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North Texas Mean Green 2017 Preview

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From 2015 to 2016, UNT went from one to five wins. Mathematically speaking, they’ll win 20 games this year.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at North Texas
Expectations haven’t been this high in a decade. Can the Mean Green find its way back to G5-power status?
Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

The Mean Green have been to only two bowl games since the end of the 2004 season. They under-performed in their last few years in the Sun Belt, and despite getting the nod for C-USA expansion, haven’t exactly been lighting it up since then. Nationwide expectations are, we are sad to say, pretty low.

Expectations in #NewDenton, on the other hand, are something else. UNT is sporting a new coach, a vastly improved roster and staff that took a 1-11 team to a bowl game in their first year— the last time a G5 coach did this, his program was shut down. Truly we live in remarkable times.

But the Mean Green are alive and kicking, with a wunderkind AD who is supposed to be paying off any minute now. It’s true, UNT hasn’t made the G5 headlines of a WKU or Louisiana Tech, but you can’t judge an entire program based on just one season. Even though UTSA ran circles around its Texas G5 brethren in the offseason, don’t sleep on North Texas. They have the resources, the fan base, and their stadium is much prettier than yours. Are we in for another successful season from Seth Littrell and company?

That #NewDenton Offense

Coming back for year two, Mason Fine is expected to lead the offense to at least as many wins as he did last year— four, before going down late in the season and handing the keys to senior Alec Morris to beat Southern Miss. The QB corps goes a little deeper this year, with backup Quinn Shanbour standing right behind Fine, and freshman Cade Pearson lurking somewhere in the shadows, padding out a roster that was sorely in need of literally any players after the disastrous 2015 season.

NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl-Army vs North Texas
Jeffrey Wilson is the best returning offensive player for North Texas.
Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

Senior RB Jeffrey Wilson is returning, which is good because his 936 yards in 2016 was the bulk of the rushing offense. A distant second was Willy Ivery with 490, who is no longer with the team, and an even more distant third was Andrew Tucker with 153 yards all season. This being Wilson’s last year of eligibility, expect big numbers (he has yet to play a 12-game season thanks to injuries), but beyond that, the RB core is mostly freshmen and transfers, save for junior Anthony Wyche (21 carries, 67 yards in 2016).

On the receiving end, the WR corps isn’t much better. Senior Turner Smiley returns, last year’s second-leading receiver with 33 catches and 389 yards last year. The rest is, again, a motley crew of transfers and freshmen, though that’s to be expected with the rebuilding job Seth Littrell has been doing, and continues to do. Still, it was good enough for five wins and a bowl game last year, so surely there’s nowhere to go but up as another year in the Air Raid system should yield better results.

That #NewDenton Defense

From the disastrous 2015 season to last year, the Mean Green defense improved on the other side of the ball as well, allowing 41.3 points a game the year before Littrell arrived, and only 32.6 a game last season.

Troy Reffett takes over as sole DC this year, after sharing duties last season with since-departed Mike Ekeler. Overall reviews of this year’s defense are “fast, but not strong,” and that might just be enough to make their mark in CUSA.

With Kansas State transfer Bryce English, the D-line has some experience to get behind (after English misses the season opener due to a foot injury), especially with a secondary that ranked second in CUSA last season in both defense and interceptions (14) last season. On the line, juniors Roderick Young and TJ Tauaalo will make some noise.

Expect things to be more aggressive under Reffett, as the D-line finds its stride and fills out some spots in year two under Littrell.

Them #NewDenton Special Teams

This more or less rests on the foot of senior Trevor Moore, who was automatic under 40 yards last season, but 2 for 10 otherwise. The only two punters on the roster are unproven commodities Alvin Kenworthy (redshirt sophomore) and Blake Patterson (redshirt freshman), we should get a good sense of accuracy pretty early in the season, if not in Week 1 against Lamar, then certainly by Week 3 at Iowa.

Those #NewDenton Intangibles

So what’s all this mean? Every site has its own spin, its own cracking of the numbers, charts and graphs that basically tell you, ON PAPER, this is just what to expect from the team.

Unfortunately, real-life isn’t always so black-and-white. A year ago UNT was largely picked to maybe eke out a handful of wins if they were lucky, a rebuilding project lucky to climb to three or four wins. But this scrappy little team confounded expectations and made some waves, if not at the top of the conference then certainly in the rest of it.

Expect the same this year, unless UTSA manages to steal some of their thunder. Five wins was a surprise last year; you may not see six wins on their schedule and in fact many publications are calling for a repeat of last year. These publications are blessedly wrong.

