We’ve said it in a number of game previews this season and in our bowl summary, to boot: Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Except it wasn’t just the passage of time that North Texas has to thank. 2016 saw a new AD take the UNT gig, taking over from a man who by all accounts was as incompetent as his coaching hires would lead you to believe. Sure, new head coach Seth Littrell was hired by that same outgoing AD, but under the careful eye of a new and rebuilt athletics department, and also some experience winning at the collegiate level (something the last two HC’s lacked), North Texas QUINTUPLED its win total from last season, the biggest turnaround in the nation.
If you’re a fan of the Mean Green, or maybe you just live in the Dallas area and are a bit sick and tired of Mustang and Frog coverage, 2016 was the first year to be hopeful for the future in far too long.
S&P+: 22.7 (111th)
Points per game: 23.4 (101st)
Total Offense: 4,444 yards (117th)
Offense MVP: Jeffrey Wilson
Looking at those numbers, a casual fan wouldn’t think much of this team, but first you must compare it to the 2015 squad that averaged a whopping 15.9 points per game and got the coach fired mid-season. Granted, these numbers aren’t as good as, say, FAU (a team that fired its coach at the end of 2016), but they’re such an improvement and with mostly the old coach’s players, one can only be optimistic at what coach Seth Littrell and AD Wren Baker are building in Denton.
Going back to week one, this wasn’t so much a rebuilding job as simply a building job, from the very start. Last year’s QBs were jettisoned late in the off-season, and senior QB (and Bama transfer) Alec Morris was a seemingly lucky get. When he proved shaky in the season opener against SMU, freshman Mason Fine stepped up out of nowhere to right the ship, or at least as much as he could as a freshman.
In the end, Fine finished 155/261, good for a 59.4% completion percentage (no QB on the 2015 squad was over 50%), with 1,572 passing yards— good for 11th best in the conference. This despite his season ending early thanks to a shoulder injury, upon which the team was forced to start Alec Morris again. Under pressure, Morris stepped up his game considerably, the final regular season starts (and bowl game) bumping him up to 1,126 passing yards, good for 14th in the conference. UNT is the only school in the conference with TWO QB’s in the top 14, but whether that’s good or bad is up for discussion.
While the QBs were performing adequately, the standout of this year was undoubtedly junior RB Jeffery Wilson, a player recruited under outgoing coach Dan McCarney and yet as one of the few holdovers, his performance on the field has been mesmerizing, and his stats have been a fan’s dream.
Wilson missed the last few games of the season due to knee surgery (though was back for the bowl game), and still finished the season with 169 carries and 936 yards, good for 8th in the conference despite the missed games. Wilson confounded opposing offenses and appeared unstoppable until his injury, without him the team’s running game is in the bottom half of the conference or worse. As a few other RB’s need to be replaced for 2017, Wilson’s experience made all the difference this year, and will make all the difference heading into his senior year.
Overall, the ability to score points was a nice change of pace this season, and after the unending darkness that was 2005-2016, the team and the athletic department seem to be finally getting it together.
With each new coach, there has been an initial spike with the existing roster, then a steep nosedive, but none steeper than what North Texas experienced in 2015. Littrell, however, has the best resume of any UNT coach since they joined the FBS ranks in 2001, and this season is what continuous, patient rebuilding looks like. A 5-7 record isn’t what anyone hopes for, but for year one, this is right on target. If they shore up holes at WR and recruit some equally talented RBs to backup Wilson, this team could challenge for the top spot, especially if Southern Miss continues this year’s trend of mediocrity.
S&P+: 33.1 (95th)
Points per game allowed: 32.6 (96th)
Defense MVP: Josh Wheeler
The stat to remember, and the stat we will now mention for the last time, was North Texas giving up 66 points to FCS Portland State during homecoming last year. That got the head coach the boot, but in the olden days they used to take the DC out back and smack him around. This was the darkest day in North Texas history and one that will take years for the program to live down, and we are exceptionally grateful that DC is a position that Offense-minded Littrell took great care with upon his hiring.
A 95th-ranked defense is improved from 115th last year, and this is thanks to the immediate good work of DC Mike Ekeler. A former Georgia assistant, the leaps in defense were noticeable this year early and often, and despite some uneven games, a tight defense allowed a shaky offense to look all the more impressive, especially when this defensive line turned the game against MTSU into an actual snoozefest, dampening but not extinguishing the prolific Blue Raider offense until late in the 2nd half.
We haven’t said as much as we’d like about the Mean Green Curtain this year, but over the course of a season, the standout is undoubtedly junior DE Josh Wheeler, who finished with 42 tackles on the season (26 unassisted), six sacks and a forced fumble.
Wheeler was at the top of a defense that actually looked like a defense this year, some early games basically scrimmages as they worked on feeling out what works best for the squad they have. Early on, for example, this year’s game against Bethune-Cookman looked a little iffy thanks to some offensive bursts from the Wildcats, but ultimately adjustments were made and the Mean Green offense figured out how to score, seemingly for the first time.
Like an expansion team figuring out to mesh with a mishmash of old and new players, the B-C game was where things finally clicked and we started seeing flashes of what this team is capable of. It’ll take a few years until this is a squad of solely Littrell and Ekeler recruits (and let’s give OC Graham Harrell his due, as well), but the defense far outmatched the offense this year and in a conference like this one, that defense makes all the difference in the world.
Despite the bowl loss, expectations in Denton haven’t been this high since 2004, the last time North Texas won a conference championship. The pieces are all there, though success isn’t guaranteed, as we see how these things actually play out over the next few years.
Unlike some of the larger Power 5 schools, particularly the ones in Texas, the culture is still figuring itself out as well, as during the early years of FBS life, there was next to no on-campus pride or support for the football team, and hats and jerseys for more famous Texas schools were more commonly seen on campus.
But thanks to a new conference and new philosophy, North Texas has been allowed to grow as a program, and enjoy better exposure at the national level. In fact, Conference USA squads this year overall have enjoyed more media exposure than at any time since realignment. This plus a new AD for the first time in 15 years is cause for excitement, and actual on-field results even more so.
Schedule-wise, 2017 will see the Mean Green face off against an FCS team from their former Southland Conference, the Lamar Cardinals, who finished 3-8 this year. Lamar just reinstated their football program in 2010, so in a way it’s kind of flattering that it’s North Texas doling out a paycheck game for once, their recent history with FCS teams notwithstanding.
Next year also sees a return trip to play an Iowa team that lost to an FCS team this year— though that team was North Dakota State and time will tell if the Mean Green are on that level come the fall. UNT also travels into the metroplex to face a similarly rebuilding SMU squad, and hopefully this year’s lessons can turn into a victory this time around, setting up a more successful year in conference play.
Despite the disappointing end, this season was a success as Littrell should have a more seasoned team next year capable of making noise in C-USA.