Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!
Whenever I played Dynasty mode on all the various iterations of NCAA Football, I would always inevitably end up 30 years into my coaching career and constantly wind up in two or three National Championship games against North Texas. As improbable as that is in real life - because, until the recent Playoff expansion to 12 teams, G5 teams were never allowed to play for a National Championship - at least in the game it made sense! Denton is located right in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which is the prime recruiting ground for Texas, as well as only being a four-hour drive to the other main recruiting turf of Houston. North Texas as a school has an annual enrollment of over 40,000 students with a nice alumni base for donations and booster-corps. And it’s located in the football-crazed state of Texas, so of course on paper (and in the game) a solid Mean Green football team was a totally feasible outcome.
That’s rarely been the case, however. They were pretty good back when “Mean” Joe Green was leading a dynamite defense in the 60s but they dropped down to the FCS level in the 70s and weren’t really even competitive at that level. They came back to the FBS level in the 90s and only really saw success in two instances since then: Darrell Dickey’s four consecutive Sun Belt Championship runs of 2001-2004 and then current coach Seth Littrell’s back-to-back 9-win seasons in 2017 and 2018.
Since then the Mean Green have been in a bit of funk, including last year. Check it out:
North Texas basically played two seasons in last year’s COVID season: from September 5th through October 17th the Mean Green went 2-3, beating Middle Tennessee and FCS Houston Baptist in shoot-outs while nobly falling to SMU and faceplanting against bad Southern Miss and Charlotte squads. Then they had a forced month off due to COVID cancellations before once again scraping out two wins against struggling Rice and UTEP teams and getting blown out by UTSA and Louisiana Tech. Because all teams were eligible for a bowl last year, North Texas had the honor of being a 4-5 bowl team, getting pantsed by Eli Drinkwitz’s old team, Appalachian State, 56-28 to close out the year.
North Texas’ wins were ugly and their losses were uglier. What does 2021 hold in store for them?
Seth Littrell - 6th Year - 31-31 (21-18)
Back in the far away land of 2018, Seth Littrell was the hottest name in the fast-riser category of college football coach. The former North Carolina OC was 40 years young, was considered an excellent offensive mind, and built a program that had won 9-games twice in a row at a school that hadn’t seen success in quite some time. He interviewed for the Kansas State job but was told that he would have no say in who he could hire for his assistant coach staff. Given how incredibly rare and awkward a situation that is - and also the fact that he had an absolutely loaded offense, led by record-breaking quarterback Mason Fine and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, returning in 2019 - Littrell rebuked the Wildcats and elected to wait another year to try the coaching carousel after the 2019 season.
The Mean Green lost Harrell to USC and proceeded to go 4-8. Then went 4-6 last year for good measure.
Now, Littrell is firmly on the hot-seat in Denton, TX. This might be one of those ghost stories coaches tell each other at conventions about waiting too long to “make the jump” to the P5 level, but also, Kansas State gave Littrell a dirty deal so I don’t blame him for turning them down. He just happened to regress in the one year he couldn’t then had issues trying to rebuild during a COVID season. It doesn’t look great that his offenses without Graham Harrell have noticeably regressed, but this season will be the first where he has a solidified starter at quarterback in two years. I don’t know how this season will end up or how itchy the North Texas trigger finger is, but it would be in Littrell’s best interest to at least make a bowl this year. The anxiety is certainly palpable with his recent DC hire so it’s clear he feels the pressure to succeed quickly as well.
Mike Bloesch & Tommy Mainord - Co-Offensive Coordinators: These two had the unenviable task of replacing offensive wunderkind Graham Harrell has coordinators for the Mean Green and, reader, the difference was noticeable. Harrell’s offenses excelled in the passing game, ranking 65th and 67th overall in the two years under his watch. Without Harrell calling the shot the Mean Green became more run-oriented as their quarterbacks lost their accuracy and the passing game became ever more reliant on the deep ball. Bloesch and Mainord juggled between two quarterbacks last year but the transfer portal has given them a single answer to the position for now. If they can help develop some reliable receivers - and Mainord doubles as the wide receivers coach so the pressure is double on him - then they can get the Mean Green back to competence in both aspects of offensive production.
