It is September and that means it is football season. There is no sense of foreboding, like there was at the start of last year’s Pandemic Season, but I do not feel the same joy and relief I had hoped for when I thought we were a vaccination away from modified normalcy.
For a few weeks in May, I had hope that come September we would get a worry-free return to college football. Instead, we have Delta and mask debates and anti-vaxxers and lots of controversy in and around the game and all of life.
The existential dread from a global pandemic and its economic side-effects also hastened the seemingly inevitable consolidation of power in the sport. UT and Oklahoma are moving over to the SEC, and the Big 12 is looking over at the AAC to make moves. The coalition that is CUSA is predictably happy to fracture at the mere hint of an opportunity for a perceived jump to something better.
North Texas has been in a good space since 2013, even if things have not been as good as we all hoped or thought they could be. There was a title game appearance, and some record-setting offensive seasons. The program is better off than it was in the previous decade and we can be grateful for that.
Seth Littrell was hired to bring the fireworks and he has delivered that and more. His 20, 18, and 17 offenses rank 1, 2, and 3 in total offense per game. He has four of the top five total offense seasons in NT history. He recruited Jaelon Darden (Bucs) and Jalen Guyton (Chargers). He got Mason Fine (all timer) and helped Jeff Wilson get to the Niners. It has been a good hire for the offensive side of the ball.
Defensively, NT has regressed to the absolute worst team in the nation. His hires have been very disappointing and now NT is relying on Phil Bennett to right the defensive ship. The good news is that the Mean Green have every chance to compete in this league if Bennett is able to work some magic. The bad news is that few believe it is possible and the enthusiasm around the program is understandably muted.
Let us pause for a second and consider your perspective. The pandemic has everyone reevaluating their goals. I felt the existential threat and that motivated me to see my life with some clarity and I started working harder to achieve some goals I had previously only roughly planned for. It also had me caring less about some things I previously thought mattered.
This kind of perspective changes comes with age and maturity (mostly) but it was (at least in my case) accelerated with stress of the last 18 months or so. 1
I dream less often of NT getting into the CFP and more of NT winning the CUSA title. It is an achievable goal. It is a reasonable goal. It is something NT can do just about every third and fourth year. Lo, and behold. This is the third year after the last winning season. We can expect some good things.
What Happened Last Year, and What Does it Mean?
The shortest version is this: North Texas’ historically bad defense put them out of games quickly and often. The offense was nearly as good as the defense was bad, but no one remembers that too much because it was in losing causes and the QB shuffle saw frustrating substations and yo-yo-ing on the way to more losses. The combined version of Austin Aune and Jason Bean was by the far the league’s best QB. The defense was giving out career days.
His defense dragged the bottom of nearly every defensive category: points, yards, rush yards, what-have-you. NT allowed seven (7) players a career rushing day or their 2nd highest:
- Ulysses Bentley — SMU: 19 carries 227 yards 3 scores
- Frank Gore Jr. — USM: 23 carreies 130, 1 score
- Aaron McCallister — CLT: 12 for 140 and 1 td (2nd highest total)
- Chaton Mobley — MTSU: 14 carries 156 yards 1 score (2nd highest total)
- Khalan Griffin — Rice: 20 carries 72 yards (five games in career)
- Israel Tucker — LaTech: 37 rushes 164 yards 2 scores
- Calvin Brownholtz (QB) — UTEP: 15 carries 114 yards, 2 scores
- Deion Hankins the RB had 99 yards, not his career high.
- Sincere McCormick — UTSA: 23 carries 251 yards 2 scores
- Cameron Peoples — App State (bowl): 23 carries 319 yards 5 scores
- M. Williams had 101 also. And one called back that would have been 70 yards.
The season culminated in a bowl game loss to App State in which the team was ran off the field (500 yards rushing allowed!) 56-28 and the defensive coordinator fired. Seth Littrell has gone to bows in four of five seasons but is winless in those four appearances, including three blowouts. Things can be better.
What About This Year?
Jace Ruder and Austin Aune will do a combination QB thing again this year. Seth Littrell has praised both, and considers each starter-worthy. He heaped praise on Aune and his progress, attributing the growth and comfort to having a spring practice with both.
NT will be without new Tampa Bay Buccanner Jaelon Darden. There is a good argument to be made that the big stats by the QBs were largely because they had Darden to throw to. The good news is that NT has made a habit of finding good WRs. Oh and running backs. Oh, and the offensive line returns four-of-five starters. In short, we can reasonably expect the offense to be explosive this season although there will likely be some frustrating QB play and some execution stumbles in important moments. NT did not have to face UAB last year, but did get outplayed in San Antonio, where the fill-in defensive coordinator had the Runners ready to frustrate NT.
