A decade ago, the North Texas Mean Green were the class of the Sun Belt, and really, it wasn't close. Darrell Dickey had taken over a stagnant program in 1998 (they won just 11 games in their first three seasons back at the FBS level) and, beginning in his fourth season, they won four consecutive conference titles and attended four consecutive New Orleans Bowls.
The Mean Green had won just eight games in Dickey's first three seasons, but they won 29 between 2001-04 … and then, overnight, they regressed back to previous form. UNT went 5-18 in 2005-06, and Dickey departed. In came Texas high school hero Todd Dodge (coach of Southlake Carroll high school) … who went a staggering 6-37 in three and a half seasons before he was fired.
Last year was a new beginning for UNT, then, when they brought seasoned head coach Dan McCarney aboard. It had to be expected that the transition from Dodge's spread offense to more of a straight-forward, run-heavy attack would be rough, but the Mean Green showed strong late progress. After averaging just 24.1 Adj. PPG in their first seven games, they jumped to 29.8, well above average, in their final five, and they finished a 5-7 season by demolishing Middle Tennessee, 59-7. The year ended with legitimate reasons for optimism in Denton.
This year, however, there is another new beginning at work. McCarney suffered a minor stroke in February, and as he works his way through his second spring in Texas, normalcy is new again. McCarney has long been considered one of the more likable coaches in the college ranks. He is an easy figure to root for, both in terms of football success and simple day-to-day life. Here's to hoping McCarney achieves normalcy on the sidelines and what would now be out-of-character, bowl-level quality on the field.
Here's what I said about my favorite video game underdogs last year:
The level of talent here doesn't necessarily reflect what you would think for a team based in, well, north Texas, but McCarney was probably a good hire. There is very little predictability when it comes to the background of incoming coaches, but hiring coaches with a modicum of success at the BCS level is as safe a bet as you can make. With a new stadium and a back capable of going for 2,000 yards (OK, 1,700), the Mean Green should make for an interesting team this coming fall ... if not a particularly good one. If only there were a 6'11, 400-pound fullback lying around somewhere...
"Interesting … if not particularly good." That was just about right. North Texas improved to just 102nd in the F/+ rankings, but they were salty enough to win five games, move the ball on standard downs, harass the quarterback, and take a clear, if still relatively small, step forward. The main issue for 2012 is pretty simple: the Mean Green lost 27 seniors from last year's squad, and though it initially seems like all 27 were defensive backs, there are quite a few interesting players to replace. The Mean Green are rather deep in the trenches, and they have a few different experienced quarterbacks from which to choose, but treading water might be a nice result this fall.
What the North Texas offense lacked in scheme-friendly personnel, they made up for in rushing, solid game planning and more rushing. The Mean Green ran the ball two-thirds of the time on standard downs and mixed in quite a bit of passing to Christopher Bynes, and it worked. UNT ranked 47th in Standard Downs S&P+ despite some shuffling at the quarterback position, and as mentioned above, the offense improved later in the season. The problem: they were hopeless on passing downs. Once they fell into second- or third-and-long, the drive was over. Staying "on schedule" is important to everybody, but it was doubly so to North Texas.
The heart and soul of the 2011 North Texas offense, and previous seasons for that matter, was running back Lance Dunbar. He never quite matched his incredible sophomore numbers in 2010-11, but he was a solid workhorse back, and he gave UNT some leeway in addressing its quarterback issues. Now, both Dunbar and backup James Hamilton are gone. They combined for 1,521 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns and over 350 receiving yards, and they now pass the reins to … somebody. Junior Brandin Byrd, who had just 20 carries in 2011, started the spring at No. 1, but senior Jeremy Brown and redshirt freshmen Antoine Jimmerson and Zac Whitfield all have a chance to play a go-to role. Whoever garners the most carries will be running behind a potentially decent line. Four of last year's starters return, including two-year starting center Aaron Fortenberry.
The quarterback position might be more settled than its backfield mate. Junior Derek Thompson completed 58 percent of his passes, evaded the pass rush, and threw 11 touchdowns to six interceptions last year, but he struggled through injuries, giving time for backups Andrew McNulty and Brent Osborn to ply their trade. All three averaged between 5.4 and 6.0 yards per pass attempt, but McNulty made a few more mistakes along the way (three interceptions, 10.5 percent sack rate). One has to figure Thompson is the likely starter, and he may potentially have some solid upside.
