As the 2018 North Texas football season inches closer, there is no disputing the level of excitement and anticipation is reaching a fever pitch. Optimism abounds and it’s not just from the die-hard fans who frequent the GoMeanGreen.com fan website.
The Mean Green were picked to place first in the Conference USA Western division in the league’s 2018 preseason poll and junior quarterback Mason Fine was selected as the league’s most valuable offensive player. UNT returns 17 starters, and pretty much it’s entire coaching staff including head coach Seth Littrell who led the program to bowl games in both of his first two seasons. They also can boast the #1 ranked 2019 recruiting class in Conference USA according to 247 Sports.
North Texas had struggled for most of the past decade prior to Littrell’s hiring in 2015, notching only one winning season in 2013 under then coach Dan McCarney. In 2016, Littrell took a 1-11 team he inherited from McCarney to a bowl game in his first season as head coach. Later, in the summer of 2016 UNT hired athletic director Wren Baker and after solid 2017 performances in all three major revenue sports the future could not look brighter.
Yet, despite good signs, as a long down trodden North Texas fan, there is always that chip on your shoulder, and concern that even the best of expectations can be derailed. It's just not that easy being green. If that admission means I fall into the #OLDDENTON category so be it.
I could not help but think back to a similar place we – as North Texas fans – found ourselves just four short years ago back in 2014, after an amazing Heart of Dallas bowl win on New Years day against UNLV.
Dan McCarney was hired as head football coach by North Texas in November 2010. This hire was the culmination of a prior disastrous hire of high school coach Todd Dodge made by then athletic director Rick Villarreal. McCarney seemed to be everything Dodge wasn’t. He had experience, having been a player at Iowa under former North Texas legend Hayden Fry and the head coach at Iowa State in some of their glory years. Oh, and by the way, he also won a national championship ring as a defensive coordinator at Florida.
McCarney immediately played the “major rebuild” card that newly installed coaches like to play, and quite honestly, he was probably right as Dodge had run this thing into the ground. His first season at UNT (2011) in the Sun Belt conference earned him a 5-7 record; in 2012 he regressed to 4-8. Alumni and boosters were antsy. How long and could he ever get things on track?
2013 was the season that it all came together and in hindsight unfortunately extended McCarney’s stay an additional 2-years. North Texas went 9-4, and despite not winning their division were able to secure a rare bowl win in front of a good crowd.
Suddenly, the whispers of who would replace McCarney became a chorus of demands to renew his contract as quickly as possible although very few will admit this sin today.
There are certainly some similarities between how North Texas fans felt heading into the 2014 season and how they feel now. Int 2014, North Texas was picked to win the West division of Conference USA and Marshall was expected to win the East. UNT returned seasoned offensive coordinator Mike “Chico” Canales and talked defensive wizard John Skladany out of retiring. They returned 5 offensive starters and 4 defensive starters from their 9-4 squad and recruiting had been solid.
The season started off roughly on the road at the University of Texas as hopes for a major step forward against a P5 program were dashed. UNT would lose the game 38-7 despite a good defensive showing in the 1st half. In week two, UNT bounced back in a big way, defeating arch rival SMU in Denton by a score of 43-6 and the bandwagon started back up. Fans were bleeding green again.
Then reality sunk in after a disastrous home loss against Louisiana Tech by a score of 42-21. After a cupcake win against out-manned Nicholls State, the Mean Green would go on to lose four straight conference games. McCarney would only manage two more conference wins that season against the bottom tier Florida C-USA schools and finished the season at 4-8.
Much of the issues UNT faced in 2014 revolved around the quarterback position. They tried several options during the season, including Iowan Andrew McNulty, juco-transfer Josh Greer, and Dajon Williams. None of them seemed to work, with junior, and McCarney favorite McNulty earning the most game reps.
UNT hoped this setback season was just a blip on the radar screen but the worst was yet to come. In 2015, McCarney would start out 0-5 and was summarily fired after a disastrous 66-7 loss to FCS program Portland State at home.
One could argue that the North Texas program is under solid footing with Coach Littrell and his staff heading into the 2018 season. The biggest difference appears to be the return of junior quarterback Mason Fine. One cannot question the importance of the quarterback position and UNT appears miles ahead of where they were in 2014 both in terms of talent and depth. ‘
Mason Fine will go down as one of the most prolific quarterbacks North Texas has ever had on the field. But he is a not a big guy, and with a porous offensive line, he has had some injury issues in his first two seasons. If you lose Fine, it could put you in a similar situation that McCarney faced in 2014 where he had no significant experience at the most important position on the team.
A look back at North Texas’ 2017 season reveals that Littrell won a fair amount of close games, especially in conference. UNT beat UAB by only 3 points at home and just bested UTSA by 3 at home with seconds left on the clock. They beat Old Dominion by only a touchdown, and La. Tech by only 1-point. Turn those around and throw in an Army non-conference 3-point win and the season could have looked a whole lot different in terms of the record. UNT also benefitted from some lucky breaks, for instance Southern Miss losing their starting quarterback. And you have to factor in that they lose all-time great field UNT goal kicker Trevor “Ice” Moore. The loss of Moore makes the parity in the conference more concerning heading into this important season.
The other factor is the strength of the league. In 2013, many feel McCarney caught Conference USA in a down cycle. In 2013 opponent Tulsa went 3-9, UTEP 2-10, Southern Miss was 1-11 and La. Tech went 4-8. SMU is always a nice win, but that was one of the worst seasons they had in a long time.
In 2018 you know the Western division won’t be easy. La. Tech will likely be back strong after beating SMU in the 2017 Frisco bowl. Southern Miss returns a bowl team, UTSA is always tough, and UAB may have some of the best returning talent in the west. The non-conference slate includes a powerful Florida Atlantic squad, a rising Old Dominion program and Arkansas from the SEC.
Recruiting is another factor to consider, as 2014 unveiled the stark reminder that in his fourth season Dan McCarney’s recruiting abilities – with a few exceptions - had been abysmal. In 2018, Littrell will have more of his players that fit his system in place. He has proven that he and his staff can identify and develop good offensive players such as Fine, and receivers Jalen Guyton, Michael Lawrence and Rico Bussey. As to whether this skill translates to the defensive side of the ball remains to be seen.
If anything, the 2014 season reminds us that expectations can be misleading. There is a real momentum that is being felt around 1301 Bonnie Brae right now. Can Littrell take this program to another level? Or will he fall victim to the curse that North Texas coaches before him have fallen? A solid season could catapult an already amazing recruiting haul into one for the record books and cement Littrell’s legacy as a head coach at the G5 level.