Looking forward to real, live football, NoleNation takes a run through Florida State’s 2012 schedule, going game-by-game to find the best storylines and matchups of the upcoming season.
Duke Blue Devils
Saturday, Oct. 27: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee
2011 record: 3-9 (1-7). After an embarrassing opening-week loss to FCS opponent Richmond, the Blue Devils responded by winning three straight games in late September and early October to push their record above .500. Then the bottom fell out, and Duke dropped seven straight in ACC play to close out the year, including a 41-16 thrashing at the hands of FSU.
Coach: David Cutcliffe (15-33, fifth season)
Series record: 18th meeting, FSU leads 17-0.
Players to watch: Sean Renfree (QB, Sr.) threw for 2,891 yards and 14 touchdowns while adding four more scores on the ground in 2011; Conner Vernon (WR, Sr.) had 70 catches for 956 yards and six touchdowns last season and could set the ACC career record for receiving this season; Juwan Thompson (RB, Jr.) had 639 total yards of offense and eight touchdowns in 2011; Kelby Brown (LB, Jr.) had 65 tackles last season, including seven for a loss; Ross Cockrell (CB, Jr.) had 56 tackles and an interception last season.
Virginia Tech looming. There's a distinct possibility FSU will be undefeated entering this game, and the Seminoles have never lost to Duke. That sets up the likely scenario of simply needing to beat the Blue Devils yet again before heading to Blacksburg, Va., for the season's biggest game, a Thursday night showdown against Virginia Tech. Of course, with all the hype that surrounds the Virginia Tech game, it will be awfully easy to overlook Duke, which brings back a decent amount of talent this season.
Staying healthy. Continuing the theme of looking ahead, most FSU fans will likely chalk this game up as a win already, but there will still be plenty of concern about ensuring the Seminoles come out of the game as healthy as possible. Last season, defensive tackle Jaccobi McDaniel suffered a season-ending injury against Duke, adding yet another injury to an already overcrowded trainer's room for the Seminoles. This season, the Duke game precedes a bye week, which should allow FSU to get rested and healthy in time for the showdown with Virginia Tech -- that is, unless another key player goes down against the Blue Devils.
Can Duke keep it close? By the time this game actually arrives, there will likely be far less talk about Duke and far more about the Hokies. But the truth is, this may be Duke's best team in years. David Cutcliffe has a history of churning out strong offensive teams, and the Blue Devils have a bevy of talent on that side of the ball -- led by veterans Renfree and Vernon and the return of running back Josh Snead, who missed all of last season with a toe injury. There's no doubt FSU will be heavily favored to win. In fact, a Duke victory would rank as one of the biggest upsets in school history. But there's a decent chance this game won't be quite the pushover most FSU fans are expecting.
Fun fact: Duke has played in just two bowl games since 1961, a loss to Texas Tech in the 1989 All American Bowl and a loss to Wisconsin in the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl.
Key matchup: Duke ground game vs. FSU's front four. Renfree might not be the best QB Florida State will face this year, but he's experienced and he has weapons at his disposal. Even in last year's thumping by the Seminoles, Renfree still threw for 226 yards -- nearly matching EJ Manuel's totals in the process. The difference was the ground games, where FSU rushed for 242 yards, including 62 and two touchdowns by Manuel, while Duke's banged-up backfield mustered just 63. The Blue Devils have more depth there this season, and their O line has improved -- but they're going to need to be a lot better to find holes against the Seminoles' fearsome D line.
Duke will win if: It gets awfully lucky. Yes, the Blue Devils have the offensive firepower to put up some points against FSU -- particularly with their veteran passing game. But odds are, Duke isn't looking to get into a shootout either. What needs to happen for Duke to pull off the historic upset is for a number of bounces to go its way. A couple of turnovers at the right time and a special-teams touchdown would at least make a victory possible.
Noles will win if: They keep at least one eye focused on Duke rather than completely looking ahead to Virginia Tech. There's a reason the Blue Devils have never beaten FSU, even during the Seminoles' lean years, so it'll be easy to shrug this one off and assume the battle in Blacksburg is all that matters. Odds are, even if FSU does that, they'll still win. But getting off to a slow start, falling behind early and being forced to chuck the ball to catch up would be playing right into Duke's hands. The key here is to put the dagger through Duke's heart in the first half, then worry about prepping for Virginia Tech with the cushion of a three- or four-touchdown lead in the second half.