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1. Why isn't North Texas good more often?
Back in the late-'90s, when I was busy playing EA's NCAA Football in the dorms, my friends and I noticed an interesting development. By the fourth or fifth year of every simulation, North Texas had become a mid-major power. Once or twice, the Mean Green became a top-five team.
The AI for the game eventually improved, but it wasn't hard to see why the early version would assume a team from Denton could make it into a higher echelon. If you've got to be a mid-major, being a mid-major 40 miles from Dallas isn't too bad an idea. In the simulation, UNT would land enough local recruits to be competitive, win some games, then land more local recruits.
It was so logical that UNT could become a decent program, that almost two decades later, I get a little bit thrown off when the Mean Green aren't. And to be sure, they've spent most of their FBS existence being less than decent. Since rejoining FBS in 1995, they have attended five bowls, but four came in a four-year stretch. Darrell Dickey led them to four New Orleans Bowl appearances in a row from 2001-05. Before then, they averaged just 3.2 wins per season. Since, they've averaged 3.
This doesn't make a lot of sense. The facilities could be worse. Apogee Stadium still has a bit of new stadium smell to it. The money isn't atrocious. The access to talent is solid for a mid-major.
Steven Godfrey and I mentioned UNT as a "why aren't they better?" program in last week's Podcast Ain't Played Nobody.
It looked like Dan McCarney had things figured out for a while. Combining a host of veterans with key transfers, McCarney led UNT to a 9-4 season in 2013, the Mean Green's first in Conference USA. It looked replicable. But it wasn't, at least not for McCarney. An inexperienced squad went 4-8 in 2014, and the Mean Green put a stunning level of awfulness onto the field in 2015. They were 128th, dead last, in the S&P+ rankings. They went 1-11 and came within 14 points of an opponent only one other time. They lost to Portland State by 59 points.
They lost to Portland State by 59 points.
It was predictable that McCarney would be dumped. Mike Canales played out the string, leading UNT to its only win and at least sustaining a slightly higher level of play.
2. Enter Seth Littrell
Littrell played for Mike Leach and Mark Mangino at Oklahoma, then served as a GA for Mangino at Kansas, a running backs coach for Leach at Texas Tech, and an assistant for offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes (another air raid disciple) at Arizona. He took over as OC when Dykes left, then he served as spread innovator Kevin Wilson's OC at Indiana for two years. He spent the last two years as Larry Fedora's associate head coach.
He has an almost picture perfect offensive résumé. And he has brought in former Leach quarterback Graham Harrell as his offensive coordinator and former Leach running back Joel Filani as receivers coach. His intentions are clear, and they make sense: take advantage of your proximity to spread talent and hopefully score more points than your opponent.
It might or might not work. It should definitely result in more entertainment.
The bar starts low. UNT had a dreadful passing attack, maybe the worst in the country, and while signing a few JUCOs and transfers will help, there's reason to doubt that new defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler will be able to do much yet. The Mean Green are projected 128th in FBS in S&P+.
But in Conference USA, which has a bottom half weak enough to give it the worst average S&P+ in the country last year, there are wins on the table if Littrell can engineer improvement to the top-100 level.
2015 Schedule & Results
|Record: 1-11 | Adj. Record: 0-12 | Final F/+ Rk: 126 | Final S&P+ Rk: 128|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|3-Oct||at Southern Miss||56||14-49||L||7%||0%||-18.9||-19.0|
|7-Nov||at Louisiana Tech||57||13-56||L||11%||0%||-3.2||-13.5|
|21-Nov||at Middle Tennessee||82||7-41||L||13%||0%||-8.1||-10.0|
|Points Per Game||15.2||124||41.3||122|
3. There's bottoming out ... and there's this
"It's almost a guarantee that North Texas will be better." That's how I wrapped up last season's North Texas preview. But 2015 proved that nothing is guaranteed.
Andrew McNulty began as UNT's starting QB but completed 48 percent of his passes in four games, then went 10-for-25 for just 57 yards in the Portland State debacle. Desperate for a change, Canales installed DaMarcus Smith, and while the junior was no better at throwing the ball, he at least provided mobility. Smith rushed for 122 yards against WKU and 137 in the win over UTSA, and the Mean Green exceeded projections by at least two touchdowns in four of the five games following Portland State.
When you're in the middle of a lost season, all you want to see is improvement. North Texas had that, even if it was marginal.
