gridiron Classic:
DUKE'S NEW OFFENSE: In keeping with a national trend, the Blue Devils are incorporating elements of the zone-read option into their offense in an attempt to take advantage of Boone's playmaking mobility and a deep backfield — a luxury Duke hasn't had in a long while. Of course, Boone also will throw it plenty — in the only other previous start, he threw four touchdown passes last year in a 42-17 romp over Virginia.