Phil Bennett - Defensive Coordinator: Fun fact: Phil Bennett hasn’t coached a down of football since 2017 when he retired as Arizona State’s defensive coordinator. Before then he had spent six years as Baylor’s defensive coordinator under Art Briles, bringing an blitz-heavy, turnover-reliant scheme to pair with the Briles’ warp-speed offensive attack. The hire makes sense: Seth Littrell has only once fielded a defense that ranked better than 92nd, and with his up-tempo air-raid-ish offensive attack, he needs someone familiar with producing havoc-friendly defenses that can create a few turnovers, cause a few explosions, and build a two-three possession cushion for the offense to work with. At 65, Bennett certainly isn’t a fossil but he retired because of health reasons and one has to wonder how much he has recovered - and how much he’ll be into it - as he inherits a defense that could barely stop FCS Houston Baptist.
Chris Petrilli - Special Teams Coordinator
Blake Joseph - Quarterbacks
Patrick Cobbs - Running Backs
Adrian Mayes - Tight Ends
Matt Passwaters - Defensive Line
Jim Gush - Linebackers
Jarred Holley - Cornerbacks
Yes, the Mean Green offense ranked 83rd overall in SP+ last year but this is still a damn good offense when it’s clicking. Last year’s version did two things: run the ball for efficiency and sometimes connect on the deep ball. If they could do that then it was a race to score 60 first; if they couldn’t then they fell behind by three scores and could never make up the difference.
North Texas wasn’t the most explosive on the ground but was Top 30 in every other ground metric and excelled at both standard down success rate (37th) and passing down success rate (22nd). The issue? They were successful by running the ball on those downs. If they couldn’t get it on the ground then their surprisingly bad passing offense (62nd) couldn’t reliably make up the difference since it needed to hit on deep balls downfield (or have Jaelon Darden take a 1-yard screen and make magic happen). The quarterback, line, and running backs all return so expect another heavy-dosage of the quick-hitting run game; how the passing game develops, however, will tell the tale of how successful the ‘21 offense can be.
Quarterback - Austin Aune - Redshirt Sophomore
Originally a 3-star prospect in the 2012 recruiting class, Aune spent six years in the New York Yankees farm system after being drafted in the 2nd round of the MLB Draft. After not making it past the High-A Tampa affiliation he decided to go back to school and walked-on at Arkansas. He then transferred to North Texas and is now a 28-year old fourth-year sophomore: a combination of age, eligibility, and classification that I will confidently assume has never been achieved before (thanks COVID!). Last year Aune and Jason Bean split time at quarterback but neither gentleman really set themselves apart: both had 54% completion rates (yuck) while Bean threw one more touchdown and interception and Aune took way fewer sacks. Bean hit the transfer portal at the end of 2020, however, and is now trying to salvage the kansas Football Jayhawks so Aune is the lone QB with any experience on the team now. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do with a full season of being “the guy”: does he level out with more snaps and knowing he’s the one quarterback that UNT rolls out? Does he keep the same scatter-shot accuracy and suck out loud for another season? UNT returns a ton of receivers but not a lot of production so the passing game might struggle for another season unless Aune can magically cover for that inexperience.
Running Back - DeAndre Torrey - Graduate Student
Torrey is the “lightening” of Mean Green running backs while Oscar Adaway III is the thunder. The two combined for 212 carries, 1,228 yards, and 9 touchdowns on the ground. At 5’7” and 195 pounds, Torrey is seemingly the faster, quicker back to Adaway’s 6’0”, 215-pound build but they both averaged nearly the same yards per carry (5.8) and yards-per-carry on inside runs (5.9) and zone-read runs (both over 7.0 YPC). The difference is that Torrey was stuffed 6% more of the time and struggled in 7-man boxes while Adaway averaged over 5-yards per run in a 7-man box or greater. Regardless, either is a home-run threat if they can get outside and will be relied upon to steady the UNT offense until a passing threat is found.
Wide Receiver - Deonte Simpson - Sophomore
First, let’s appreciate what North Texas receiver Jaelon Darden did in 2020:
- 112 targets, 74 catches (66% catch rate), 1,190 yards, 19 touchdowns. And that was with two inaccurate quarterbacks throwing to him!
But Darden is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer now. So let’s look at Deonte Simpson, UNT’s second best receiver last year:
- 45 targets, 25 catches (56% catch rate), 517 yards, 4 touchdowns.
Darden was seemingly the first, second, and third read in the passing progression and, occasionally, Simpson would get a look as the deep threat guy (20.7 yards per catch, 11 yards per target). Unfortunately the Mean Green’s third-leading receiver hit the transfer portal so it’s Simpson and then a pu-pu platter of dudes with less than 25 targets for the entire season. Unless a freshman or underclassman from last year makes an immediate impact it’s hard to see the passing game carving up the Tiger secondary, even with all the new faces occupying the starting spots.
