Mile Marker: North Texas Entering Conference Play

We are four games into the season, with the non-conference slate behind us, and it is time to take stock of things. The most important metric is the W/L column. Your Mean Green Fightin’ Eagles of North Texas are 4-0.

Surprisingly, the defense has been the story of the season. That is not to say the offense and Mason Fine have been bad — far from it — but they have not been at the same level as the 2017 team was in efficiency metrics. Some of that has to do with the situations. NT has played some odd games.

The UIW and Liberty games were played in rain and that contributed to some of the drops and weirdness. The run game made its debut against Liberty last week, and that bodes well for the team as conference play looms.

Let us take a quick look around and check on things.

Category NT FBS Rank
Points 48.8 12
Total Offense 510.8 17
Rush Offense 165.5 81
Passing Offense 345.3 12
Scoring Defense 15.8 18
Total Defense 308.0 20
Passing Defense 209 61
Rushing Defense 99.0 14

The above category are your standard numbers and the quickest glance tells us that NT can score, can defend, and is dominant against the run game while allowing some passing yards. This does not tell us about efficiency or the other kinds of things. We’ll get to the advanced numbers later.

Elsewhere NT is highly ranked in some notable areas.

Category NT FBS Rank
Sacks 14.0 tied 7
Interceptions 10 1
Sacks Allowed 6 46
10+ yard plays 75 10
TFLs 28 35
3rd Down Conversion % 41% 59
3rd Down Conversion % All 30% 23

Let’s look at some advanced numbers.

S&P+

Rank 42nd (of 130), Off Rank 61, Def Rank 41, ST Rank 10

Massey

Rating 72, Off 55, Def 97

FEI

Rating 82 — through 9/17

Sagarin

Rating 50

SRS

Rating 14, Off 23, Def 29

FPI

ESPN projects us to go 11-1 based on the ratings of everyone on the schedule.

NT is ranked 10th overall in team efficiency (84.8), 58 (55.9) on Offense, 6 (88.6) on Defense, 2 (87.9) on Special Teams.

Broadly speaking we can see that NT is more favorably rated in the numbers that look at raw counting totals, and less favorably rated offensively in the ones that look for efficiency. There are more details in each link. Check them out for more.

What It Means

As I wrote on CUSA Report, NT is the best team in the league right now and that is largely thanks to the defense. EJ Ejiya and Brandon Garner have been incredible. The defensive line has been good — about as good or better as they were last season. The improvement in linebacking play is a small thing that makes a big difference. The blitzes and scheme are largely the same, but getting to the QB instead of just after he releases is the difference between winning and losing.

The defensive backfield has been the biggest beneficiaries of the QB pressure. Kemon Hall, Khairi Muhammad, and Nate Brooks all have three interceptions each which puts them in a eight-way tie for 2nd in the nation.

Nate Brooks in particular has improved from his 2017 form, but he played at near this level in 2016, so it is relatively unsurprising. It is a truism that it is much easier to defend hopeful, wobbly passes thrown under duress than not. This is a team game, and it is important to consider context when evaluating the individual units.

Last year, the defense was not good if you simply look at results, but there were some good signs. This season a combination of improvement and poorer quality opposition has translated to one of the best defenses NT has seen in some time — since 2013 at least.

The competition is going to improve. Yes, we write that knowing the SEC team is behind us. La Tech has talent — J’Mar Smith, Teddy Veal, Adrian Hardy, and Jaqwis Dancy all can make plays in 1v1 matchups. They will present more of a challenge not only because Smith is a more mobile QB than has been on the slate thus far.

Beyond that, FAU still has Motor Singletary. Southern Miss has an accurate QB and a handful of talented WRs and RBs. UAB has a focused offense predicated on a power run game that can give anyone in this league some trouble.

Thus far NT has an offense that can score against all of CUSA. The drops from Guyton are concerning, but they can be overcome. The run game was the primary concern. Mason Fine is good, but having to make 57 perfect decisions is a giant burden to place on anyone no matter how good.

Liberty is weak against the run. We saw on Saturday that Army was not just optioning them to death, but overpowering the line. NT was able to get anything it wanted in the ground game.

Tech and the rest of the league slate is much better. RB Loren Easly has been amazing in his two games as the primary back. He bulled some Arkansas defenders, and that bodes well going forward. Nic Smith and DeAndre Torrey have shown some great things as change-of-pace backs.

Meanwhile, Rico Bussey is on pace for 84 grabs this season, which is 26 more than Mike Lawrence’s team-leading 62 last year. Bussey had 7 TD grabs in 2017 and already has 5 thus far.

He has transformed from a hit-and-miss player, to a consistent, prototypical outside WR threat.

Outlook

Everyone is healthy heading into the rest of the season. The schedule sets up nicely, with the remaining tough games at home with the notable exception of UAB on the road in Alabama.

This upcoming week is the toughest game to date, with Tech being the only winning team NT will have faced thus far. The Bulldogs have had success in Denton previously, with that 2014 game looking familiar if only because of the overall similarities between the seasons. Obviously, the major difference is that NT is good with good quarterback play in 2018 and is taking advantage of the opportunities.

This game is the equivalent to the UTSA game and the Tech game from 2017 in importance. Then, UNT President Smatresk called the October UTSA matchup “the division title game” and he was sort of right. It sent UTSA reeling and set up NT for the rest of the year. The Roadrunners were not as good as predicted. We do not know too much about Tech just yet, but they did give LSU a game after spotting them 24 points early.

The advanced numbers like North Texas the rest of the way, and while we can expect some weirdness and a challenge, even one loss (depending on to whom) will still set up NT for another title game appearance.

Things are looking good early.