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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 102: North Texas

Need a coach familiar with winning under adverse circumstances? Dan McCarney’s your man: he’s won consistently at Iowa State, for goodness’ sake, and if you can win in Ames during the period McCarney did you can win anywhere. That’s what North Texas thinks, and the program’s on the right track. Perhaps no marriage of coach and university in need works so well, as McCarney was hungry for another head coaching opportunity after being unceremoniously dumped by I.S.U. in 2006, and U.N.T. was looking for a veteran, accomplished coach to replace Todd Dodge, who was neither of those things. Veteran: McCarney is 57, with more than 30 years of coaching experience. Accomplished: Iowa, Wisconsin, Iowa State, South Florida and Florida, winning every step of the way.

Conference
Sun Belt

Location
Denton, Tex.

Nickname
Mean Green

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 120

2010 record
(3-9, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 108

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at F.I.U.
  • Sept. 10
    Houston
  • Sept. 17
    at Alabama
  • Sept. 24
    Indiana
  • Oct. 1
    at Tulsa
  • Oct. 8
    F.A.U.
  • Oct. 15
    at La.-Lafayette
  • Oct. 22
    La.-Monroe
  • Oct. 29
    at Arkansas St.
  • Nov. 12
    at Troy
  • Nov. 19
    W.K.U.
  • Dec. 3
    Middle Tennessee

Last year’s prediction

What could go right in 2010? Quite a bit, actually. The U.N.T. schedule is highlighted by a very winnable October, a period that could see U.N.T. go 2-3. There is returning talent on offense, though the new quarterback, whether it be Tune or Thompson, will take time to get acclimated. The majority of the starting defense also returns in 2010; however, I remain unconvinced that we are going to see any improvement from a unit that has struggled mightily since 2007. All told, I have North Texas alongside Western Kentucky at the bottom of the Sun Belt — either could have been in this spot, but I have no choice but to gamble against Todd Dodge.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Dodge lasted until Oct. 20, when he was relieved of his duties less than four years from the day he arrived with massive expectations. North Texas hadn’t been terrible to that point despite the 1-6 mark, losing three games by a combined seven points, but the Mean Green really turned a corner once offensive coordinator Mike Canales was promoted as Dodge’s replacement: 2-3 from Oct. 30 on, with a win over an eventual bowl participant and three very close, competitive losses. So that’s the feeling U.N.T. brings over to 2011, when a new coach hopes to bottle the final five games of last season and make competitiveness — and winning, one day — a more permanent occurrence.

High point The third and final win, on Nov. 13, came against a real, live bowl team: North Texas 23, Middle Tennessee State 17. On the road, no less.

Low point Most of the losses were competitive, minus games with Clemson, Army and Florida International. Nothing wrong with any of those losses. So perhaps the low point was a narrow loss, of which the Mean Green had many.

Tidbit The offense wasn’t quite as prolific as it was in 2009 and 2008, but the Mean Green did gain more than 4,000 yards of total offense for the fourth consecutive season, extending what was already a program record. North Texas has reached such a plateau only 12 times in program history, so one can make the following claim: Dodge lost and lost for several reasons, but the offense wasn’t foremost among them.

Tidbit (strange losses edition) So a solid offense doesn’t cure all, obviously. Seriously. Take note: North Texas outgained 14 opponents over the last two seasons but won only five of those games. In those 14 games, the Mean Green gained an average of 445.6 yards per game while allowing an average of 345.0 yards per game — 100 more yards per game — yet still lost nine times. So coaching played a role.

Former players in the N.F.L.

3 DE Adrian Awasom (Minnesota), RB Patrick Cobbs (Miami), OG Brian Waters (Kansas City).

Arbitrary top five list

Famous Dentons
1. Denton “Cy” Young, 511-win pitcher.
2. Denton Cooley, innovative heart surgeon.
3. Jeremiah Denton, former senator from Alabama.
4. Sandra Denton, one-third of the group “Salt-N-Pepa.”
5. Daniel Denton, early American colonist.

