For North Texas, there’s nowhere to go but up.
The last decade for North Texas has not been great, with only one bowl appearance since 2004. The Mean Green won only a single game last year, their third one-win campaign in the last 100 years. ESPN.com ranks North Texas 128 out of 128 in their annual power rankings.
But you clicked this link anyways and that makes you one of the North Texas faithful, or possibly just morbidly curious.
Either way there is a lot to be optimistic about in 2016, as the Mean Green are a team with too many resources and too much money, to be kept down very long. It’s not like they’re New Mexico State or something.
The Head Coach Situation
Outgoing North Texas AD Rick Villarreal shut down the naysayers in the off-season (or at least as much as he could, considering other recent football coaching hires) by hiring North Carolina OC Seth Littrell to rebuild essentially from scratch a team that couldn’t even beat a FCS opponent. Littrell’s resume is better than the last three coaches combined, so there is reason to believe in Denton.
UDD has already written extensively on Littrell, an offensive-minded coach for a team who saw its most successful years in 2001-04, under the defensive-minded Darrell Dickey. That 26-game conference win-streak was a long time ago, and after unsuccessfully trying to replace Dickey with a high school coach (Todd Dodge) and a senile Wal-Mart greeter (Dan McCarney), this could actually be the hire that puts the Mean Green back on the map.
In short, there are lots of reasons to be excited about Littrell and his staff, even when taking this hire at face value. Compared to the last two head coaches, this is Christmas all season long.
The Quarterback Situation
Most snaps last season were taken by one of two players: Andrew McNulty, who graduated, or DaMarcus Smith, who left the team. This means some entirely new faces on the field this season to match the new faces on the sideline.
Littrell begins his complete overhaul with Alabama transfer Alec Morris, a three-year backup for Alabama and member of their 2012 and 2015 national championship teams. Morris will be competing with redshirt junior Quinn Shanbour, along with fellow junior Devin O’Hara, and true freshman Mitch Cason and Mason Fine, winner of the 2016 Caleb Chumley award for Best Named Quarterback on the squad. There was speculation that Chumley was competing for the starting job, but has since been converted to tight end. Also previously rumored at QB, sophomore Connor Means has been converted to running back.
The Running Back Situation
Returning is top rusher from last season, junior Jeffrey Wilson, who last year carried for over 800 yards. Junior Willy Ivery is also returning, who carried only 44 times last year but racked up 290 yards in the process. If you’re going to be stuck with a core of backs these are the guys to do it and Littrell has given them ample back-up with Means, D-III transfer Christian Hosley, redshirt junior Andrew Tucker and a handful of freshmen gunning for those starting jobs.
The Receiver Situation
While the core of running backs return, wide receivers are a different situation entirely. Top receivers Carlos Harris and Marcus Smith graduated, leaving returning junior Turner Smiley as the most experienced player, even with only 25 receptions all last season, totaling 255 yards (though to be fair, consider who was throwing to him). The rest of the roster here is padded out with JuCo transfers and freshmen, which would make us nervous under any other coach besides Littrell. North Carolina was never going to win any national titles, but if there was one thing they could do, it was put the ball in the air. And also catch it. I feel like that is also important to mention, for anyone who watched UNT last season.
The Defense Situation
In his first year, Littrell has seen fit to go with co-Defensive Coordinators, selecting Mike Ekeler and Troy Reffett.
Ekeler most recently spent two years as inside-linebacker coach at Georgia, where the Georgia defense ranked 8th nationally in 2015. He worked as a graduate assistant under Bo Pelini, back in 2008-10, back when Nebraska regularly competed for the top of the Big 12 North.
Reffett, meanwhile, was cornerbacks coach at Memphis last season, breaking local records under Justin Fuente. Prior to that he spent six seasons as ULM’s DC, a program that’s had many problems, but defense was not one of them during that span.
Making the cut under their watch are top defensive stars from last year, senior Kishawn McClain and junior James Gray, both of whom had over 70 tackles on the season. Of the starting line, none are freshman and that experience will benefit the Mean Green greatly, as they’ll need all the help they can get to undo the stigma of the last four years.
