Duke looks to build on momentum of 1st bowl win since 1961

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) One by one over the past few years, Duke has taken care of nearly every item on its program-building checklist.

The Blue Devils have posted three straight winning seasons. They've won an Atlantic Coast Conference divisional championship and played for a league title. They've reached four straight bowls, finally winning one.

Now Duke wants to take yet another step forward and win a conference title.

That will be a big challenge in a league that has two College Football Playoff contenders in Clemson and Florida State, but it's another sign of progress that the Blue Devils' goal can't be summarily dismissed.

''We have high expectations, which is a good thing when it comes to Duke football,'' coach David Cutcliffe said, ''and we know they have set their sights high.''

Bowls have become an every-year thing at Duke. Nobody on this year's roster knows what it's like to miss the postseason. That's a 180-degree turn from the late 1990s and 2000s, when the Blue Devils went 17 years between bowl appearances and went winless four times in that span.

Duke is coming off its first bowl victory since 1961, an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl, and the Blue Devils say ending a year with a win kept them hungry for more during the offseason.

''We love having that trophy. We love having the rings from that bowl game,'' quarterback Thomas Sirk said. ''We want to win another bowl game. We want to win an ACC championship and ultimately play in the College Football Playoff.''

Other things to watch for this season from Duke:

SIRK'S WORK

Sirk hopes to be ready for the opener Sept. 3 against North Carolina Central after rupturing his left Achilles tendon during a conditioning workout in February. Sirk missed the 2013 season after rupturing his right Achilles, and that familiarity with the comeback process has made this rehab easier. He was listed as the starter on the preseason depth chart. Sirk - a dual-threat QB who led the team in rushing last season and was co-MVP of the Pinstripe Bowl victory - says he won't alter his style: ''I don't think it's going to change who I am,'' he said.

GROUND GAME

Duke ranked fifth in the ACC in rushing last season, and needs more from its stable of experienced running backs, none of whom averaged more than 46 yards in 2015. Cutcliffe says that starts up front with three starters back on an offensive line that he says could be the ''biggest, most physical offensive line we'd had.'' He says the goal is to develop a power-running game that's less dependent on zone blocking and finesse.

KEY GAMES

Two losses from 2015 haunt the Blue Devils: a 30-27 loss to Miami that led to a complete overhaul of the league's instant replay system after numerous officiating errors were noted on the Hurricanes' game-ending kickoff return for a touchdown, and the embarrassing 66-31 loss to rival North Carolina the following week. Duke faces the Tar Heels on Thursday night, Nov. 10, and ends the season at Miami on Nov. 28.

SEASON OPENER

Duke opens with crosstown opponent N.C. Central on Sept. 3, and the school will unveil the second phase of construction at remodeled Wallace Wade Stadium - the crown jewel of which will be the five-story, 90,000-square-foot tower of boxes and luxury suites that replaced the sports medicine building that used to double as the press box.

PREDICTION

Win 7, Lose 5.

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