Defensively, new DC Phil Bennett has the squad lining up out of a four-man base, and while that is largely not a huge deal in the modern game, it has some ramifications on the desired weights for certain positions , and height and weight targets for recruits. The defense brings back a lot of players who made contributions last year. That is good, in that experience is key, and bad, in that the experience was largely awful.
We usually go in-depth on the roster groupings but for brevity (it is Saturday) and readability, we will keep to the highest levels.
QB — Austin Aune / Jace Ruder — Aune has the tools, is old(er), and experience in the system. Ruder has the recruiting service resume, and time in a P5 program. We wrote a little about Ruder here and there during the offseason. Aune showed some good things when he was playing well for NT, and other times completely missed wide open guys in the secondary. That will be something to watch
RB — Deandre Torrey — Torrey came into the squad as a speedster with game-breaking ability. He has played with some poor versions of NT teams, but has shown the ability to score touchdowns and get free in the secondary. He seemingly is bounced down in the depth chart every year he is here, but manages to find touches and get yards and points for the squad. This year Oscar Adaway was going to get the majority of carries but went down with a season-ender. Torrey looks to get into the record books here.
Deonte Simpson Jyaire Shorter
WR — Deonte Simpson / Jyaire Shorter / ‘Ronzo Thompson /Roderick Burns — NT has found lots of really good wideouts here — Jalen Guyton, Rico Bussey Jr, Jaelon Darden are recent dudes who had at least an NFL look in training camp. Guyton and Darden are on NFL rosters right now. Simpson showed some real ability last season while Jyaire Shorter is coming back from a leg injury. He had been coming into his own as he figured out how to use his size and speed to get points. He was a touchdown machine with go routes being his primary bread-and-butter. The other guys will get their shot, as NT likes to spread the ball around. Look out for Tommy Bush, also, a big recruit that NT was chasing out of high school that transferred here this offseason after leaving Georgia.
Line — Manase Mose, Jacob Brammer, Daizon Carroll, Cole Brown all bring a lot of experience to the line. Good things should happen here in the way of opening space and keeping Aune and Ruder off their backs.
TE/HB — Jake Roberts / Jason Pirtle / Var’Keyes Gumms — NT likes to get versatility in their tempo by using the same set. These guys can block and catch and that means NT can run Torrey while also being a threat downfield.
This group has the talent to do big things. The concern is in the details — and that usually is on the coaching staff. Seth Littrell teams have a tendency to have 500+ yards of offense but they could not convert a 3rd-and-2 late that would have won it or something.
Phil Bennett is the real change. He is an experienced coordinator and has seen just about everything. There is talent here, and I expected improvement last year in what should have been year two of this group evolving in former coordinator Reffett’s system. Instead, we saw a regression to the absolute worst in the nation. Much of that is on Clint Bowen, who was seemingly universally disliked by players in both of his stops in Denton. The system is four-man base but we have written previously that there is precious little difference in three-and-four man systems in the modern era. A lot of it is in how defense is taught and the types of players recruited. The Murphy twins were recruited as linebackers but became undersized edge rushers in the 3-man scheme … and are edge rushers in this four man scheme. Tyreke Davis played a Star-hybrid safety/linebacker in the old system and an “Eagle” in this one, which is the same.
Defensive Line — Grayson Murphy / Gabe Murphy / Dion Novil / Caleb Colvin — Novil had a terrible season compared to expectations. The Murphies were the brightest spot for a stretch and when those three were getting at QBs, it looked like NT had a shot to right the ship. The plan is the get these guys in the backfield causing havoc early and often. There is not as much girth here as we probably would like, but then again, only Rice and UAB want to run right through teams.
Linebackers — KD Davis / Kevin Wood / Jordan Brown / Larry Nixon — This group is talented and has foot speed to fly around the field. They looked lost often last year, and if we assign that to the coaching staff, we can be hopeful in this season. The EJ Ejiya/ Brandon Garner duo made a huge leap a couple of seasons ago that turned NT’s defense into something approaching championship calibre for a bit. It can be done here at NT.
Eagle — Tyreke Davis / Sean-Thomas Faulkner — Tyreke has been destined to play this position forever and excelled here. He struggled in his freshman and sophomore years when teams started picking on him on passing downs. Look for that here.
Safeties — Makyle Sanders / DeShawn Gaddie — Sanders has experience and Gaddie did a lot of good in spots last year. The key here is eliminating — I am talking no more — the glaring errors that saw wide open receivers in the secondary, or missed assignments and poor angles in the run game.
