USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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The 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference preseason media poll pegged Duke for last in the Coastal Division. The Blue Devils nearly obliged, finishing a game ahead of Virginia but reaching a bowl, snapping a 17-year streak outside the postseason in the process.

Last year's preseason poll again picked David Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils to bring up the rear. So much for that: Duke won the division, notched double-digit wins, beat North Carolina, set a record for points in a season and outscored the competition for the first time since 1994, which doubles as the last time the program lost four or fewer games in a season.

Respect is coming, but only in drips. This year's poll gave Duke the most first-place votes of any team in the Coastal but handed the preseason crown to Miami (Fla.), which hasn't won a single piece of conference hardware since its high-profile leap to the ACC in 2005. Duke, the reigning divisional title-holder, came in second.

The Blue Devils should enjoy this while they can; at this rate, the program won't have much longer to play the respect card – or the disrespect card, depending on your point of view.

"As I look at preseason votes, you know who I'm happy for are former players because I think it's meaningless to this team," Cutcliffe said at ACC Media Days in July. "The 2014 team has got to go prove itself. But I think the significance is all of these young men that have come through there since we've been there that have played such a big role in every year getting better and working as hard.

"So I know in my heart how proud those guys are of the fact that they helped move this to the point where we could be picked second. You're kidding? The only difference last year, I told people being in a 12‑team league as in a 14‑team league is we were picked seventh instead of sixth. Now, we've got to handle a different role."

Another banner season will take that role a step further: Duke would become the hunted, not the hunter – if not a preseason favorite.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

I'll hedge my bets by saying Duke's schedule is sweet enough to reach bowl eligibility. I'll double this by saying that if the offense is better than expected, the Blue Devils have enough weapons to match last season's production against ACC competition. Will it be enough? One thing: Duke is no longer a clear write-in candidate for last place in the Coastal Division. The Blue Devils still have the potential for six wins.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: The program's finest season in generations. Duke won the Coastal Division, earned a national ranking, set a ecord for wins in a season and nearly claimed its first bowl win since 1961 – coming very close to knocking off Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, in fact, before running off the rails in the fourth quarter. What transpired from the first quarter against North Carolina Central and the fourth quarter against the Aggies is what will be remembered: Duke put on a show for the ages, relatively speaking, and entered the offseason painted not just as a flash-in-the-pan success story but a team and program built to last – that's the hope, at least. If true, this breakthrough was a long time coming.

High point: Beating North Carolina to end the regular season. Beyond the fact that it was, you know, UNC, the victory sealed the Coastal Division.

Low point: An avoidable loss to Pittsburgh in September. Same old Duke, you might say, and then stand corrected.

Tidbit: A few firsts of note: Duke won more than nine games for the first time in program history; beat a ranked opponent on the road, Virginia Tech, for the first time since 1971; beat a ranked team, period, for the first time since 1994; beat two ranked teams in the same season for the first time since 1971; went undefeated in true road games for the first time since 1962; won eight games in a row for the first time since 1941; and won four games when tied or trailing in the fourth quarter, a program first.

Tidbit (10-win edition): With Duke now a member of the double-digit-win club, only nine programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision – not counting newcomers South Alabama, UTSA and Georgia State – have failed to win at least 10 games in a single season: Buffalo, Florida International, Indiana, Iowa State, Louisiana-Lafayette, South Florida, Vanderbilt, Western Michigan and UAB.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

FBS coaches, last name starts K-

1. Brian Kelly
2. Frank Kush
3. Chip Kelly
4. Roy Kramer
5. Jerry Kill

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: The Blue Devils blend the run and pass as well as any team in the ACC, if to a slightly less explosive degree than, say, Florida State and Clemson – two of the nation's most prolific when it comes to offensive balance. Lost in the shuffle of a slight change at quarterback is a crucial personnel development: Duke needs to replace two of the most experienced, battle-tested and awarded linemen in school history in right tackle Perry Simmons and left guard Dave Harding. On the flip side, however, the Blue Devils do return three starters: Takoby Cofield at left tackle, Laken Tomlinson at right guard and center Matt Skura. That's the foundation, and it's a good start. There's even a solid answer in place at left guard, where junior Lucas Patrick seems up to the task, though the tackle battle between sophomores Tanner Stone and Casey Blaser – as well as redshirt freshman Sterling Korona, perhaps – is a little unsettling. That competition will draw eyeballs, but the line really comes to one factor: Cofield on the blind side. While Tomlinson is a clear-cut All-ACC pick, the Blue Devils' blind side could use a similar degree of consistent production.

