Jan. 01, 2014 @ 08:38 PM

The largest television audience to ever watch at Duke football game, around 9 million people, saw the Blue Devils fall just short of their ultimate goal on Tuesday night.

Despite a dazzling show of offense, Duke didn’t win the Chick-fil-A Bowl as its 661 total yards and six touchdowns left it short in a 52-48 loss to Texas A&M at the Georgia Dome.

The game drew a 5.3 rating, ESPN’s largest for a non-BCS bowl game since 2000.

Having already won more games than any other Duke team in the school’s football history, the Blue Devils sought the program’s first bowl win since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.

It didn’t happen, even though Duke led by three touchdowns at halftime and by 10 points with six minutes to play.

But all those people saw that Duke, playing in back-to-back bowls for the first time, is more than a cute story.

“We have a good football team,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We have a good football program. I think it was great we had this time slot. We’re recruiting quality people that can really play football well. That’s what people saw, hopefully, and will continue to see from Duke football.”

Continuing this run of success is the next challenge in front of the Blue Devils and it appears they’ll be able to do just that.

That’s because the Blue Devils will return 15 of the 22 players who started on offense and defense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Of the 661 yards the offense gained against the Aggies, 80.2 percent were gained by players who will be on next year’s team.

On defense, Duke recorded 59 tackles. Only 12 of those tackles were notched by seniors.

The offense will have nine starters back, including skill players in quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette, wide receiver Jamison Crowder, tight end Braxton Deaver and running backs Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell.

Crowder caught 12 passes for 163 yards against Texas A&M, becoming the first ACC receiver to notch 100 or more catches in a season. He finished with 108 receptions for 1,360 yards with eight touchdowns as a junior.

NFL Draft rules allow Crowder to skip his senior season at Duke and turn professional. But Crowder said after the Chick-fil-A Bowl that he has no plans to do that.

“As of right now I’m staying to finish up and get my degree,” Crowder said. “Right now, that’s pretty much it. I’m coming back next year.”

Two starters off the offensive line were seniors, with right tackle Perry Simmons missing the Chick-fil-A Bowl with a knee injury. That allowed redshirt sophomore Lucas Patrick to start.

Next season, Patrick is likely to replace another of this year’s seniors, left guard Dave Harding, in the starting lineup. That opens the door for young players like Tanner Stone, Casey Blaser or Carson Ginn to grab that right tackle slot.

On defense, Duke’s top tacklers like linebackers Kelby Brown and David Helton, as well as safety Jeremy Cash, will all be back. While two-time all-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell is headed to the NFL with his eligibility completed, Duke will turn to freshmen Breon Borders or Bryon Fields to take over. Both played well this season.

The defensive line loses stalwart seniors Kenny Anunike, Sydney Sarmiento and Justin Foxx. Players such as Jamal Bruce, Carlos Wray and Jordan Dewalt-Ondijo will have step into more playing time with a chance to up their production.

Cutcliffe, just after leaving the Blue Devils’ post-game locker room following the Chick-fil-A Bowl, said the seniors have left the program to those younger players in good shape.

“Our seniors asked our young players in there, if they can understand that commitment,” Cutcliffe said. “They feel like they’re leaving it in a good spot, which we are, this group of seniors, and now it’s up for our young people to take it another step. That step can be taken. We just have to continue to push.”

Boone was asked if all those people watching the Blue Devils, both in person at the Georgia Dome and on television, believe in Duke football now after such a season of accomplishments.

“I hope so,” Boone said. “If not then it doesn’t really matter because we’re a really good team. People doubted us and if they doubt us again next year, same outcome.”