As their season opener rapidly approaches, the Mean Green have fairly low expectations from the vast majority of college football fans. Coming off of a rough 4-8 season, the team finds themselves ranked 117th overall by CBS Sports. The bottom-of-the-barrel ranking is accompanied by predictions to finish near last in the conference by most forecasts. However, the Mean Green have pieces in place that could make this season much more interesting than expected. With talented seniors, a motivated team and a bit of luck, North Texas could possibly become a very real contender in the west division.
A 4-8 record in the 2014 season doesn't exactly have the nation lining up for seats on the Mean Green bandwagon. However, the team was not as bad as the record would suggest. By the numbers, North Texas struggled significantly more on the offensive side of the ball than on defense. The team finished the season ranked 114th in total offense, averaging only 326 yards a game. Combine that with a .387 3rd down completion percentage and nearly NCAA-worst 213 first downs all season to understand exactly how much improvement is necessary on offense. Most of the offensive woes could arguably be blamed on an inconsistent quarterback situation resulting in only 173 passing yard per game.
The North Texas defense had a lot to live up to after an exceptional defensive performance throughout the 2013 season. Although they did not live up to the expectations, they were better than your typical 4-8 team. The passing defense ranked 34th overall, only giving up 208 yards per game. That same successful pass defense returns a number of defensive playmakers in the secondary including cornerback Kenny Buyers and safety Kishawn McClain. The ground game returns Chad Polk and Tillman Johnson who both led the team in sacks last season and helped the defense maintain a modest 162 rushing yards per game. Continued defensive success will allow the offensive more time on the field to, well, let's talk about that.
With a murky quarterback race taking place throughout the summer and fall workouts, many are still expecting the Mean Green passing game to be subpar. Contrary to popular opinion, the possibility for success is still alive with the team returning two talented leaders for Andrew McNulty to rely on in Carlos Harris and Marcus Smith. Harris led the team in receiving yards last season while Smith led in receiving touchdowns. Although unproven, the highly recruited redshirt freshman, Tee Goree, will debut this season and look to develop into a deep threat to provide a very dangerous weapon to compliment the reliable hands of Harris and the red zone threat of Smith. After the frightening numbers from last season, an improved passing game with veteran leaders and young talent could result in a huge increase in offensive performance.
Perhaps one of the only silver linings of the 2014 season was a running game that showed potential for this season despite only averaging 153 yards per game. Jeffrey Wilson returns as the starting running back with senior Antoine Jimmerson right behind him on the depth chart. Wilson finished the 2014 season with a 105-yard rushing performance against the 32nd best rushing defense in UTSA. That doesn't really matter though unless the offensive line can overcome losing four starters. SMU transfer Sam Rice will hope to add some, though not all, of the help necessary for the young offensive line which returns only one senior starter. Fortunately, three of the first six games on the schedule come against teams that each allowed over 200 yards rushing per game last season in SMU, Western Kentucky, and Southern Mississippi. Those three games can certainly be an opportunity for North Texas to capitalize on their rushing potential and allow the offensive line to improve.
The 2015 schedule is nothing short of strenuous. Having twelve games in a row and two tough non-conference games in Iowa and Tennessee would be a difficult task for any NCAA team to overcome. Luckily, three of the tougher games on the schedule take place in Apogee Stadium. Rice, Western Kentucky and UTEP all travel to Denton to face the Mean Green in a stadium that opponents have been outscored by 280 points in over the past four seasons. If the Mean Green can get some help from their home crowd and continue their success in Apogee, they could pick up three tough wins at home. Following three rough home wins, North Texas will only need three more wins from a pool of games that includes Portland State, SMU, Southern Mississippi and UTSA to become bowl eligible.
The addition of offensive weapons and experience to a defense that held their ground throughout last season could be exactly what the Mean Green need this season to be the dark horse of the conference. Don't be so quick to count out North Texas.