Duke Head coach David Cutcliffe said it best during his press conference on Tuesday: Season openers are important. In season openers since taking over in Durham, Cutcliffe's teams are 2-2 in the first game of the year and those have all come against FCS level teams. The two loses both came against the Richmond Spiders including last year's opening loss.
When Duke kicks off the 2012 season Saturday at 7 p.m., they will do it not only against an FBS school for the first time in the Cutcliffe era, they will do so against a very good team in Florida International.
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The Golden Panthers are a team that has played in two consecutive bowl games and their head coach, Mario Cristobal, is seen as an up and coming star in the world of college football having essentially made Florida International a respectable team.
FIU will come into the game with a lot to prove and an axe to grind. The Blue Devils upended the Golden Panthers last season in a homecoming of sorts for Miami natives Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner.
Varner is gone but Vernon wants to make sure that he defends his home turf as well as he helped Duke take control of his old stopping grounds last season.
Last years game was a thriller with Florida International taking a quick lead before the game went into halftime 17 apiece. The Golden Panthers would reclaim the lead in the third and had a 10 point lead in the fourth, but Duke scored 14 unanswered points that helped them pull out a 31-27 victory.
Expect FIU to want to avenge that lost while Duke is hoping to avoid more opening game troubles like those that have plagued them over past years, including last season.
This is by no means an easy contest, and Cutcliffe went as far as calling it the toughest opener for any ACC team this season.
The Golden Panthers are the pre season favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference and received votes in the pre season Top 25 poll.
But FIU is not unbeatable. They are having to replace a few of their most talented players including starting quarterback Wesley Carroll who threw for 348 yards and 3 touchdowns in last years game.
Also gone is TY Hilton, the explosive wide receiver who caught five passes for 102 yards and a touchdown against Duke last year. Still, the Golden Panthers are very good and with new quarterback Jake Medlock, expect them to continue to play an up tempo style.
The FIU defense, especially the defensive line may also be one of the biggest challenges for Duke as they can play up to 10 guys which means they are deep and skilled up front, which could make the Blue Devils attempts at running the ball difficult.
But the secondary is no joke either with senior Safety Jonathan Cyprien who is one of the Panther's all-time great tacklers.
The Blue Devils will obviously counter with a veteran and skilled offensive line and if quarterback Sean Renfree, who threw for 335 yards and two touchdown of his own last year against FIU, can get the Duke offense moving early it could be a high scoring game.
The key to this game very well may be Duke defense's ability to stop the FIU offense. The Blue Devils are beat up on defense and will be without at least four projected starters including nose guard Jamal Bruce, defensive end Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo, linebacker Kelby Brown, and safety Jordon Byas.
Dewalt-Ondijo who missed all of spring practice and most of training camp has been practicing more but won't be ready to play. He had a sack and forced a fumble in last year's game that lead to the game winning touchdown. It hasn't been announced if linebacker David Helton (concussion) will be available.
Duke is looking at only having 11 scholarship players not dressed out for the home opener, something that Cutcliffe has said he has never had to deal with before in his 31 years as a college football coach.
Cutcliffe did say he is excited about his team and the skill level they are putting out there despite the injuries. He said that nine true freshman would be getting game action and that it will be key to help keep them hydrated and calm heading into their first college game.
The first game is always big, but it is extremely important for the Blue Devil's confidence heading into a season when some, including ESPN as well as Sport Illustrated, are projecting that Duke will reach a bowl game, though ESPN ACC Blogger Heather Dinich is predicting the Blue Devils to lose against FIU.
Bowl games aside, Duke and its fans had better simply focus on FIU and nothing more. A loss means a huge blow to the bowl hopes, but more importantly another blow to the fragile confidence of a program that is heading in the right direction but is desperate for on-field success.
The game will not be easy and Duke is going to have to prove they can execute to knock off a very good Florida International Team.
Duke 23- FIU 20
I am going against my gut here and predicting a Duke victory in a relatively low scoring game. The Blue Devils are favored in Vegas for the time being but this game is at best a push and at worst the Golden Panthers easily could be favored.
Given the fact that FIU is breaking in a new quarterback I am thinking they might not be able to exploit Duke as bad defensively.
In the end I think it will be Duke's improved kicking game that could prove to be the difference. Going against a veteran defense, the Blue Devils offense, which is attempting to work in a lot of new parts given all the injuries, may find it hard to score points.
Freshman kicker Ross Martin has been impressive in practice and I suspect he will have a major impact on this game. If Duke is going to win though they have to get the ball in the redzone and if they can't capitalize and put the ball in the endzone, look for Martin to get Duke on the board and in the win column with his leg.
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