Minnesota and Duke are two of the biggest surprise teams in college football this season. The Golden Gophers and Blue Devils are 6-2 after eight games, and both teams are expected to play in a bowl for the second straight season.
Despite the absence of coach Jerry Kill on the sidelines, Minnesota has scored impressive wins over Northwestern and Nebraska. At 2-2 in Big Ten play, the Golden Gophers are a longshot, but still alive in the Big Ten Legends Division.
Duke scored its first win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last Saturday, giving the Blue Devils a four-game winning streak headed into the bye week.
Under coach David Cutcliffe, Duke has made progress each season and has an outside chance at winning the Coastal Division, especially with a matchup against Miami still remaining in November.
Minnesota or Duke: Which team is the bigger surprise at 6-2?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Both teams have been a great story this season, but I have to go with Duke. The Blue Devils have made steady improvement under coach David Cutcliffe and are likely to make back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. Although Duke made a bowl last season, the combined win total of the Blue Devils’ five victories over BCS teams was just 24-36. Duke also closed out the season by losing five consecutive games, including three defeats by 18 points or more. Minnesota also finished 6-7 last year, but I thought the Golden Gophers were in better shape in terms of overall personnel. Quarterback Philip Nelson and six starters returned from a defense that ranked fifth in the Big Ten in fewest yards allowed. Considering both teams have already matched their win total from last year, 2013 is already a huge success for both Minnesota and Duke. And with one month to go in the season, the Golden Gophers and Blue Devils have a chance at eight victories this year.
Before the season started, Athlon picked Duke to finish 5-7 with a 2-6 mark in the ACC. The Blue Devils (6-2, 2-2 ACC) have already surpassed that win total and are guaranteed of a second straight bowl game under David Cutcliffe, which is a first in program history. This season's team is statistically better than the 2012 6-7 squad across the board, but the improvement is visibly apparent on the defensive side. Last season, the defense finished 101st or worse in the nation in all four of the major categories — total, scoring, rushing and passing. This season, Duke is among the top 40 teams nationally in both points allowed and passing defense, and its lowest ranking in the four major categories is 69th in rushing defense. In 2012, the Blue Devils allowed nearly 470 yards and more than 36 points per game. This fall, those numbers have dropped to 384 yards and less than 23 points per contest. Cutcliffe is known more as an offensive-minded coach, highlighted by his close ties to Peyton and Eli Manning, but this season's Duke's team is well-rounded and getting the job done on both sides of the ball. The last time the Blue Devils won seven or more games in a season was nearly 20 years ago when Fred Goldsmith went 8-4. That also was the last time Duke went bowling, until last season. The Blue Devils are going bowling again in 2103 and still have four games to play before they find out where. Well done, Coach Cut.
Any time Duke is bowl eligible before November, it’s a surprise. Certainly, Minnesota is a surprise given the adversity of the season with Jerry Kill’s absence and changing quarterbacks. But I think we expected Minnesota to have the personnel and defense to take the next step in the third year in Kill’s system. On the other hand, Duke is bowl eligible with half of those wins coming on the road. True, Memphis and Virginia aren’t very good, but Duke in the past would lose games like that. More than that, Duke is winning with a new quarterback who replaced Sean Renfree. Generally, you’d pick against a team starting like Duke replacing a productive veteran with not just one QB, but two (Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone). The biggest turnaround, though, is the defense. The defense kept Duke from winning more than six games a year ago. In 2013, though, the Blue Devils are holding opponents to 86 fewer yards per game than a year ago. That improvement gave Duke the edge against Virginia Tech and means Duke could win seven, eight or nine games during the regular season.