- Time and date: Saturday, December 23 at 12:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ABC
- Location: Protective Stadium — Birmingham, AL
- Spread: Troy (-7)
- Over/under: 44.5
- All-time series: Duke leads, 2-0
- Last meeting: Duke 34, Troy 17 — September 6, 2014
- Current streak: Duke, 2 (2013-14)
- Troy last bowl: 2022 Cure Bowl, 18-12 win over UTSA
- Duke last bowl: 2022 Military Bowl, 30-13 win over UCF
- 2022 Birmingham Bowl matchup: Toledo 21, Liberty 19
Setting the scene
Only two syllables and eight letters are needed to spell out this year’s Birmingham Bowl participants of Troy and Duke.
It’s the first Sun Belt vs. ACC bowl matchup in history, and the matchup takes place less than 150 miles north of Troy’s campus within the state of Alabama.
Troy and Duke meet for the first time since 2014, and both sides are operating with interim coaches. Tulane hired Jon Sumrall earlier in December after he led the Trojans to back-to-back Sun Belt titles and double-digit win seasons in just two years at the helm. Texas A&M hired Mike Elko in late November after registering 16 wins in his first two years at Duke, including a 2022 Military Bowl victory.
That leaves defensive coordinator Greg Gasparato as Troy’s interim and running backs coach Trooper Traylor as Duke’s interim in a high-stakes clash between shorthanded staffs. The 17th annual Birmingham Bowl serves as the opener of a stacked 7-game Saturday slate on the final weekend before Christmas. It’s the first appearance in this bowl for both Duke and Troy.
Troy Trojans outlook
Jon Sumrall accepted a head coaching gig at Tulane, but in two years running Troy’s program, he turned the Trojans into a Sun Belt dynasty. Troy captured its second consecutive Sun Belt title in a 49-23 domination of Appalachian State and enters this matchup sporting an 11-2 record, riding a 10-game win streak.
With an 11th straight victory, the Trojans in all likelihood finished ranked in the final AP Poll for the second-straight year and second time in program history. Sumrall led Troy to an 18-12 Cure Bowl victory over a ranked UTSA team last December, but this time, Greg Gasparato leads a Troy team seeking its first ACC victory of all-time.
Troy, gunning for its 24th win over the last two seasons, transformed into a Sun Belt power by means of dominant defensive play. For the second year in a row, the Trojans exhibit a top 10 scoring defense, letting up 17.2 points per game. The unit thrives on a multidimensional basis, succeeding against the pass with the 32nd ranked aerial defense and stifling the run to 103.5 yards per game, or 3.1 yards per carry — good for 15th nationally.
The leader of the unit is the nation’s sack leader. Edge rusher Javon Solomon accumulated 16.0 sacks on the year, and he enters this matchup fresh off of a Sun Belt Championship Game performance where he totaled two sacks, forced two fumbles, and recovered one fumble. Solomon has 10 sacks in the last four games alone, and he’ll be off to the waters of the NFL after this final game with Troy.
Troy’s elite defense warranted two other First Team All-Sun Belt selections — Richard Jibunor and Reddy Stewart. Complementing Solomon on the defensive line is Jibunor, who totaled 9.0 sacks and 16 tackles for loss from the other defensive end spot. The lethal combination of Solomon and Jibunor catapulted Troy into fifth nationally in sacks per game and seventh in tackles for loss, and opposing offensive lines typically struggle with this front. That creates a symbiotic relationship with the secondary, where cornerback Reddy Steward resides. Steward picked off four passes this year and broke up eight, and he’s one of 11 Troy defenders to total at least 40 tackles.
Last year’s Troy squad also fielded a top 10 defense, but one reason the 2023 Trojans might be a better overall team — offense. Troy rose from 81st in scoring offense to 43rd year-over-year, posting 31.2 points per game and scoring at least 28 points in seven of eight Sun Belt contests.
Operating with a star running back certainly helped the scoring effort, and only one player in the country has more rushing yards than Kimani Vidal. The junior picked up 1,582 yards and 14 touchdowns during the first 13 games, blasting off for 233 yards and five touchdowns in the Sun Belt title game. Even crazier, that was his third-highest rushing performance of the season, and the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year is no stranger to breathtaking stat-lines.
