North Texas has plenty of reasons to be motivated heading into its inaugural season in Conference USA, from the opportunity to make a good first impression to the chance to play in a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
The release of the Conference USA preseason coaches poll and all-conference team on Wednesday provided yet another.
There will be 14 teams in the newly aligned league this season, all but two of which had at least one player named to the preseason all-league team.
The only teams missing were UNT and UTEP on the squad that includes 28 players.
UNT didn’t receive a whole lot of respect in the preseason coaches poll, either. The league’s coaches picked the Mean Green to finish fifth out of seven teams in C-USA’s West Division. Tulane and Texas-San Antonio were picked to finish sixth and seventh, respectively.
Tulsa was a unanimous pick to win the West Division, while East Carolina was picked to win the East Division.
“We know that we have our work cut out for us heading into a new league, and we have a lot to prove against some great teams that are in our division and our league,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said in a statement.
The last time UNT did not have a player named to a preseason all-conference team was in 2009, when the Mean Green played in the Sun Belt Conference. UNT left that league after last season to join C-USA.
McCarney and UNT’s players have spoken about the importance of playing well in their first season in a new conference throughout the offseason.
“They are not going to shut the program down if we don’t win, but this is a big year for us,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “There are a lot of guys who are ready to help turn things and have a really successful year. We are prepared for it.”
There is little doubt that UNT will enter the 2013 season as an underdog after finishing 4-8 in its second season under McCarney last year.
UNT returns 16 starters, including Thompson, leading rusher Brandin Byrd (860 yards) and top tackler Zach Orr (108 stops), but will make a step up in competition. UNT also lost its only first-team All-Sun Belt pick from a year ago in center Aaron Fortenberry to graduation.
While UNT didn’t have a player selected for the preseason All-C-USA team, there are a few members of the Mean Green who have resumes that one could argue make them deserving.
Orr might have the best case among UNT players.
The senior was one of 107 players who were named this week to the watch list for the Lombardi Award, which goes to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker. The former DeSoto standout was a second-team All-Sun Belt pick after each of the last two seasons.
Shawn Jackson of Tulsa, Derrell Johnson of East Carolina and Andre Kirk of Florida Atlantic were the three linebackers named to the preseason All-C-USA team. Johnson was a second-team All-C-USA pick at the end of last season when Jackson and Kirk received honorable mention in C-USA and the Sun Belt, respectively.
UNT will look to Orr to help the Mean Green move up in the pecking order in C-USA, where the Mean Green will be aligned in a division with Texas rivals Rice, UTEP and UTSA.
Rice was picked to finish second in C-USA’s West Division. Louisiana Tech was picked third and UTEP fourth.
Rice defensive back Phillip Gaines was named the preseason defensive player of the year, while Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato was named the preseason offensive player of the year.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
C-USA PRESEASON POLL
As voted on by the league’s 14 head coaches. First-place votes are in parentheses.
1. Tulsa (14)
3. Louisiana Tech
5. North Texas
7. Texas-San Antonio
1. East Carolina (11)
2. Marshall (2)
3. Middle Tennessee (1)
5. Southern Mississippi
6. Florida Atlantic
7. Florida International
PRESEASON ALL-C-USA TEAM
As selected by the conference’s head coaches.
Offensive Player of the Year
Rakeem Cato, Jr., QB, Marshall
Defensive Player of the Year
Phillip Gaines, Sr., DB, Rice
Special Teams Player of the Year
Cairo Santos, Sr., K, Tulane
QB Rakeem Cato, Jr., Marshall; RB Vintavious Cooper, Sr., East Carolina; RB Darrin Reaves, Jr., UAB; OL Jake Alexander, Jr., Tulsa; OL Stetson Burnett, Sr., Tulsa; OL Scott Inskeep, Jr., UTSA; OL Nate Richards, Sr., Rice; OL Matt Shepperd, Jr., Louisiana Tech; OL Will Simmons, Sr., East Carolina; WR Justin Hardy, Jr., East Carolina; WR Ryan Grant, Sr., Tulane; WR Tommy Shuler, Jr., Marshall; TE Gator Hoskins, Sr., Marshall
DL Christian Covington, So., Rice; DL Justin Ellis, Sr., Louisiana Tech; DL Greg Hickman, Sr., FIU; DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Southern Miss; LB Shawn Jackson, Sr., Tulsa; LB Derrell Johnson, Sr., East Carolina; LB Andre Kirk, Jr., Florida Atlantic; DB Kevin Byard, So., Middle Tennessee; DB Lorenzo Doss, So., Tulane; DB Phillip Gaines, Sr., Rice; DB Marco Nelson, Sr., Tulsa
K Cairo Santos, Sr., Tulane; P Tyler Williams, So., Marshall; KR Reggie Whatley, Jr., Middle Tennessee; PR Trey Watts, Sr., Tulsa