It's easy to dismiss Duke for a variety of reasons, namely because we aren't playing them in basketball. Duke football hasn't made a bowl game in over fifteen years, hasn't actually won a bowl game since the time John F. Kennedy was merely president-elect, and hasn't won even a share of the ACC since the late 1980's. They have gone winless in a season three times this decade, and haven't won more than eight games in a season since the depths of the Great Depression. Given that historical haplessness, not to mention Duke's 54-48 defeat six days ago to Wake Forest, most expect that Alabama will roll over Duke without a fight.
And to a degree anyway, that's about right. Admittedly, David Cutcliffe has done literal wonders in Durham winning a combined nine games his first two seasons (don't laugh, Duke football won a combined ten games in the eight seasons prior to his arrival), but even so this is still likely a sub-.500 team expected by most to be a bottom feeder in a cupcake conference. Given the fact that Duke is seemingly incapable of stopping anyone defensively -- and I mean that quite literally after giving up 54 to Wake Forest, not to mention 27 points and 400+ yards of offense to tiny Elon in the season opener -- the Alabama offense alone ought to be able to produce enough to add this one to the win column. In that regard, this game is probably about as much of a guaranteed win as anyone could reasonably expect when playing a BCS conference opponent.
Having said that, Duke does have a formidable passing attack, and one that will present the Alabama defense a variety of challenges. David Cutcliffe has a long history of fielding good offenses, and his squad this year largely fits that mold. Duke finished in the top ten nationally a year ago in passing yards, and sophomore quarterback Sean Renfree has taken over this year without a setback. The wide receiver corps has some of the better pass catchers in the ACC, returning three wide receivers who individually had over 50 receptions each a year ago. Moreover, it's a strong team in the trenches in terms of pass protection. Four of five starters return from a line that only allowed 28 sacks a year ago on 501 passing attempts (an adjusted sack rate of 5.5%), and the line has performed even better in that regard early in 2010. Truth be told, even considering Penn State, it's likely the best passing attack we've faced to yet, and it's led by a coach who would rather air it out.
For Alabama, the early returns from the revamped defensive backfield have not been overwhelmingly encouraging. The end result, namely points allowed, has been ideal but the performances that led to that end result have not. Dre Kirkpatrick was beaten badly on two slant passes against Penn State, and had a mental error in zone coverage leading to another big play for the Nittany Lions. DeMarcus Milliner gave up a long pass and later had a hamstring injury. Robert Lester continued to mix in bad plays to go along with his great ones. DeQuan Menzie looked better than any of the newcomers, and even he made a couple of mistakes. As a whole, Penn State was able to move the ball through the air with a relatively high degree of consistency, especially considering they were playing with a true freshman quarterback, and as Saban said in his post-game, there were quite a few plays that we really didn't defend but they just didn't make.
Moving forward, there is still a lot of uncertainty as to how everything will play out in the coming weeks. The return of Marcell Dareus and the renewed health of Courtney Upshaw will help the pass rush, but it should be specifically noted that Ed Stinson played very well in Upshaw's absence, and that in any event the return of Dareus isn't just going to make all of the issues we've had on the back end magically disappear. How much of a positive impact their returns will create is still up for debate. Furthermore, Milliner continues to have lingering leg injuries and the Penn State coaching staff clearly thought he was the weak link of the cornerback rotation. Likewise, no one really knows how DeQuan Menzie will hold up in the stretch run after missing the entire off-season S&C program, and with him admittedly not being 100% even right now. And beyond those three, John Fulton looked like the fourth corner against San Jose State, but then it looked like Phelon Jones against Penn State, and regardless no one to date has produced a satisfactory explanation as to why B.J. Scott suddenly fell from second in the cornerback rotation to the very bottom of the depth chart in all of about one week in late August.
All in all, we've got a lot of issues to work through defensively, and frankly a lot of progress to make. Furthermore, given the fact that we'll have to face the toughest passing attack we'll see all season a mere eight days from now in Fayetteville, we have to make that progress in a very short period of time. To that end, consider Duke somewhat of a tune-up, but recognize that they have a solid offensive attack and one that has the potential to give us problems.
Hope for the best.