Troy also received a significant boost in its passing game this year thanks to Gunnar Watson’s giant leap. He boasts a tremendously efficient touchdown to interception ratio of 27-to-5 while throwing for 3,339 yards. Watson doesn’t usually need 300 yards to lead Troy to victory, but he’s capable of dishing that out when needed. His top receiver is Jabre Barber (65 receptions, 892 yards, 5 touchdowns), but deep threat Chris Lewis (735 yards and 10 touchdowns on 22 yards per catch) is a downfield home run threat of whom Duke’s secondary must be hyperaware.
Duke Blue Devils outlook
Mike Elko left Duke after two seasons, but it’s undeniable he left the Blue Devils in far better shape than he found it. Before the Manny Diaz era starts in Durham, Duke works under the direction of Trooper Taylor for one game with sights on a second consecutive season with a bowl win — which would be the Blue Devils’ fifth-straight bowl victory dating back to 2015.
The Blue Devils launched the 2023 campaign with a statement victory over Clemson, and they jumped to a 4-0 start before losing a heartbreaker in the final minute to Notre Dame. Starting quarterback Riley Leonard suffered an injury that game and then another against Florida State, and the wheels fell off a bit. Duke remained a tough out for opponents, but it finished the season 2-4, notably suffering a shutout at Louisville and falling to 3-9 Virginia.
With a coaching change already complete, it’s no surprise Duke has some major contributors in the transfer portal from Leonard to defensive starters like defensive end R.J. Oben and strong safety Jaylen Stinson. But this Duke team overcame shorthanded-ness before, suffocating a currently-ranked NC State team 24-3 down several starters.
Grayson Loftis will get the nod at quarterback after starting each of the Blue Devils’ final four contests. Loftis completed 53.7 percent of passes and delivered eight touchdowns to three interceptions, averaging 198 passing yards per game in his starts.
Duke is ranked 112th in passing offense and 55th in rushing, and down to a backup quarterback, expect Duke to try to move the ball primarily through the ground. Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore ran an efficient two-back system throughout the year, but Waters already announced his transfer to NC State. Moore entered and subsequently withdrew from the portal, so the third-year Blue Devil is expected to shoulder the load in the backfield after posting 601 yards and six rushing touchdowns in the regular season.
The Blue Devils enjoyed stellar offensive line play throughout the season, paving the way for Waters to average 5.3 yards per carry and Moore to rack up 5.9. Additionally, the front five only allowed 1.25 sacks per game — good for a top 25 FBS ranking. However, First Team All-ACC left tackle Graham Barton stated that he played his final game for Duke in an Instagram post, leaving fellow offensive tackle Jake Hornibrook to anchor the unit.
Duke still retains the receiving duo of Jordan Moore and Jalen Calhoun, who propelled the offense all season long with 66.2 percent of the receiving production. Moore and Calhoun accounted for 12 of Duke’s 14 receiving touchdowns, so those are the main two targets Troy must key on.
The Blue Devil defense was sturdy across the board in the regular season. They are currently situated at 22nd in points allowed per game at 19.8 and 48th in yards allowed. Duke didn’t force turnovers at a high rate, but it did other things well such as generating pressure in the backfield and preventing touchdowns in the red zone.
Second Team All-ACC outside linebacker Tre Freeman is atop the team in the tackle department, producing 97 in a breakthrough year. The second-leading tackler Stinson is in the portal, so other names such as Jeremiah Lewis and Terry Moore must step up from the safety positions. Another player to watch on the Blue Devils when Troy possesses the ball is First Team All-ACC defensive tackle DeWayne Carter. While Carter may not produce eye-opening stats, his commanding presence on the interior frees up so much for everyone else — serving as a primary reason Duke allows under four yards per carry.
Even without the head coaches and Riley Leonard, there is plenty of star talent to go around in Birmingham.
The matchup between Troy’s Kimani Vidal-led rushing attack vs. Duke’s DeWayne Carter-led front should be a very engaging one for viewers. If Troy can win this battle at the line of scrimmage and get Vidal another monstrous performance, the Trojans should be able to run away with this one by multiple scores.
Duke’s offense has been incredibly volatile ever since losing Leonard to injury. Troy’s defense is certainly a suffocating unit, and if the Blue Devils can’t protect without Graham Barton, expect the Trojans’ backfield pressure to be one of the defining elements in this game.
In the end, Vidal and the Trojan defense get the job done in their home state and Troy finishes with another AP Top 25 ranking.
Prediction: Troy 27, Duke 14