Is 2018 another 2014?


Harry

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.



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Reality Check reading this. I feel like the guys that Littrell has here are better equipped for success. They can take the highs and the lows and learn from them. The first few games will say a lot. Fine said last year that he wanted to learn how to close out games. I think he proves he can this year. 

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I think that we will be better in 2018 than 2014 just because our offensive talent is superior to that squad. Fine is light years better than anyone we ran out at the QB position in 2014. Barring injuries/suspensions, our offense will be the strength of the team again and that is the name of the game in the NCAA today.

But I do also believe that the law of averages could very well come back to bite us if we play a lot of close games. I've seen it happen to the Cowboys last year and the Rangers the year before--teams that win close games in one season often fall backwards in those situations in the year that follows. I still believe that we have the easiest schedule we have ever had--our OOC is much easier than it has been with SMU, Incarnate Word, @ Liberty, and at a down Arkansas program. Match it with the two worst FBS programs in our division in Rice and UTEP, as well as games at Charlotte and @ UTSA, you feel like there should be at least 6 wins in this group. Then, you add in home games against LT and USM, and a road game at UAB, you at least hope for 2 wins in that group. I believe FAU is way out of league right now, so that is probably a loss. 8-4 would be the bare minimum, IMO, to say that SL has truly turned this thing around and will be most likely lured away after the season by a P5 program ( see Tennessee last season that he applied for their opening). But again, this is based on injuries/suspensions not being a huge issue. We have seen seasons where this has been the case and the season's hopes ended before they could even get going (see UNT in 2010 when the plague hit our QBs in the first quarter of the season)...

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Just now, GreenN'walinsVet said:

If we forced Fine to play Left Handed, he would still be the best QB in the room in 2014!

 

Hell, he could just run the ball with two stumps and be a better QB than what we rolled out in 2015!!

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27 minutes ago, largekfcbucket said:

If we go 4-8 this year I will do suicides in the brisk December cold at Apogee for 12 hours straight. 

Just be careful what you say you will do...you will be held to it! I seem to recall that Stebo found out what crow tastes like. 🙂

 

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Just now, EagleMBA said:

Just be careful what you say you will do...you will be held to it! I seem to recall that Stebo found out what crow tastes like. 🙂

 

Lord knows my fat ass could use it. That being said, I'd rather enjoy wins from my couch.

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8 minutes ago, RiseUNT said:

I'm sure every QB on this roster would be a starter for that 2014 team!

Are they all from Iowa City?

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59 minutes ago, largekfcbucket said:

If we go 4-8 this year I will do suicides in the brisk December cold at Apogee for 12 hours straight. 

MARK!

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Allow me to put in writing what many of you are secretly thinking but afraid to say.  Please withhold the arrows and brickbats until I finish typing.

My green blood is pumping wildly and I am enjoying everything I am reading and the recognition our deserving players are receiving.  I am a vocal supporter and look forward to an outstanding season.  Late at night, in a nightmare, I see folks with scissors clipping stories and pasting them in scrapbooks.  Meanwhile, I sniff horseshit and look out the window to see a herd of ponies approaching at full gallop armed with knives. They eviscerate us and by the time the team recovers we are 0 - 3 on the season. When I wake up, kick off the sweaty sheets, and drink two cups of strong black coffee, I see that the sun has risen and that it is not yet September 1.  Until that date passes and we start off with a W, I will have those nasty dreams.  There is too much history in that series and we have plenty of catching up to do.

OK...go ahead and fire away; tell me I am a

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12 minutes ago, EagleMBA said:

Allow me to put in writing what many of you are secretly thinking but afraid to say.  Please withhold the arrows and brickbats until I finish typing.

My green blood is pumping wildly and I am enjoying everything I am reading and the recognition our deserving players are receiving.  I am a vocal supporter and look forward to an outstanding season.  Late at night, in a nightmare, I see folks with scissors clipping stories and pasting them in scrapbooks.  Meanwhile, I sniff horseshit and look out the window to see a herd of ponies approaching at full gallop armed with knives. They eviscerate us and by the time the team recovers we are 0 - 3 on the season. When I wake up, kick off the sweaty sheets, and drink two cups of strong black coffee, I see that the sun has risen and that it is not yet September 1.  Until that date passes and we start off with a W, I will have those nasty dreams.  There is too much history in that series and we have plenty of catching up to do.