Coaching

Dan McCarney (Iowa ’75), entering his first season with North Texas. It was about time that McCarney got a second shot at running his own program, as he achieved enough over 12 seasons at Iowa State to more than deserve another opportunity. As will be the case in Denton, the odds were always stacked against McCarney and the Cyclones; nevertheless, McCarney left in 2006 as the program’s all-time leader in wins (56) and bowl appearances (5), making a pretty easy claim to being the finest coach in I.S.U. history. Among his other highlights in Ames: 2004 Big 12 Coach of the Year; five of the program’s 17 seven-win seasons; the first nine-win season in 94 years in 2000; and, that same year, the program’s first ever bowl win. So you can understand why the masses were left shaking their heads when Iowa State opted to dismiss McCarney in late 2006, when his Cyclones slipped 4-8 after back-to-back bowl berths. He was snatched up quickly: McCarney spent one year at South Florida as the assistant head coach and defensive line coach before spending the last three seasons at Florida in the same capacity. The Gators won the national championship in 2008, McCarney’s debut season in Gainesville, and returned to the B.C.S. a year later. But it’s not the national title and B.C.S. experience that made McCarney so attractive to U.N.T.; it helps, but it’s far from his defining characteristic. What defines McCarney is what he achieved with the Cyclones, as well as his work as a Haden Fry assistant at Iowa from 1977-80 and under Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin from 1990-94. It’s about his experience winning when others said he couldn’t, whether at Iowa, Wisconsin or Iowa State. If he can win there he can win in Denton, or so North Texas hopes.

Tidbit (coaching edition) McCarney was very wise to retain Mike Canales, who replaced Dodge on Oct. 20 and led the Mean Green to two wins in their final five games. Canales did a great job not only with the team at large upon taking on the interim mantle but also with the offense, keeping the group together despite a number of injuries at key positions. So that he decided to stay despite being passed over for the full-time head coaching job was tremendous news for North Texas. McCarney’s defensive coordinator will be Clint Bowen, who spent last season at Western Kentucky after seven years at Kansas.

Players to watch

It’s all about Lance Dunbar, the best running back in college football you’ve never seen. You probably haven’t seen Dunbar, the owner of 2,931 yards rushing over the last two years, the second-highest total in the country. He’s a complete runner, one able to grind out carries, earn tough yardage and break the big play, as well as an added weapon in the receiving game (28 catches for 332 yards in 2010). Dunbar’s also the lone weapon on consequence on this offense, which leads to his tremendous statistical output but leaves North Texas too often relying on him to carry the offense on his back. Regardless, he’s a clear pick for Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, an all-American contender and a candidate for some national hardware at the end of the season. His backup will be senior James Hamilton, though he missed a significant chunk of last season due to injury.

Speaking of injury issues: Derek Thompson is the favorite at quarterback, which sounds great until you recall that he played all of 24 snaps last fall before suffering a broken leg, ending his season. So he needs to show he’s capable of remaining healthy, as well as capable of leading this offense more efficiently than his primary competitor, JUCO transfer Brent Osborn. Former walk-on Chase Baine earned a scholarship, which is always a wonderful story, but he’s the third choice under center.

There was talk of getting the tight ends involved heading into last season, but we were wise to adopt a believe-it-when-I-see-it mentality: no tight ends got involved, though that had just as much to do with a lack of options as with a coaching preference. The position will see more touches in 2011, and U.N.T. is high on the pairing of Andrew Power and Daniel Prior. The receiver corps has a good top line but lacks depth, making injuries a concern. We’re looking at you, Michael Outlaw; he missed all of last season due to injury but showed his worth in a pretty solid 2009. The group is led by junior Darius Casey, the team leader in each major category (38 catches for 524 yards and 5 scores). Tyler Sradford rounds out the starting lineup, but the real players that must step up are targets like return specialist Brelan Chancellor, former transfer Chris Bynes and converted tight end Jamize Olawale.