- First 5 games -- Average percentile performance: 7% | Average performance vs. S&P+ projection: -19.9 PPG
- Last 7 games -- Average percentile performance: 20% | Average performance vs. S&P+ projection: +9.4 PPG
There was a definitive rebound. UNT was never good, but the Mean Green finished ahead of where they were in September. And Littrell's first team will feature both experienced pieces and a few potential early-impact recruits (i.e. transfers). Things could be worse.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||35.9%||112||Succ. Rt. +||85.6||116|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||29.5||60||Def. FP+||28.7||49|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||2.9||127||Redzone S&P+||75.8||127|
|Q1 Rk||128||1st Down Rk||119|
|Q2 Rk||123||2nd Down Rk||122|
|Q3 Rk||105||3rd Down Rk||121|
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|DaMarcus Smith||6'1, 216||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8033||99||212||1010||8||5||46.7%||11||4.9%||4.1|
|Connor Means||6'4, 215||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7917|
|Caleb Chumley||6'5, 240||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8457|
|Alec Morris (Alabama)||6'3, 235||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8701|
|Jeffrey Wilson||RB||6'0, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7678||155||830||1||5.4||5.0||40.6%||5||4|
|DaMarcus Smith||QB||6'1, 216||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8033||81||526||2||6.5||6.4||49.4%||7||3|
|Willy Ivery||RB||5'9, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8115||44||290||2||6.6||8.0||45.5%||2||2|
|Andrew Tucker||RB||6'0, 203||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8200||15||75||0||5.0||4.3||33.3%||1||1|
|A.J. Ezzard||RB||5'10, 207||So.||NR||NR||14||60||1||4.3||1.8||57.1%||0||0|
|Nic Smith||RB||5'10, 182||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8299|
4. A run game you can lean on
Littrell and Harrell have options at quarterback, but who they choose might dictate the quality of the run game.
Smith probably isn't the guy to lead a pass-first attack. He never topped a 59 percent completion rate in any game last fall, and he only twice topped 50 percent.
But the guy can run. Nearly half of his carries gained at least five yards, and he showed nice burst in the open field. With Smith at QB, junior running backs Jeffrey Wilson and Willy Ivery could shine. In Smith's first three games as a starter, Wilson rushed 52 times for 356 yards (6.8).
With three of last year's starters up front returning, along with a pair of JUCO transfers, you figure the UNT run game will be a relative strength regardless of who starts at quarterback. Perhaps Smith retains a role in a red zone or wildcat package. But he might have some work to do to stay atop the depth chart.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Turner Smiley||WR||6'0, 189||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7400||58||25||255||43.1%||15.1%||4.4||51.7%||39.7%||0.97|
|Tee Goree||WR||6'3, 173||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8248||27||15||118||55.6%||7.0%||4.4||55.6%||37.0%||1.13|
|Jeffrey Wilson||RB||6'0, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7678||20||12||71||60.0%||5.2%||3.6||55.0%||40.0%||0.90|
|Thaddeous Thompson||WR||6'2, 202||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7800||19||7||64||36.8%||4.9%||3.4||47.4%||26.3%||1.03|
|Willy Ivery||RB||5'9, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8115||5||2||8||40.0%||1.3%||1.6||40.0%||20.0%||0.61|
|O'Keeron Rutherford||WR||6'5, 190||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785||4||3||17||75.0%||1.0%||4.3||100.0%||50.0%||0.68|
|Calvin Minor||LB||6'3, 213||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7694||3||0||0||0.0%||0.8%||0.0||33.3%||0.0%||0.00|
|A.J. Ezzard||RB||5'10, 207||So.||NR||NR||2||1||8||50.0%||0.5%||4.0||50.0%||0.0%||0.00|
|Kevin Dillman||TE||6'4, 249||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8520|
|Rodney Bendy||WR||6'5, 196||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7979|
|Deion Griffin||WR||5'10, 180||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
5. Harrell probably wants to pass
As Mike Leach's quarterback at Texas Tech from 2005-08, Harrell threw for 15,793 yards and 134 touchdowns. He might be the first quarterback you think of when someone says the words "four verticals." That he was a four-star recruit barely more than a decade ago might make you, like me, feel old.
Harrell spent 2010-12 as a reserve for the Green Bay Packers, and then he returned to his mentor. From 2013-15, he was an assistant for Leach at Washington State.
Harrell is his own guy with his own ideas, but we probably have a pretty good idea of what we're in for with him calling the shots. If Smith is the superior QB on the roster, Harrell might be able to adapt to suit his skill set. But with Alabama transfer Alec Morris coming to Denton for his senior season, and Caleb Chumley (one of the jewels of the 2015 signing class) ready to challenge for a spot after a redshirt year, Smith's going to have a fight on his hands.