Cofield will be tasked with protecting senior Anthony Boone, the one cog in last year's quarterback rotation still in the fold – with Brandon Connette off to Fresno State, taking with him a vital piece of the offensive puzzle. That's an issue, yeah, but let's remember that Boone does one thing better than any quarterback in program history: win. He's 10-2 as the Blue Devils' starter, including 7-0 in league play, having started one game as a sophomore and all but three a season ago, due to injury; a healthy Boone gives Duke a chance, if not an advantage, and he brings into his senior season experience, confidence and a degree of proven production matched by only one other quarterback in the ACC – that guy in Tallahassee.

Not that it's all sunshine: Boone still needs to trim his interceptions and be unafraid to deliver downfield, not to mention provide the Blue Devils a least a slice of Connette's lost production. He'll get some help in the latter area from sophomore Thomas Sirk, a gifted athlete who could fill a void if fully recovered from last year's Achilles injury. But this is Boone's offense, if not his entire team, meaning Cutcliffe and his new offensive coordinator, Scottie Montgomery, must try to mix a today-focused mindset – because every year is precious – with preparing a younger slice of the two-deep for a competition next spring.

It's hard not to like what Duke brings to the table in the passing game. There's this guy, of course: Jamison Crowder (108 receptions for 1,360 yards) is the latest lucky receiver to shatter records in Cutcliffe's pass-happy season, along with the next Duke receiver to battle for All-American accolades. Although Brandon Braxton is gone, Crowder's return, along with a healthy influx of underclassmen talent, figured to make this entire corps one of the three strongest in the ACC. But then the Blue Devils lost their top secondary option in tight end Braxton Deaver (46 for 600), a presumptive second all-league lock who torn his right ACL on Aug. 18. The Blue Devils will replace Braxton in the slot with junior Max McCaffrey (26 for 298), who's steady, and push senior Isaac Blakeney (19 for 244) to the outside, where his size could be a useful tool. I also think the second tier of sophomores Johnell Barnes and Ryan Smith and true freshman Trevon Lee could really help stretch the field, which would be huge for Boone's production. This group is very solid.

Defense: There's some star power lost, for sure, but one positive of note: Duke is heavy on seniors and experienced juniors along the defensive line, meaning the decline from last year's starting cast – ends Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx are gone, as is tackle Sydney Sarmiento – might not be as severe as projected. Though the makeup of the starting quartet shouldn't be decided until longer into August, look for five seniors in the two-deep, including three of the Blue Devils' four ends. I'd bank on seniors Dezmond Johnson and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo getting the starting nod, with the latter seemingly set for a very productive turn as a full-time starter; in terms of wildcards, I think senior Jonathan Jones and junior Kyler Brown, a converted linebacker, could be useful in certain packages. Despite losing Sarmiento, I think this line should improve against the run: Jamal Bruce is fine at the point of attack, Carlos Wray is a potential disruptor, A.J. Wolf has played some key snaps in reserve and Duke has an impressive young core of linemen even if both true freshmen wear a redshirt as rookies – essentially, the Blue Devils' interior might have depth unmatched during Cutcliffe's tenure. The issue up front is the pass rush.

The Blue Devils' 4-2-5 set took a major hit with Kelby Brown's season-ending ACL tear, the second of his career. This robs Duke of not just one of the ACC's best linebackers but one of the undisputed leaders of the entire defense; Brown's on-field impact will be impossible to replace, clearly, and the knee injury robs Duke of a much-needed penetrating presence inside the box. Duke must now spend the next two-plus weeks eyeballing his potential replacement, a search that should begin with junior Deion Williams but should include senior C.J. France and a handful of underclassmen, including redshirt freshmen Dominic McDonald and Chris Holmes. The latter is set to spend his first season behind weak side linebacker David Helton (133 tackles), himself a likely all-league selection and the new leader of the front six – but a starter who doesn't match Brown's disruptive impact.

