The big 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl breakdown: Redemption, opportunity for Rebels, Mean Green

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

North Texas and UNLV are playing on January 1! In the Cotton Bowl! Two redemption stories take the field in one of college football's most storied venues, and while North Texas' defense gives the Mean Green a significant edge, an efficient UNLV passing game could even things up.

"Son, sit down. Let me tell you a story. Back in 2013, my friends and I turned a football program around. We whipped conference rivals. We scared Minnesota/Georgia. We fought hard, and we ended up in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day."

Be it a former UNLV or North Texas player telling that story a couple of decades from now, everything about that fake quote is mostly factual. UNLV trailed Minnesota by just three points at halftime, and North Texas was tied with Georgia midway through the third.

And yes, both are indeed playing in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day. Granted, they're playing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Granted, they lost to Minnesota and Georgia by a combined 52 points. Granted, they are here because major conferences couldn't fill all of their bowl slots.

But they're here, playing in a January bowl game in one of college football's most storied venues.

These are two pretty incredible turnaround stories. North Texas won four consecutive Sun Belt titles a decade ago and went to four consecutive New Orleans Bowls, then fell off the map. Darrell Dickey went 5-18 in his final two seasons and left. Local high school legend Todd Dodge took over and went 6-37. Former Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney took over and sealed some holes with 5-7 and 4-8 seasons, and in Year 3, the Mean Green got mean. After a shaky start to the season that featured the loss to Georgia and tight road losses to both Ohio and Tulane, North Texas caught fire, winning six of seven down the stretch and nearly winning the Conference USA West division in its first try.

UNLV, meanwhile, has a similar history, but without the conference titles. After Harvey Hyde went 11-2 in 1984, the Rebels would only twice win more than six games in the ensuing 29 seasons. Jeff Horton went 7-5 in 1994 and won the Las Vegas Bowl, then went 6-39. Former USC coach John Robinson got the Rebels to 8-5 with a Vegas Bowl win in 2000, then went 17-29. Mike Sanford won 16 games in five years. And for Bobby Hauck, things looked dire. His Rebels went just 6-32 in his first three seasons.

My 2013 previews for these teams were titled "The clock ticks" and "Stagnation." I was able to talk myself into each team perhaps getting to 6-6 if things broke right. UNLV went 7-5, and North Texas went 8-4. And one of the two was actually a good, solid football team. These are two great stories, and by Wednesday evening, one of the teams will have a "The time we won a January 1 bowl game…" story to share.

How they got here

UNLV's season to date

North Texas is pretty average in both defending the pass and preventing methodical drives. That's what UNLV does best.

UNLV sent mixed messages early on. The Rebels looked physically capable, dictating the play in the trenches against Minnesota for quite a while before fading. Quarterback Nick Sherry, thought to be a future pro prospect, was okay against Minnesota and dreadful against Arizona and got benched in favor of the starter he replaced the year before, Caleb Herring.

With Herring in place, UNLV bolted to 4-2. But depth might have been an issue -- the Rebels faded late against not only the Gophers, but also Hawaii (a 39-37 win), San Jose State (34-24 loss), and Utah State (28-24 loss). They lost three of four games against some of the stronger members of the Mountain West and fell to 5-5 overall. With bowl eligibility on the line, however, the Rebels responded well. They dominated Air Force and San Diego State to wrap up a solid 7-5 season, and with a pretty young two-deep, they could be positioned to improve a bit more in 2014.

UNT's season to date

UNLV's been a pretty neat story, but the Rebels do still rank 95th overall in the F/+ rankings. North Texas, meanwhile, has been a rock-solid, top-50 team in 2013. The offense grades out about how UNLV's does, but coordinator John Skladany's defense was a top-30 unit. The national scoring average in college football tends to hover around 28 points, but the Mean Green allowed that many only once -- they allowed 45 to a Georgia offense that was still mostly full-strength. And after the Tulane loss on October 5, they allowed more than 16 points just once.

The offense had its moments, sure, but defense powered the dominant stretch through October and November. North Texas beat Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, Rice, and UTEP in a five-game winning streak, and after an upset loss to UTSA, they went to Tulsa and destroyed the defending conference champions, 42-10, to wrap up an 8-4 campaign. And now they're favored to reach nine wins.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
UNLV 7-5 NR 95 84 87 118
North Texas 8-4 NR 49 -6.5 81 28 19
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
UNLV Offense 90 85 100 70 62 44 9
UNT Defense 50 39 25 74 17 28 40
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
UNLV Offense 98 101 65 83 49 5 84
UNT Defense 44 12 20 35 55 37 91
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
UNT Offense 63 75 85 61 55 71 80
UNLV Defense 97 63 102 66 96 99 111
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
UNT Offense 100 97 25 70 8 11 19
UNLV Defense 95 83 56 104 79 124 12
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
UNLV Special Teams 85 120 113 119 43 33
UNT Special Teams 13 116 43 45 1 36

UNLV's biggest advantages:

Dink, dunk, dink, dunk. Caleb Herring has a decent arm, but he hasn't necessarily been asked to do much with it in 2013. While leading receiver Devante Davis has averaged a healthy 15.5 yards per catch and 9.3 yards per target, all other UNLV receivers have averaged just 8.6 yards per catch. Herring connects with Davis five or six times per game, but otherwise this is a pretty methodical, balanced offense.