Let’s cut to the chase: the North Texas stunk last year. Let’s list all the metrics that North Texas was not in the bottom 30 for:
- Passing Downs Success Rate: 31.9% (64th)
End of list.
Literally everything else was 80th or worse, including allowing nearly a 50% success rate on running plays (103rd), a 44% success rate on passing plays (83rd), and a whopping 54% success rate on standard downs (116th). And that was was with a play-making defensive tackle, two solid linebackers, a legitimate shutdown corner, and a do-everything safety in the lineup.
So what gives? Former kansas Defensive Coordinator Clint Bowen (the architect of those killer Jayhawk defenses from ‘06-’09) joined the Mean Green right before the pandemic hit, inheriting the 91st best defense of 2019 and crashing it into a wall as they tumbled to 121st. Whether it was a lack of practice time or just an inability to game plan well, Bowen’s 10-game run as DC ended as quickly as it began and Littrell brought former Baylor DC Phil Bennett out of retirement to salvage what he can from last year’s defense.
The good news, as it were: almost everyone comes back. “The 121st-best defense returns everyone” might not elicit much hope or enthusiasm but Bennett is known for his aggressive, attacking defenses and a tactical shift - or at least a different voice in the room - paired with some legitimate talent might be enough to turn this thing around.
...or they could continue to get blown the hell up every week in a similar fashion that every other Littrell-era defense has done. We’ll find out soon enough!
Defensive Line - Dion Novil - Graduate Student
Novil is a rarity: a 3-4 nose tackle that lead the team in tackles for loss (7). Now, that probably speaks a lot more about the talent (or lack thereof) on the roster around him, but it’s still damn impressive for a 6’4”, 330-pound guy eating double teams every play to still log a team-high level of tackles for loss. The two other top linemen return for 2021 as well but, combined, their stats didn’t even come close to the production Novil put up. Mike Maietti and Case Cook will have their hands full on October 9th.
Linebacker - Larry Nixon III - Redshirt Sophomore
The Mean Green have their own Larry Threesticks! Their version, Larry Nixon, had a breakout year last season, ending up third on the team in tackles and third on the team in tackles for loss. Every linebacker from last year’s team returns and, while they weren’t the best unit last year, they certainly got plenty of experience and are deep enough to provide a solid rotation throughout the year. Keep an eye on Gabriel Murphy as well: the redshirt freshman only logged 11 tackles but was second on the team with 5 tackles for loss.
Defensive Back - Makyle Sanders - Graduate Student
Sanders seemingly never left the field from his safety position, leading the defense in snaps (709), tackles (38), and interceptions (2). Like every other defensive position previewed here, most of the defensive backs return, including both starting corners and safeties (and Quin Whitlock is an excellent #1 cornerback). I’m not sure how much improvement one-year can make - ranking 83rd in passing success rate allowed and 97th in passing explosiveness doesn’t magically improve with 10 games of experience - but continuity should mean that they could probably get out of the 100-area ranking...for whatever that’s worth...
So what does it all mean?
You schedule these games to win them. The obvious statement is obvious but when you’re a middling SEC team you need to schedule an easy non-conference slate to gain experience and build up wins to get to a bowl game, get ranked, earn a little primetime tv time, and increase your recruiting by building the brand into a culture of winners.
So when you pay a North Texas or Central Michigan to come to your house you need to not only get the W but really put the hurting on them to show your athleticism and ability to be a cut above other teams at your peer level.
North Texas is vulnerable: their head coach is on the hot seat and making some desperate changes to save his job on the side of the ball that he’s never had success with. They have good players, yes, but the depth behind them absolutely sucks and their best offensive weapon last year is currently in the NFL.
Yes, some youth will step up and be good, and yes, a defensive-philosophy change that champions havoc and disruption will hit home a few times and cause a quick three-and-out or a bad turnover that causes some clinching among Missouri faithful. But if Eli Drinkwitz and this team are what we think they are - and the talent he’s bringing in is as good as we think they can be - and the weaknesses on this team have been sufficiently plugged through the transfer portal, then this should be a butt-kicking that we can collectively enjoy from halftime on.
Again, Missouri is too young and not good enough to ever give a C+ effort and expect a win. This game comes right after Tennessee and right before Texas A&M and UNT will be coming off of a Bye week. But even with all of that, this should be a comfortable 14-point win at a minimum. I foresee that coming to fruition.