Whoever wins will need some receivers, and the corps will be a patchwork. Four of last year's top six targets are gone, and the returnees, Turner Smiley and Tee Goree, each averaged just 4.4 yards per target last year. Smiley showed promise early (first four games: eight catches, 124 yards) but couldn't find a rapport with Smith, and Goree is another recent star recruit.
Otherwise, I have no idea who will catch passes. Tight end Kevin Dillman was a well-regarded signee in 2015, and Deion Griffin was one of Littrell's most well-touted freshmen in this class. But the list of known knowns is small.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Kaydon Kirby||C||6'3, 320||Sr.||NR||NR||11||36|
|Sam Rice||LG||6'4, 297||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8012||12||12|
|Chris Miles||RT||6'4, 299||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7894||12||12|
|Creighton Barr||C||6'3, 302||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8081||1||1|
|Ryan Rentfro||LG||6'4, 314||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7552||0||1|
|Jordan Murray||LT||6'9, 360||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7907||0||0|
|Harrison Sorge||LT||6'5, 311||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652||0||0|
|Avery Fortenberry||RG||6'5, 297||So.||NR||NR||0||0|
|Garrett Gunter||RT||6'4, 293||Sr.||NR||NR||0||0|
|OL||6'5, 272||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8798||0||0|
|T.J. Henson||OL||6'5, 305||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7533|
|Cody Hayes||OL||6'5, 300||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8200|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||48.5%||121||Succ. Rt. +||88.7||104|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.1||89||Off. FP+||30.0||63|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||5.3||125||Redzone S&P+||88.3||110|
|Q1 Rk||125||1st Down Rk||119|
|Q2 Rk||94||2nd Down Rk||98|
|Q3 Rk||122||3rd Down Rk||125|
6. A Mike Ekeler defense
Ekeler's been around. He was Georgia's ILBs coach over the last two years, and before that he spent time at USC (LBs coach, 2013), Indiana (LBs and defensive co-coordinator, 2011-12), Nebraska (LBs, 2008-10), and LSU (grad assistant, 2005-07). He spent quite a few years at the right hand of Bo Pelini, and he's waited quite a while to get a shot at leading his own defense.
Back in December, it appeared Ekeler was heading to Denton to take over Littrell's defense. There's been radio silence since, and he isn't listed on UNT's football page, but it appears that's still likely to happen.
Ekeler's a linebackers guy, and he'd inherit a seasoned linebacking corps that appears to have a pretty high ceiling. Seniors Fred Scott and Cortney Finney will combine with well-regarded sophomores Brandon Garner and Darrien McNair and JUCO transfers William Johnson (a one-time Nebraska commit) and Ejodamen Ejiya. But the defenses Ekeler's been associated with have been at their best with a swarming secondary.
Assuming he is actually the coordinator, he might have the right pieces for being aggressive in the back. The problem will be that opponents might never have to throw.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jarrian Roberts||DE||6'2, 252||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8006||12||22.5||3.2%||10.0||6.5||0||1||0||0|
|T.J. Tauaalo||DT||6'2, 287||So.||NR||NR||12||20.0||2.8%||2.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Jareid Combs||DE||6'3, 258||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7811||12||16.0||2.3%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Roderick Young||DT||6'1, 287||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652||11||14.5||2.0%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Sir Calvin Wallace||DT||6'2, 308||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7900||12||14.0||2.0%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Malik Dilonga||DE||6'4, 264||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7980||12||13.5||1.9%||4.5||3.0||0||0||0||0|
|Andy Flusche||DE||6'3, 259||Jr.||NR||NR||11||11.0||1.6%||2.5||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Tillman Johnson||DE||6'1, 248||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7694||10||5.5||0.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Sid Moore||DT||6'1, 261||Jr.||NR||NR||4||4.0||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Joshua Wheeler||DE||6'3, 255||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8117|
|DT||5'11, 312||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8556|
|Joseph Ozougwu||DE||6'3, 205||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8000|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Fred Scott||OLB||5'11, 233||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7844||12||53.0||7.5%||5.5||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Cortney Finney||OLB||5'11, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7633||12||31.0||4.4%||1.0||0.0||0||1||1||1|
|Calvin Minor||OLB||6'3, 213||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7694||9||17.0||2.4%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Garner||OLB||5'11, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8054||10||16.5||2.3%||4.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Sed Ellis||LB||6'3, 201||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7826||8||5.0||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Darrien McNair||MLB||6'3, 223||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8503||1||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|William Johnson||LB||6'3, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8707|
|Ejodamen Ejiya||LB||6'3, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7633|
|LaDarius Hamilton||LB||6'2, 240||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8093|
7. Newbies in the front seven
UNT's pass defense wasn't particularly good, but it was a step ahead of a dreadful run defense. The Mean Green were neither efficient nor capable of preventing big plays. Forty-two percent of opponent carries gained at least five yards (105th in FBS), and 94 carries gained at least 10 (120th). The Mean Green weren't a bend-don't-break defense so much as bend-and-break.