North Texas' run defense is pretty fantastic, and running back Tim Cornett might be hard-pressed to add too much to his 1,251 rushing yards, but North Texas is pretty average in both defending the pass and preventing methodical drives. That's what UNLV does best. There might be an opportunity for Herring to dink and dunk, finding smaller, shiftier weapons like Marcus Sullivan and Maika Mataele relatively frequently. This probably won't be an incredibly high-scoring game, so if the Rebels can score off of methodical drives 2-3 times, they could be close or ahead well into the second half.

North Texas has the second-strongest mid-major defense in the country.

North Texas probably won't push the UNLV defensive line around. These teams have major-conference size in the trenches. North Texas' starting offensive line averages 6'4, 303, while UNLV's defensive ends average 6'3, 255 and its defensive tackles average 6'3, 284. UNT runs 64 percent of the time on standard downs, 30th in the country, and the trio of Brandin Byrd, Antoinne Jimmerson and Jeremy Brown averaged 34 carries and 160 yards per game.

But the Mean Green won't necessarily get much of a push up front, and if forced to pass more, UNT will be playing to the strengths of the UNLV defense. The Rebels don't have much of a pass rush, but junior corners Tajh Hasson and Kenneth Penny have combined to defense 28 passes. The play-action game can be deadly with a sustained run game, but UNLV will have a solid chance if Derek Thompson is mostly passing on second-and-eight.

UNT's biggest advantages:

The Mean Green field position machine. UNLV's coverage units are pretty awful, and UNT's Brelan Chancellor is one of the best return men in the country. North Texas is good at forcing three-and-outs, and UNLV is terrible at it. North Texas ranks 13th in Field Position Advantage, and UNLV ranks 85th.

While UNLV could be capable of engineering some methodical drives, it's a lot easier to go 60 yards than 80, and if the Rebels are facing constant field position disadvantages, it's going to be difficult to make up the difference.

This really is a strong defense. At 28th in Def. F/+, North Texas has the second-strongest mid-major defense in the country (third if you count BYU as mid-major). The Rebels swarm to the ball well -- linebackers Zach Orr and Derek Akunne have combined for 153.0 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, two sacks, four interceptions, and seven pass-breakups -- and the line stands up well to run-blocking. Safety (and former Oklahoma Sooner) Marcus Trice is used aggressively, and corner Zac Whitfield is a good on-ball defender. There's talent at each level of this defense, and it is very well-coached.

While UNLV has averaged 34.6 points and 442 yards per game (5.7 per play) against FBS defense ranked 60th or worse, the Rebels played three top-40 defenses (Utah State, Arizona, Minnesota) and averaged 20 points and 368 yards (4.8 per play). If that's all they're going to get in Dallas, can the Rebels hold the Mean Green under that?

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

It took Bobby Hauck a while to put pieces in place, but one has to like what UNLV could have to offer moving forward. Caleb Herring and Tim Cornett are seniors, but Nick Sherry could be ready to re-assume the starting quarterback role, and there are some interesting, explosive options behind Cornett. If the backfield is sturdy, the offense could thrive because the only other seniors on the offensive two-deep are backups.

The defense will have some holes to fill at defensive tackle and linebacker, but when the Rebels were doing well in 2013, the offense was leading the way. It could do so again. And if the Rebels score 40 on North Texas, they could get quite a bit of Mountain West hype in the offseason.

For North Texas, things are a bit less certain. This awesome defense lists six senior starters for the bowl; Trice is a senior as well. It will be difficult for the Mean Green to replicate this level of defensive success, and even with an offensive line that returns mostly intact, it will be hard for the offense to pick up the slack without Derek Thompson, Brandin Byrd, or Brelan Chancellor. There's a lot of interesting youth here, but expect North Texas to take a step backwards in 2014.

Summary

F/+ Projection: North Texas 29, UNLV 15
Win Probability: North Texas 83%

One can see how North Texas gets a pretty heavy nod here. The offenses more or less cancel each other out, and the Mean Green are far superior in defense and special teams. Plus, Denton isn't exactly that far from Dallas, and the home-field advantage, such that it exists, will be pretty significantly in favor of the Mean Green.

If UNLV can avoid field position purgatory and dink and dunk appropriately, the Rebels will stay in the game a while, but even in that case, North Texas closed out games much more effectively than UNLV.

In the end, this is likely to be more of a showcase for Dan McCarney's performance than anything else. He has rebuilt a program that spent a decade in the wilderness, and even if the Mean Green take a step backwards in 2014, the foundation is sturdy. It could be for UNLV, too. Come for the redemption stories, stay for the Mean Green defense.

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