Corners — John Davis / Quinn Whitlock / Upton Stout / Dillon Williams — Every corner gets beat one-on-one. It is the nature of the game. You want a mix of play-making, short memories, and consistency. A good corner knows that allowing a catch but no yards after can be the difference between winning and losing. A bad corner tries to be Deion Sanders when he is really Jason Sehorn 2 This group has talent but needs to clean up the technique and mental mistakes. There were too many instances of guys looking lost in the secondary, pointing to where they thought their teammate should be mid play and just getting beat. Coaching and experience will help this a ton.
Sept 4 – Today! Northwestern State should be a glorified practice scrimmage but we will learn a lot. Over on CUSA Report I have noted that good teams beat inferior teams convincingly. If you have a hard time on offense (ahem, UAB) it will show. Sure, you could put up 500 yards but there will only be about 31 points. Similarly, if you have the ability to throw the ball around (WKU), the passes will be open against an inferior opponent, but those wide open windows will likely just be smaller. NT should score a bunch here.
Prediction: Win 55-10
Sept 11 – at SMU — The Ponies have been good for a couple of years and NT has gotten spanked over there. We will learn a whole lot here. I do not quite believe that NT has the details on offense or the solidity on defense to overcome a well-coached team but my hope is they make it closer than in recent games.
Prediction: Loss 38-31
Sept 18 vs UAB — The Blazers have a stout defense and a powerful run game. These teams did not meet last year and it would have been a test for NT then. This year they return a bunch of Super Seniors and whatever advantage NT might have in experience it is exceeded by theirs in the same area. NT would have to score a ton, and find a way to stop a powerful run game. I do not see it.
Prediction: Loss 27-17
Sept 25 at La Tech — The Techsters are talented but putting together a roster of guys that are new to the program. That means there is some room to take advantage. They have a good QB in Austin Kendall and that will put pressure on the defense.
Prediction: Win 40-35
Oct 9 at Missouri — NT does not have the crispness to compete with P5 teams right now (unlike when they went to Arkansas and kicked ass) and so this is probably a “good job, good effort” kind of deal.
Prediction: Loss 31-17
Oct 15 vs Marshall — I am down on Marshall even though they have a good coach who says the right things while returning a lot of talent from a team that hosted the title game. The first season is always weird for a new guy so I am skeptical.
Prediction: Win 45-38
Oct 23 vs Liberty — The controversial but good Liberty squad comes to Denton. NT would have gotten rocked by this team last year and if we are presuming the defense is not the worst ever, I can see NT getting a win.
Prediction: Win 41-38
Oct 30: at Rice — The Owls have NT’s number in recent years. The Mean Green’s late season travels out to Houston have not resulted in good things. Even when there was a win, it was a poorly played game. Last time out NT lost.
Prediction: Loss 38-35
Nov 6 at Southern Miss — The Eagles are like NT. They have similar teams, similar problems each year but just do not live in a metroplex. Also, Hattiesburg is not as nice as Denton. Still they should be much more solid compared to last year and last year they beat NT with an interim coach.
Prediction: Loss 42-31
Nov 13 vs UTEP — The Miners are not good, but they have their deepest team in a while. I am glad this is in Denton, as Hell Paso is tough for NT recently.
Prediction: Win 50-30
Nov 20 at FIU — I do not believe in Florida International but they manage to pull one game out their hat each year that makes me question my football knowings.
Prediction: Win 40 – 10.
Nov 27 — vs UTSA — UTSA came in with a great game plan at home vs NT, and the Mean Green wilted against the powerful run game. I smell revenge.
Record prediction: 6 – 5
I was bullish last year and feeling a little burned by that. I believed in the defense (read: Clint Bowen) much more than I probably should have. The truth is that NT is a coinflip away from competing seriously with the top of the division and also losing to everyone. The best case scenario is that the offense clicks, and Bennett provides enough of a defense that NT is in every game. It is not unrealistic. I will be excited to be very wrong in this prediction, y’all.
Takeaways From This Preview
Sound smart with your friends and family by saying things like “NT should have a powerful offense. Look out for Torrey getting close to some all-time records and Deonte Simpson to step into Jaelon Darden’s shoes, while Jyaire Shorter Mosses some dudes”.
Also, “Bennett should get this experienced group of players playing good football and NT is a dark horse West division squad”
Also sound like you know what you are talking about by saying “Seth Littrell’s teams are not the greatest in short-yardage situations, and get out schemed by clever coaches like Lane Kiffin, Jeff Traylor, and in Bowl Games.”
Also, “A key indicator that NT’s defense is playing better is not only the lack of 500 yard rushing games allowed ;), but also the fewer number of 10+ yard plays allowed”