If there’s a strength on this defense — and notice the use of if — it’s the secondary, where seven of last season’s eight main contributors are back in the fold. The leader of the group is the most experienced player on the team: cornerback Royce Hill enters another season in the starting lineup after earning raves for his play in McCarney and Bowen’s new system. Competition on the opposite side will yield depth; the Mean Green could go with the starter in last year’s season opener, Steven Ford, or the man who played in Ford’s stead, D’Leon McCord, once he was lost to injury. There are similar options at safety. John Shorter (two interceptions, tying for the team lead) could start at one safety spot, or it could be the man he replaced for 10 games last fall due to injury, DaWaylon Cook. The Mean Green have been pleasantly surprised by how quickly converted linebacker Brad Graham has taken to safety, and he could move ahead of Ryan Downing to start the season opener.

The defense will really miss linebacker Craig Robertson, who even when the defense was allowing points in bunches always seemed to be making plays on the ball. He ended the year with 133 tackles, a career-best and the most by a North Texas defense since 1989. His spot in the middle will be filled by sophomore Zach Orr, who has a bright future. Without Robertson, the leadership mantle falls to junior Jeremy Phillips, the team’s second-leading tackler (69, 6.5 for loss, 2 interceptions). As Graham moved up to safety, Will Wright moved down to linebacker, and he’s tied with Forlando Johnson at the other outside linebacker position.

The good news up front: Dan McCarney has forgotten more about defensive line play than other coaches in the F.B.S. know, and he’ll get this group playing good football. His first order of business will be beefing up the pass rush, which was pitiful last year and, to be honest, hasn’t been good in more than a half-decade. So the onus falls on starting ends Brandon Akpunku and K.C. Obi, particularly Akpunku, who leads all active U.N.T. defenders with 9.5 career sacks. The interior of the line has questions but one great story: the Countdown loves ex-members of the armed forces who return to college football, so I’ll be rooting hard for former Marine Brandon McCoy — a walk-on nicknamed “Sarge.” He made three sacks as a reserve last fall and will be looked at as a lineman who can create some disruption in the backfield.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Quarterback isn’t the only place where North Texas has a final decision to make. A more troubling situation is brewing along the offensive line, where injuries issue during the spring forestalled U.N.T.’s quest to build a solid starting five. The three lost starters combined to make 113 games, so there will be an extreme drop-off in terms of experience — further increasing the importance of J.J. Johnson’s recovery from injury. He brings three years of starting time into 2011, but after missing the final 11 games of 2010, Johnson needs to show he’s back at full strength. The right side of the line is set: Aaron Fortenberry will move out to guard after starting at center last fall, and senior Matt Tomlinson will start at tackle. Of course, Johnson’s recovery could throw a crimp in those plans, as Fortenberry would move back to center if he isn’t ready to go come September. There are interesting things happening on the left side of the line. The Mean Green have two players battling it out at guard, with redshirt freshman Mason Y’Barbo currently sitting ahead of an injured Coleman Feeley, who missed most of the spring. It’s anyone’s guess what’s going to happen at left tackle, where North Texas has three options — Antonio Johnson currently leads the way — but nothing resembling an answer.

Game(s) to watch

If North Texas can survive a rough start it can do anything, so that’s an intriguing stretch to watch. For evidence of whether the Mean Green have moved beyond the cellar, look at how they fare against some of the weaker teams in the Sun Belt, like Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s reason for excitement in Denton. The Mean Green now have a coach, which is cause for celebration. McCarney is the program’s most accomplished coach since Hayden Fry, which is fitting: he cut his teeth under Fry at Iowa, and carries the same coaching principles developed under his watch into this endeavor at North Texas. In all areas, the hiring works. Now, the question remains whether McCarney can win immediately — as in 2011, right now, this year, after the way North Texas ended last season. It’s an intriguing confluence of events: McCarney is hired, an upgrade at the position, just as U.N.T. begins playing its best football in years. So on paper, one can very well make the case that the Mean Green are due to break out in 2011 — I’m making the case as we speak. My feelings on the idea: let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s take it one year at a time, and remember that North Texas still has a little ways to go before returning to Sun Belt contention, a process that includes reversing the type of losing culture McCarney inherits in his debut season. Only a little ways, mind you: the Sun Belt isn’t good, U.N.T. not that bad, and I can see the Mean Green competing for four wins in conference play and factoring in the Sun Belt race. The schedule starts very poorly for the Mean Green, ensuring a poor start, but look for the team to play well down the stretch — not just as the schedule lessens, but as the players begin to understand what is asked of them by this new staff. It’s not too often that a coaching change immediately alters one’s perception of a program, but that’s happened in Denton.