Despite North Texas having to live down their 2015 this offseason, the outgoing AD made some moves football fans can be proud of, and actually give us hope heading into 2016. The hirings of both Dodge and McCarney raised eyebrows, and we sort of had to talk ourselves into both of them, the former coming straight from high school and the latter being an unremarkable Iowa State head coach with a lifetime losing record. They were bargain-basement, but Littrell is the type of solid, qualified hire that could’ve been roaming the sidelines this entire time. Even if the top job doesn’t turn out to be his thing, 4-5 wins a season over the next four seasons would be considered a massive improvement.
But first, we have to get through 2016:
Sept. 3 – SMU (W)
Here’s why the whole “new faces” comment makes things exciting—nobody knows anything! The system could gel in year one, putting up huge points with huge dividends over comparable programs and surprising everyone…. OR, this is just a rebuilding year while the new system clicks with the new players.
SMU went 2-10 last year, and were one of the few FBS teams as bad as North Texas. Head Coach Chad Morris is a renowned Offensive Coordinator and legendary high school coach, and being the head coach is a very different gig (ask Lane Kiffin). Maybe he’ll surprise, and in that case we shall eat our words. Until then, advantage: Green.
Sept. 10 – Bethune-Cookman (W)
After last season, the FCS game actually required a bit of analysis. Statistically, Portland State was already better on paper coming into last years 66-7 slaughter; Bethune-Cookman is no slouch either, finishing last season 9-2 and second place in the MEAC. If North Texas can win this game, they can get some respect back as a program and prepare for, at minimum, a not-terrible season. If it goes the other way, see if you can pick up UTSA games on streaming because I hear they’re good.
Sept. 17 – @ Florida (L)
If the offense really clicks, and if they have a few really good plays, and if they get really lucky… nah, I’m just kidding, this is an L.
Sept. 24 - @ Rice (W)
This could go either way; Rice suffered from poor QB play last season, but also poor defense, which will be a deciding factor in this game. We’ll know by week 2 what to expect at this point in the season; this is Littrell’s first CUSA conference game and will certainly set the tone for the year. Last year, UNT only lost this match-up by two touchdowns, so that gives us hope for this season.
Oct. 1 – Middle Tennessee (L)
A thorn in UNT’s side since their Sun Belt days, MTSU puts up too many yards and has a very experienced quarterback. This might actually be more fun to watch than last years 41-7 blowout, but even if North Texas surprises this squad is too much too soon.
Oct. 8 – Marshall (L)
See above, though UNT only lost by 17 last year.
Oct. 22 – @ Army (W)
Army is terrible and their best player just quit. Even the most cynical fan has to give us this one.
Oct. 29 - @ UTSA (L)
UNT’s lone win last year, the Mean Green travel to San Antonio for only the 4th-ever meeting between these programs (advantage UTSA, 2-1). Both teams are sporting new head coaches, both teams had terrible seasons last year and yet UTSA is largely projected to have a better 2016 season thanks to superior recruiting. A win for North Texas means the Roadrunners might finally notice they have a rival. A win for UTSA means this season met expectations. Doing my journalistic, objective duty and marking this an L, but let’s wait for the spread.
Nov. 5 – Louisiana Tech (L)
Last year North Texas got blown out during homecoming, 66-7, and fired its head coach right after the game. This year UNT gets the Bulldogs for homecoming, possible contender for a CUSA title under rising star Skip Holtz. The football gods have not been kind to UNT, but surely this game will finish closer than 59 points. Right? …. RIGHT?!
Nov. 12 - @ Western Kentucky (L)
The only CUSA team to be ranked since realignment. Take the L and feel good about yourself.
Nov. 19 – Southern Miss (L)
Playing the Eagles at home could be a lot of fun, but even with the number of graduations in the off-season, this is—to use a sports cliché—a well-oiled machine.
Nov. 26 - @ UTEP (W)
Playing the Miners on the road will not be any fun whatsoever, but fourth-year coach Sean Kugler has struggled for consistency during his tenure, bringing new OC Brent Pease, who has had an unremarkable career since leaving Boise State in 2011, and new DC Tom Mason, who has had an unremarkable career. This will be the end of a long season for both squads, and the experience ought to be showing by then. No bowl game for either, but at least the Green finish on a high note.
PROJECTED FINISH: 5-7 (2-6)