With experience may come better passing downs performance. What we have begun to learn over time is the fact that passing downs performance is highly tied to quarterback play. Standard downs are where you execute your chosen gameplan; passing downs are where you ask someone to simply make a play. Thompson may potentially have an exciting receiving corps at his disposal, too, or at least a reliable one. Bynes was the standard downs weapon of choice, but Thompson and company looked to 5-foot-9 junior Brelan Chancellor on passing downs. Chancellor caught 37 passes for 457 yards; on this offense, that constituted a home run threat. If Bynes, Chancellor and Ivan Delgado make normal year-to-year improvement, and the Mean Green can get help from either or both of their three-star freshman signees -- Roderick Lancaster and Nick Schrapps -- the passing game as a whole should improve.
The North Texas defense has made solid strides over the last two years. The Mean Green ranked 113th in Def. F/+ in 2009, 95th in 2010 and 82nd in 2011. But that positive statement comes with a bit of a "good news, bad news" addendum. Most of the front seven -- a strength of last year's defense -- returns, which is good; but virtually ALL of the secondary is gone. The top four safeties and both starting cornerbacks are gone, leaving behind corner Freddie Warner (16.5 tackles, one pass broken up in seven games), and … somebody. Marcus Trice gets a second chance at college ball after a short stint at Oklahoma, three-star junior college transfer D.Q. Johnson will have plenty of opportunity to succeed, and career backup Hilbert Jackson (two passes broken up last year) might still break through.
The silver lining with the losses in the secondary is that, aside from perhaps cornerback Royce Hill, the secondary just wasn't very good last year. Despite a sack rate that ranked 24th in the country, North Texas still ranked just 104th in Passing S&P+. Even if there is a dropoff, it won't be much of one.
If the secondary can at least hold steady, the front seven should be very good again. They must replace star end Brandon Akpunku (10 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles), but Brandon McCoy (7.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks) returns, and former three-star recruit Aaron Bellazin showed at least a little bit of potential last fall. The top three tackles all return, including 260-pounder Ryan Boutwell and 330-pounder Tevinn Cantly. (Diversity!)
At linebacker, Zachary Orr is the story. Despite missing the final three games of the year to injury, Orr almost led the team in tackles and led the linebacking corps with seven tackles for loss and four passes defended. He and sophomore Michael Stojkovic are a stellar duo, though UNT must find another outside linebacker to replace the departed Forlando Johnson and Julian Herron.
More than Akpunku, and more than anybody in the secondary, the most important replacement might come on the sideline. Coordinator Clint Bowen left after just one season in Denton to take the same position on Charlie Weis' staff at Kansas, so McCarney turned to John Skladany, his old coordinator at Iowa State. Skladany always seemed to produce solid front-seven play in Ames, and he certainly has some toys to play with in that regard, but unless Warner, Trice, Johnson, Jackson and company can form a semi-competent secondary, the 2012 defense will be limited in the same was as the 2011 unit.
North Texas hosts Texas Southern, FBS newcomer South Alabama and potentially beatable Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette teams; when combined with winnable road games against Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee and UL-Monroe, that gives the Mean Green a chance at replicating last season's five wins or, with some luck, minor bowl eligibility. With the turnover at running back and in the secondary, however, I say another five wins should be considered successful.
As we have learned through the years in the Sun Belt, the teams are very, very close together in terms of talent and capability. A little bit of improvement can go a long way, as Florida International proved in 2010 and UL-Lafayette and Western Kentucky proved last year. The slate is such that North Texas could make a nice run at bowl eligibility with just a little bit more improvement; but I'm going to say that is still a year away.
Most of UNT's potential difference makers -- Derek Thompson, Brelan Chancellor, three sophomore starters on the offensive line, Brandon McCoy, Zach Orr and Michael Stojkovic, Freddie Warner, Marcus Trice, D.Q. Johnson -- will be back in 2013, and in an improving Sun Belt, it might take until then for the Mean Green to return to the bowl ranks for the first time since 2004.