Duke and coach Mike Elko sees big opportunity in opener vs. No. 9 Clemson, the ACC's perennial power


Duke coach Mike Elko sees the opener with No. 9 Clemson as a chance. But not an easy one.

The Blue Devils are coming off a surprising 9-4 season in Elko's first year and are looking for more, starting with Monday night's season opener at home to wrap up a marathon Week 1 in college football. Beating a top 10 opponent, the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion and favorite to win another this year would a great start.

“They've accomplished as much as any ACC program has since the ACC has come together like this,” Elko said. “To get them in the opener, I think is an opportunity for our program. But it's also a huge challenge.”

Elko understands the Tigers, 11-3 last season, have skilled, capable players on both sides of the ball. Will Shipley is an all-ACC tailback while Cade Klubnik, who rallied the Tigers to their seventh ACC crown in eight year, opens his first full season as starting quarterback.

The defense features potential All-Americans like Jeremiah Trotter Jr. at linebacker and Tyler Davis at defensive tackle.

All of them are anxious and motivated to get Clemson back in the College Football Playoff.

“We'll be up for it,” Elko promised. “We'll go out and play our best football next Monday and kind of see where it goes.”

Duke has eight offensive and defensive starters back, led by quarterback Riley Leonard after his successful run as the fulltime starter.

Clemson is excited to get going as well. Davis, the fifth-year tackle, said he and older linemates like defensive ends Xavier Thomas and Justin Mascoll chose to return instead of turning pro because of the championship potential they saw in the Tigers.

“Why not just go and have one of the best defense and go win a natty?” Davis said.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney reminded his players this summer that the team's last national title came in 2018 and no one on this roster has celebrated one. Facing Duke will be a test for the Tigers, too.

“So it’s going to be a heck of a game, heck of a matchup, and national stage to go compete,” Swinney said.

Duke has lost 28 straight matchups against teams in the top 10 of The Associated Press college football poll. The last win came when the Steve Spurrier-coached Blue Devils beat then-No. 7 Clemson in September 1989 on the way to the ACC title.

New Clemson offensive coordinator Garrett Riley says Klubnik has a fostered a team-wide love of watching lots and lots of game tape.

Riley said studying film is a trait shared by all great players, and Klubnik has long been a fan of film. So much so that he's led sessions with all the team's quarterbacks.

“Now, all of sudden, other position groups are doing it, and they're doing it together,” Riley said. “And it's not us coaches having to be in there.”

No one was certain exactly what to expect from Leonard as he entered last season with one career start. The expectations are much higher for the Duke QB this fall. Leonard threw for 20 touchdowns while running for 13 more. He also completed nearly two-thirds of his passes while throwing just six interceptions for a team that ranked among the nation’s best by committing only 10 turnovers all season.

The ACC’s cross-divisional scheduling rotation didn’t create many matchups between Duke and Clemson for years, so this will mark the Tigers’ first visit to Durham since 2012. Duke hasn’t beaten Clemson since 2004, taking a 16-13 win on Matt Brooks’ 53-yard field goal as time expired.

Swinney enters the season with 161 victories since becoming interim Clemson coach midway in 2008. That leaves him just four away from matching the late Frank Howard — Howard's Rock sound familiar? — for most in program history. Howard was coach at Clemson for 30 seasons from 1940-69, winning six ACC titles during that time.