Injuries and shuffling didn't help. A lot of guys had to play major minutes up front, and a few weren't ready.
Between the experience of the guys in the front seven and the potential of a handful of transfers -- Johnson, Ejiya, defensive end Joshua Wheeler (who had 16 sacks at the JUCO level last year), Kansas State transfer/road grader Bryce English -- the depth could go from major weakness to potential strength this yaer. It's hard to imagine too much improvement happening in a single offseason, but an improved run defense would do wonders for an already decent pass defense.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Kishawn McClain||FS||5'11, 201||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||12||93.5||13.2%||2.5||0||1||3||2||1|
|James Gray||SS||6'0, 190||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8033||12||87.5||12.3%||3||0||0||4||2||0|
|Nate Brooks||CB||6'0, 170||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7948||10||32.5||4.6%||3.5||0||0||3||0||0|
|Chad Davis||CB||5'10, 181||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8272||11||24.0||3.4%||2.5||1||1||5||1||0|
|John Schilleci||SS||6'0, 201||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7906||11||8.5||1.2%||2||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ashton Preston||CB||5'10, 183||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8195||10||8.0||1.1%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Cedric Fernandes||DB||5'10, 176||So.||NR||NR||1||5.5||0.8%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dontavious Baulkman||S||5'11, 200||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7633|
|Darius Turner||CB||6'0, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7500|
|Jameel Moore||CB||5'10, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
8. The pass defense will come around first
If your glasses have a rose-colored tint, you can paint a picture of a better run defense opening up pass-rushing opportunities for Wheeler and senior Jarrian Roberts, and frazzled quarterbacks throwing a few more questionable passes to aggressive defensive backs. Safeties Kishawn McClain and James Gray and corners Nate Brooks and Chad Davis combined for 11.5 tackles for loss and 17 passes defensed last year. Give them a few more chances, and they might respond. And if JUCO transfers Dontavious Baulkman and Darius Turner are able to deliver early, that's even better.
It takes a few ifs to make this a decent unit, and we don't officially know the defensive coordinator yet. But it does appear there's potential.
|Eric Keena||6'2, 175||Sr.||60||44.2||3||24||16||66.7%|
|Eric Keena||6'2, 175||Sr.||32||62.6||14||0||43.8%|
|Trevor Moore||5'11, 194||Jr.||8||63.5||1||0||12.5%|
|Trevor Moore||5'11, 194||Jr.||21-21||9-10||90.0%||0-4||0.0%|
|Jeffrey Wilson||KR||6'0, 195||Jr.||12||23.3||0|
|Special Teams S&P+||95|
|Field Goal Efficiency||104|
|Punt Return Success Rate||44|
|Kick Return Success Rate||55|
|Punt Success Rate||63|
|Kickoff Success Rate||66|
9. Automatic under 40
The special teams unit was, if not a strength, then not nearly as much of a weakness. The return unit was consistently decent, the coverage units were sound, and while Trevor Moore was only 9-for-14 on field goal attempts, he was 9-for-10 inside of 40 yards.
If Littrell, Harrell, and company have enough Leach in them, they might forgo field goal attempts for fourth-down attempts whenever possible. But at least they know they've got a guy who will give them three if they can get to the 25-yard line.
2016 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|12-Nov||at Western Kentucky||45||-27.0||6%|
|Projected wins: 3.4|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-28.3% (110)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||99 / 109|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-7 / -11.6|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||+1.9|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||59% (42%, 76%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||0.8 (0.2)|
10. Wins on the table
UNT landed what was, on paper, a pretty big fish. You never know about a new head coach's organization, but so far Littrell has established a clear identity with his hires, and if Ekeler's the guy on defense, Littrell is bringing in a guy with high-level experience.
It feels like this could work, though I always assume it will work out for North Texas. I'm rarely right about that.
But if you're going to be undergoing a rebuilding job, Conference USA's a good place to be. Even while projecting UNT 128th in FBS, S&P+ still sees three to four wins. That's because five opponents are projected 116th or worse, and three others are worse than 80th. This will give the Mean Green some chances at building confidence, especially early in the year. And if Littrell and company are able to engineer true improvement back to, say, the 100-110 range in the ratings, then look at the win probabilities above: some of those in the 20 to 40 percent range could shift into the 40 to 60 range.
With minimal improvement, North Texas could add quite a few more wins this year. When you're talking about what was possibly the worst team in FBS last year, that's all you can really hope to say.