NEW ORLEANS — Dan McCarney can see the difference in his team in the way it has bought into his philosophy and approached the challenge of continuing a turnaround that began last season.
That progress means a whole lot more to North Texas’ second-year head coach than the low expectations that were set during Sun Belt Conference Media Day on Monday.
UNT was picked to finish eighth in its final season in the 10-team league it is leaving to join Conference USA after the upcoming school year.
If that pick sounds like less than a ringing endorsement, that’s because it is.
The two teams picked to finish behind UNT are South Alabama, which is entering its first season in the Sun Belt, and Florida Atlantic, which didn’t win a conference game last season.
“We are going to be really young, but I know that my football team is better than it was at this time last year,” McCarney said. “I hope when the season ends, the record will reflect that because it’s hard to find a guy I don’t respect, don’t like and don’t appreciate and trust on this team. I couldn’t say that at this time last year.”
UNT was actually picked to finish sixth last year, when several national polls had the Mean Green listed among the bottom 15 teams in the country.
McCarney has never put any stock in preseason polls, but used low expectations as a way to motivate his team.
He won’t follow that strategy this year, largely because he believes his team has moved past the point where it needs that type of motivation.
“We never lack for motivation at North Texas,” McCarney said. “I love going into the season with an edge, and we won’t have any problem going into this season with an edge.”
That edge can be traced to the confidence UNT built during a somewhat breakout season in its first year under McCarney — and the belief that this season could be an even better one, despite the doubts that surround the program.
UNT finished 5-7 last season, when the Mean Green matched its win total from the previous two seasons combined.
The challenge UNT faces is trying to replace several of the players that made that turnaround possible. The Mean Green lost its all-time leading rusher Lance Dunbar, who was a first-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection.
And Dunbar was far from the only player who departed after last year.
UNT also lost its second-leading rusher in James Hamilton and three of its top four tackles, including Brandon Akpunku, who led the Mean Green in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (7.5).
UNT also saw its entire starting secondary depart other than cornerback Freddie Warner, and Warner is lost for at least half the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during spring practice.
UNT linebacker Zach Orr knows the reasons why there are those who doubt his team’s ability to compete for the conference title.
He just believes that once one looks past those reasons, there is plenty to like about UNT heading into the season.
“I feel like we are at a better place,” Orr said. “We experienced more wins than anyone on this team had experienced before in their college career last year. We know what we can do and know what it took to get those wins, what kind of work we need to put in.”
McCarney believes it will take tough work to compete in a league that several coaches said could be entering its best season in terms of overall depth and talent this fall.
Florida International, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette all played in bowl games last season and are projected to finish first, second and third, respectively, this year in the coaches’ poll.
ULL is coming off a win over San Diego State in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
“Any team in this conference, if it gets on a roll, has the ability to make a run at the championship,” ULL head coach Mark Hudspeth said. “Every team in this league is well coached. It is very impressive when you look at that.”
ULL was picked to finish eighth last season, but ended up being a surprise team and finished third.
UNT is hoping to come out of nowhere this season just like the Ragin’ Cajuns did a year ago.
“We are motivated within the team,” Orr said. “We want to win the championship. That is our motivation, not where we are ranked. We don’t need outside things to motivate us.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
SBC COACHES’ POLL
The following is the Sun Belt Conference’s Preseason Coaches’ Poll. First-place votes are in parentheses:
1. Florida International (5)
2. Arkansas State (2)
3. Louisiana-Lafayette (2)
4. Western Kentucky (1)
7. Middle Tennessee
8. North Texas
9. Florida Atlantic
10. South Alabama