The secondary will sink or swim based on the production of two new starters, both sophomores: Bryon Fields and Breon Borders – true sophomores, by the way – will be asked to step in at cornerback as Duke's replacements for Ross Cockrell and Garett Patterson. On paper, this seems questionable; in reality, however, Fields and Borders were significant and irreplaceable parts of last year's defense – hugely productive and supremely reliable despite the youth – and, as such, prepared for a step into the starting lineup. Besides, don't be surprised if Duke uses sophomore DeVon Edwards (64 tackles, 3 interceptions) in a Cockrell-like role, shuffling the gifted second-year starter between all five positions – including cornerback. But Edwards will spend most of his time along the back end of the 4-2-5, sharing space with sophomore Deondre Singleton (63 tackles) and junior Jeremy Cash (121 tackles, 4 interceptions). Cash is an All-American. Here's the story: Duke is more talented and athletic in the secondary than ever before. Young? Yeah, that too. But this group is going to surprise some people.

Special teams: Duke's surge came about despite uneven seasons from senior punter Will Monday and junior kicker Ross Martin, a pair of likely all-conference picks who excelled in 2012 but took a slight step back a year ago. Last season smells like an aberration, in my mind; both are excellent when locked in, with Monday a potential All-American. Between these specialists and the return pair of Crowder and Edwards, the Blue Devils' special teams ranks among the best in the ACC – and may very well again mean the difference in those single-possession games.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Running back: Last year's four-back rotation has been cut in half: Juwan Thompson has graduated and Jela Duncan, a would-be junior, will miss the entire season due to academic issues. Whether the Blue Devils augment this two-headed backfield by the heart of ACC play will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the early season, particularly given Cutcliffe's emphasis on creating a more effective running game. For now, two will lead the charge: Shaq Powell (344 yards) might have a slight leg up, based on the early two-deep and his performance in August, but it's only fair to view Powell and Josh Snead (651 yards) as co-starters in the Blue Devils' attack. They play well off each other, with Powell the prototypical bell-cow and Snead the speedster, and could conceivably do the lion's share of heavy lifting if healthy. But remember that Duke must replace Connette's close-quarters production – short-yardage situations, on third down, near the goal line – and can't afford to miss a beat in those must-have scoring scenarios so vital to last year's breakthrough. That's my biggest concern on the ground: Whether Duke can find another answer in a wildcard role. In the traditional running game, however, I think Snead and Powell will deliver.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

North Carolina: I feel very confident in predicting the Coastal will come down to one of seven teams. Trimming it down further, I can suggest with slightly less confidence that the division will come down to the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in November, this time at Duke. The conference schedule gives and takes: Duke hosts the Heels and Virginia Tech but must take on Georgia Tech – last year's ugliest regular-season loss – and Miami (Fla.) on the road. In general, however, and considering the Blue Devils miss Florida State and Clemson, it's a kind slate.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: There are three tiers in the ACC: Florida State, Clemson and everyone else. Duke strikes me as the best of the rest, those teams fighting for double-digit wins beyond the dominant Seminoles and just-slightly-less-dominant Tigers; not perfect – not by a long shot – but balanced, the Blue Devils should be viewed as the preseason favorite to defend last year's divisional title and one of five or six ACC teams capable of claiming an end-of-year national ranking. Whether the Blue Devils can take another step forward hinges on how well this specific team handles the items on its to-do list heading into the opener.

The Blue Devils need to find some replacement for Connette in the running game – and not a match, necessarily, but some sort of wildcard option to augment the traditional rushing attack. Duke must get solid play at right tackle. The defensive line is stronger along the interior than at first blush, I'd say, but the pass rush remains unproven. The biggest issue defensively: Duke's front lacks disruptiveness. That's not a concern against middling opposition – most of this schedule, by the way – but Duke's defense needs that help from the front six to handle high-quality competition. Against the cream of the crop, the Blue Devils' defense would need to fight like a pod of dolphins fending off a shark; it'd take a team effort, basically, and anything less might mean the last straw for Duke's hopes of achieving more than just a divisional title.

This schedule will keep Duke from falling victim to any weaknesses. It's smooth: Elon, Troy, Kansas and Tulane come in non-conference play and Virginia Tech and UNC at home, for example. The early-season stretch in particular is built for a team still working out the kinks on defense – though I'd be remiss not to mention the secondary, which I think could be a real strength. In general, the Blue Devils' combination of experience, confidence, young talent and schedule keeps this team in the mix for a national ranking and the early favorite in the Coastal, two achievements that if realized would point to a simple fact: Duke isn't going anywhere.

Dream season: Duke goes 11-1, losing only to Virginia Tech, and defends its Coastal Division title.

Nightmare season: The Blue Devils slide to six wins and a fifth-place finish in the division.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 23? This team's coach shares his last name with a Berlin-born musician who provided the soundtrack for a 2002 film that grossed less than $5 million domestically.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1

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