Dream season This would qualify as a dream: 3-3 through mid-October, North Texas turns on the jets down the stretch to finish 9-3, 7-1 in the Sun Belt.

Nightmare season Nothing McCarney could do would make U.N.T. reconsider its coaching decision, minus an 0-12 finish with each loss coming by 40-plus points.

In case you were wondering

Where do North Texas fans congregate? Begin your search with Go Mean Green, continue with Inside North Texas and finish with the Web site of the Denton Record Chronicle. If I’ve missed any, please list them below.

Word Count

Through 19 teams 49,816.

Up Next

Who is No. 101? The county housing tomorrow’s university is not quite dry, not quite wet, but closer to moist, meaning if you’re in the county and want to quench your thirst with a tall one, you need to be in the general area of the school itself.

Slightly reworded: You might be confused to find – as I was – upon visiting tomorrow’s university that the surrounding area is dry, meaning you’d be hard-pressed to find an alcoholic beverage to quench your insatiable thirst. Then you’d realize you’re in the right county but in the wrong state, and need to find a better map or a better navigator.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Alex Payne says:

    Shot in the dark…Utah St?

  2. Jer says:

    Middle Tenn is in a “Limited” county; so my guess they’re next!

  3. Tom says:

    could be arkansas state…

  4. M Meyer says:

    My guess is Arkansas State. The county is “dry”, but there are liquor stores in Jonesboro.

  5. Kevin says:

    Overall a very good report. I will say that UNT did get the tightend much more involved last year. They were utilized mainly as blocking backs and caught a few passes. That was a lot more than what Dodge did. In fact, we even saw two tightends at the SAME TIME on the field.

  6. Clayton says:

    If I had to guess, I’d say Middle Tennessee State. Their county looks like it has some confusing alcohol laws.

  7. Zac says:

    As a Middle Tennessee alum, I feel I can pretty safely say that we are not next. I’m not sure what someone else meant by “limited” county, but the blue laws in Rutherford county are not too much different than anywhere else in the south. Liquor stores are closed on Sunday, but you can buy beer anywhere else on Sunday, which is more than I can say for Atlanta where I live now. You can’t buy anything buy the package on Sundays in Georgia. Also considering Murfreesboro is the geographic center of the state of Tennessee and it’s at least and hour and a half to the closest border in any direction, I’d be highly considered if Mr. Myerberg found himself in the wrong state…

    Having been to Jonesboro, Arkansas(home of Arkansas State) I can definitely say that they have some confusing alcohol laws. It was within the last five years that they’ve allowed “by the drink”(restaurant) sales of alcohol and I’m pretty sure there still isn’t by the package sales allowed and Craighead county does touch the Tennessee border…

  8. M Meyer says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Wyoming then. Laramie’s just over the border, and parts of Colorado are dry.

  9. M Meyer says:

    I like that UNT is completing the Hayden Fry coaching circle. McCarney was unfairly fired from Iowa State. It’s always a shame when a coach takes a program to the next level and then is summarily fired because the AD gets greedy. He’s a great fit for North Texas, and the program will be back on top of the Sun Belt very soon.

  10. jjtiller says:

    I’m just wondering why the new stadium hasn’t mentioned in the article :)

  11. Steve says:

    that new stadium looks sweet. I read where Riley Dodge has transferred to McNeese State. Anyone know if this is true? Dodge was fun to watch I wish him well.

  12. BenW says:

    A couple of things. I was very surprised that the writer did not mention that North Texas is opening a beautiful new stadium, one more reason for optimism in Denton. Our leading receiver is Darius Carey, not Casey. And Zach Orr is replacing AJ Penson in the middle and is likely an upgrade there. Will Wright is competing with Johnson for Roberton’s OLB spot.
    @Steve, Riley did transfer. The common thought is that it would have just too strange to stay after his dad was gone and he wanted a clean slate somewhere.
    Thanks for writing a pretty comprehensive article on UNT.

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