OK...go ahead and fire away; tell me I am a

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Considering we will beat SMU by double digits, I would say you are worrying too much. 

 

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If the stark differences between this point in 2014 and now are not readily apparent, I don't know that you could be helped, @Harry.

I'm talking coaching, returning starters, recruiting, actual momentum and respect, institutional change, and leadership from the top-down that are in sync with one another.

We are, truthfully, an entire Age away from where we were four years ago.

There is near no common ground to be found.

Edited by Christopher Walker
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5 minutes ago, meanrob said:

Considering we will beat SMU by double digits, I would say you are worrying too much. 

 

I tend to think this will happen, too...but if we don't beat them this year, playing them here with their new coach and new QB and without their all-world WR we couldn't pretend to even cover, its very probable that we aren't beating them anytime soon. This is the year that we should be able to let out a lot of frustration on them for the last three years.

I'll say this again, but I knew 2015 would be awful when we lost badly to them in our first game. SMU was the worst FBS team in the country the year before, hired a new coach, and had to learn a whole new offense, so if we lost to them, there was not going to be another FBS team we would beat the rest of that year. Well, it turned out that we were so bad that FCS Portland State prison-raped us in front of our own crowd on Homecoming and that we did beat one FBS team, UTSA, who was down to their 5th string QB in the second half of a game we miraculously won by a TD. 

We owe them an ass-kicking for what they have done to us on the field the last three years and I;m really hoping that we give it to them this season...

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Follow-up:

I just subscribed to The Athletic (because damn is this not some solid, Grantland-esque writing??) and here's the first line of a piece on where our team sits from earlier this month:

Quote

A fluke is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a stroke of luck,” something that is accidentally successful or prospers randomly.

The North Texas football program under Head Coach Seth Littrell does not qualify.

 

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2 hours ago, meanrob said:

I always appreciate a trip down Mean Green memory lane but the similarities don't exist. I was worried both about the record and the future going into the 2014 season. We lost a ton and nothing about Mac and his recruiting pointed towards replenishing the roster. I was fully on board with the Mac hire but you could definitely see things weren't all roses. 2013 was great but it felt like a mirage. 

We could step back record-wise this year (it's entirely possible) and I'd still feel good about the future. As Jay and Mr. Gooding pointed out, our QB stable is stacked and sexy. Recruiting overall is pointing upward. Even if Coach Littrell left I feel like a foundation is being built. Completely different feeling from 2014. Nice clickbait though. 🙂

This.

As my group left the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 2014, I literally told my buddies that we should retire from UNT football fandom right there...or at least hibernate for a couple of seasons until things had a chance to pick back up.  After the previous 10 seasons, I was just whipped by the constant rebuilding in Denton and knew we were in for more.  Of course, they talked me out of it and you better believe I let them have it during that terrible stretch.  As a lifelong UNT fan, I can dang sure spot a really bad team or major rebuild coming....and we're not there now.

 

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In the event of mass injury, fortune turning against us, or collusion, I can see us going 6-6. It would leave me incredibly disappointed but not entirely shocked. I cannot imagine any circumstance where the team has a 4-8 or 5-7 season, however.

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I am confident that 2018 will not be a reminder of 2014 for many reasons, but one big one is best illustrated by...

Phil Steele's Experience Chart which combines his

  • Career Starts Offensive Line
  • % of Yards returning
  • % of Tackles returning
  • Two Deep Class breakdown

A look at where the squads in question stack(ed) up...

2014 - http://plus.philsteele.com/Blogs/2014/JUNE14/DBJune16.html

  • #96 - 54.73 experience points

2018 -  https://philsteele.com/2018/07/02/2018-experience-chart-pg-29-of-2018-college-magazine/

  • #8 - 76 experience points

 

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4 hours ago, meanrob said:

Considering we will beat SMU by double digits, I would say you are worrying too much. 

 

I sincerely appreciate your consoling words. Really, I do. But Vegas still has us as a 3.5-point favorite and, since the game is at our house, that is a tossup. Very scary...I need a beer now!

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McCarney was a very poor recruiter and relied primarily on Dodge's signees to win in his one good year.  

McCarney's talent level was going down after 2014 were Littrell's is going up this year.   

Plus Littrell is just a better coach than McCarney was in Denton.    McCarney's heath issues might have been a big factor, but he just was not up to the job.  

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