On the surface, it seemed like Dan McCarney’s first season at North Texas would have been more than enough to satisfy any reasonable expectation.
UNT won more games than in any season since 2004 and matched its win total from the previous two years combined — all while making the transition to playing under a new staff.
The Mean Green fell just short of being bowl eligible at 5-7 and stayed in the race for a bowl berth until falling to Western Kentucky in the next to the last game of the season.
It just wasn’t enough to completely please McCarney.
“We finished fifth in the league last year, which is unacceptable to me,” McCarney said. “We want to make sure that we do everything we can to make a run at winning the league this year.”
Those preparations will begin today when the Mean Green begins fall practice and conducts its annual media day, events that will mark the next step in UNT’s preparations for its season opener at LSU.
UNT will take on the preseason No. 1 team in the country on Sept. 1 in Baton Rouge.
The Mean Green will have plenty of questions to answer before its season opener.
There is little doubt about what UNT’s goals are heading into its showdown with the Tigers and what will follow in the Mean Green’s final season in the Sun Belt Conference.
UNT is moving to Conference USA in 2013 and hasn’t been shy about talking of leaving the league on a high note and ending its seven-year bowl drought. The Mean Green hasn’t been to the postseason since the 2004 New Orleans Bowl.
To say the players have the seven-year itch, even though the most experienced of the Mean Green have been around for only four of those losing seasons, might be a bit of an understatement.
“We want to win this year and get to a bowl,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “That would help us build for the following year and Conference USA.”
Few people expect UNT to come close to that goal, at least when it comes to preseason polls and prognostications. UNT was picked to finish eighth in the Sun Belt’s preseason coaches’ poll.
Only Sun Belt newcomer South Alabama and Florida Atlantic, which finished 1-11 and lost all eight of its conference games a year ago, were picked to finish behind UNT.
That provides plenty of motivation for McCarney and his players as they begin practice.
“When you take programs that are at rock bottom and no one respects, that everyone laughed at and want as a homecoming opponent and do good things, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world,” McCarney said during the Sun Belt’s media day last month in New Orleans. “I can only anticipate the feelings that those kids I will talk to on Aug. 5 who have never experienced a winning season would have if we experience a winning season and how much fun it would be for them. When I think about it, I don’t lack for any motivation.”
The question UNT will face is whether it has enough in the way of returning talent and impact additions to make a run at the league title.
UNT lost several of its key players from last season, including record-setting running back Lance Dunbar, defensive end Brandon Akpunku and seven of the eight defensive backs on the depth chart for its season finale a year ago. The Mean Green will also have to adjust to playing for new defensive coordinator John Skladany, the third coach to hold that title in the last three seasons.
UNT had plenty of issues to deal with last year as well, but ended up having its best season in years.
McCarney and his players are aiming for a repeat — at least in terms of overcoming the odds.
“Let’s get better,” McCarney said. “Everyone knew we got better last year. Let’s do it again. At the end of the year, that is what I want the consensus to be.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
COMPETING FOR POSITIONS
North Texas will have competition at several key positions this fall. The following is a look at some of them:
• Running back — UNT lost its career rushing leader in Lance Dunbar and backup James Hamilton. Brandin Byrd, Jeremy Brown and Antoninne Jimmerson will be among the players competing for playing time.
• Cornerback — Four-year starter Royce Hill and Steven Ford graduated, while Freddie Warner was injured in spring practice, leaving UNT without a player who started a game last season. Players such as Hilbert Jackson, D.Q. Johnson and freshman newcomers Devante Davis and Xavier Kelly must fill the void.
• Defensive end — UNT has one sure starter back in Brandon McCoy but will have to replace Brandon Akpunku on the other side. K.C. Obi, Aaron Bellazin and Daryl Mason will compete for playing time.