Schedule

Home vs Lamar (Sept. 2) - Prediction: Win

After the homecoming game that shall not be mentioned again, the offending coach was kicked out of Denton and a new coach was hired, presumably one with FBS credentials who could at least handle an FCS team. Still, we’re not willing to blow off the Cardinals just because of their FCS status, they’ve hung in there pretty well in the Southland Conference, finishing third as recently as 2014. Still, they’re breaking in a new coach this year and Beaumont is like a six-hour bus ride from Denton, this should at the very least be a repeat of last years’ 41-20 trouncing of Bethune-Cookman.

Away vs SMU (Sep. 9) - Prediction: Loss

In the season-opener a year ago, senior QB Alec Morris got squashed by this Mustangs team, and was replaced the next week by current(?) starter Mason Fine. Still, the margin of victory was only 13 last year, and while we can’t predict a win, it may be a closer game. It’s not like SMU was exactly impressive during their own 5-7 campaign last year.

Away vs Iowa (Sep. 16) - Prediction: Loss

UNT played Iowa in 2015 and lost 62-16. Two weeks later, there was that homecoming game that got the coach fired (margin of victory: comparable). Money games like this pay the bills, and UNT won’t come away with a win here, but if Vegas puts the spread at that same 40+ points for this game, that’s easy money for the discerning Mean Green fan.

Home vs UAB (Sep. 23) - Prediction: Win

We’re thrilled to have the Blazers back and their coach did some impressive things in their last season, going 6-6 in 2014. But this is their first year back and they’ll still be working out some kinks at this point. UNT is a year up on them and playing on their home turf. Should be a fun game anyway, but predicting UNT on this one.

Away vs Southern Miss (Sep. 30) - Prediction: Win

Look. Remember above when we said Morris got shelled by SMU? Well last year he took over for an injured Fine during the USM game, and beat them 29-23. If Fine is healthy for this game, UNT takes it. That’s just science.

Home vs UTSA (Oct. 14) - Prediction: Loss

Any UNT fan wants this game real bad, and as much as it pains me to mark it down here, the only win over the Roadrunners in UNT history was three games into the tenure of head coach Mike Canales in 2015, taking over midseason from the fired McCarney— which meant there wasn’t a lot of game film on any new changes. Granted, that game was in Denton, but after last years 31-17 trouncing of the Green in San Antonio, we can’t see any other new tools that might make any difference here, at least this season.

Away vs FAU (Oct. 21) - Prediction: Win

Lane Kiffin has a lifetime head coaching record, at the college level, of 35-21. On the other hand, this was with the excessive resources of Pac-12 and SEC teams, and also we predict his team will have turned on him by October. We’re predicting a win for UNT here, but if FAU somehow takes this one, it’s because they’re headed for the top of C-USA East, which doesn’t seem very likely for a first year at this program. Kiffin may even make them a power down the line, but UNT is a year ahead in the rebuilding process.

Home vs Old Dominion (Oct. 28) - Prediction: Win

This is the first meeting between these programs, and ODU put together an impressive-looking record last year, finishing second place in C-USA East. When they played the first place team in the East, WKU, they lost 59-24. We’re not drinking the ODU Kool-Aid, and even though they might have a nice W-L record again this season, we’re calling a win for the Mean Green.

Away vs Louisiana Tech (Nov. 4) - Prediction: Loss

UNT is improving, but Louisiana Tech is already exactly where they want to be. The Bulldogs beat UNT by three touchdowns in Denton last year, this one’s in Ruston. Look away, baby, look away.

Home vs UTEP (Nov. 11) - Win

How do I put this in objective, journalistic terms: This UTEP team is trash. They finished 4-8 last year (2-6 in conference), and for some reason kept their coach, maybe they looked around at the available replacements for the cost and decided to stick with this mess. The Green made the long trip to El Paso last year and won 52-24, this game is going to be as ugly as the La Tech game, but in the other direction. Get it together, UTEP.

Home vs Army (Nov. 18) - Win

In a quirk of scheduling, UNT played Army twice last year: once during the regular season, in Denton (UNT won, 35-18), and then again in the post-season at the Heart of Dallas Bowl (Army winning, 38-31 in OT). It’s worth noting that UNT was down a few players in the bowl game, and this contest is again in Denton. Let’s win this one and not play play these guys again for a few years.

Away at Rice (Nov. 25) - Prediction: Win

Rice has had some up years under coach Dave Bailiff (winning the conference in 2013) and some down years (3-9 overall, 2-6 in conference last year). So which was the fluke? Over time, signs points to that 2013 season, as Rice just wasn’t unlucky last year, they were incompetent. Sure, UNT needed overtime to beat them, but it was four games into the season under a team still working out the kinks. Consider the kinks worked out, and a win here to finish the season.

PROJECTED FINISH: 8-4 (6-2)