Both Duke and Charlotte will be looking to rebound from disappointing results in 2020 when the two teams square off in the Queen City on Friday night. The Blue Devils’ two wins last season were the fewest in the David Cutcliffe era and the lowest total since the 1-11 2007 team.
But one of the two wins came against Charlotte. After leading the 49ers to their first-ever bowl game in 2019, Will Healy could not replicate that in his second season. His squad was limited to only six games, and they won just two. By combining a few impact transfers with some key returning pieces, Healy hopes for better things this fall.
Duke at Charlotte
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Duke -6.5
When Duke Has the Ball
Duke had many issues in 2020, but turnovers were by far the biggest problem. Their 39 giveaways were the worst in America, 14 more than next-to-last Georgia Tech. In fact, in the past 10 years, only the 2017 San Jose State Spartans turned the ball over more times.
While not the only cause, quarterback Chase Brice’s 15 interceptions and seven fumbles were the primary factors in the ugly turnover department. Brice is now at Appalachian State, and Gunnar Holmberg will take the reins. In his limited time last year, Holmberg threw two picks of his own without a touchdown. He will have some solid targets in Jake Bobo, Eli Pancol, and Jalon Calhoun, but Duke should be fueled by a ground game featuring Mataeo Durant running behind a fairly experienced offensive line.
Charlotte allowed 214 rushing yards per game last season, but the defensive front has a different look. Three graduate transfers will battle for time on the interior of the defensive line, while defensive end Kofi Wardlow comes in from Notre Dame. Kansas State transfer Jon Alexander will bolster the secondary, and defensive end Markees Watts' return to health could make a major difference.
When Charlotte Has the Ball
Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds should be fully healthy after battling through a shoulder injury last fall. In 25 career games, he has thrown 36 touchdowns against 15 interceptions. He is fortunate to have one of Conference USA’s best receivers on his side. Victor Tucker is the school’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns.
The 49ers will lean heavily on that combination as the running game is a bit of a mystery. Iowa transfer Shadrick Byrd will be the starter as the team has to replace their top two rushers from 2020. Three starters do return along the offensive line, with left tackle D’Mitri Emmanuel being the best of the bunch.
The Duke defense that will try to stop the 49ers offense will feature several new faces up front. Ends Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II combined for 39 sacks in their careers, and they are no longer in Durham. Tackle Ben Frye is moving outside, leaving the remaining line positions in the hands of some very inexperienced players. The back end of the Duke defense should be okay, with leading tackler Shaka Heyward contending for all-league honors. This unit also forced 20 turnovers in 2020, which was good for 13th in the nation.
The fact that Duke was 13th in the nation in forcing turnovers but still easily the worst in the country in turnover margin tells you everything about the 2020 Duke offense. At times, they moved the ball effectively, only to give it away time after time. Interestingly, as good a coach as David Cutcliffe is, Duke has not held a positive turnover margin since 2014. Whether that changes over the course of the entire season, one can only guess. But on opening day, the Devils will secure the ball and rely on Durant and the offensive line. Reynolds and Tucker will make some plays to keep the game close, but Holmberg will do enough to complement Durant, and the Duke special teams, with kicker Charlie Ham and punter Porter Wilson leading the way, will make a mark. It won’t be easy, but Duke will start the year 1-0.
Prediction: Duke 30, Charlotte 24
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.