The last time North Texas was in a situation like the one that arrived Wednesday, some of the members of its senior class were in the seventh grade.
The 2005 season was set to begin in a few weeks and the Mean Green was a unanimous pick to win the Sun Belt Conference in the preseason coaches poll.
UNT has changed coaches twice since then and played nine seasons, including last year’s breakout campaign. That run to a 9-4 finish and win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl created the momentum and reputation among the coaches in Conference USA that has made the Mean Green a favorite once again.
Those 13 coaches all voted in C-USA’s preseason poll and tabbed the Mean Green as the favorite in the league’s West Division by the narrowest of margins. UNT received 66 points in the poll, edging out Rice and Texas-San Antonio, which finished with 65 and 62 points, respectively.
Marshall was picked to win the East Division.
“There is a real obligation and responsibility with the guys on this team to live up to what we’ve built, the standards that we have set and the success that we just had,” UNT coach Dan McCarney said during spring practice. “If you don’t understand that then go on down the road and go someplace else. Everyone has to do something. Not any one guy has to do everything, but everyone has to do something.”
Maintaining the momentum they built last season could be a challenge for the players who return for UNT, which lost several of the key players from a team that earned just the third bowl win in program history. Quarterback Derek Thompson, the MVP of the Heart of Dallas Bowl, was a senior in 2013, as were safety Marcus Trice and linebacker Zach Orr.
Trice and Orr were first-team All-Conference USA selections last season.
UNT returns just nine starters, one of the lowest totals among Football Bowl Subdivision teams nationally.
The Mean Green also heads toward the season without having settled on a starting quarterback. Career backup Andrew McNulty and JUCO transfer Josh Greer battled for the starting job throughout spring practice and are expected to compete with redshirt freshman Dajon Williams in fall practice.
UNT will head into its season opener Aug. 30 at Texas as the favorite in C-USA’s West Division despite those challenges, largely because of the key players it returns in a few other areas, including its offensive line. The Mean Green returns four of its five starters, including starting guards Cyril Lemon and Mason Y’Barbo.
Lemon and Y’Barbo were named to the preseason All-C-USA team and were the Mean Green’s lone representatives on the squad. Each was named to the Lombardi Award watch list on Monday. Lemon was a first-team All-C-USA selection last season.
Marshall swept the preseason superlative honors. Quarterback Rakeem Cato garnered offensive player of the year honors, while lineman James Rouse was named the defensive player of the year.
There might not be a bigger question for UNT than who will fill the void left by so many of its top players, including Thompson, who finished second in program history with 7,447 passing yards.
“I fully expect the battle to go through the summer and into fall camp,” Greer said of the quarterback battle after the spring game. “No one really stood out as the full-time starter this spring. Someone has to step up, which is what I am trying to do.”
How Greer, McNulty or possibly Williams fill the void Thompson left could determine whether UNT lives up to lofty expectations the Mean Green has not experienced in years.
The Mean Green entered the 2005 season, when it last was picked to win its league in the preseason, off a fourth straight Sun Belt title. UNT crashed in a 2-9 season and hasn’t been picked higher than fourth in a preseason coaches poll since.
UNT was picked eighth in the Sun Belt three times before being projected to finish fifth in C-USA’s West Division last season.
The Mean Green’s fortunes turned last season during a year that saw UNT far exceed that projection.
The release of the C-USA preseason poll showed that UNT’s performance in 2013 dramatically changed its expectations this fall.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
The following is the Conference USA preseason coaches poll, which was voted on by the league’s 13 head coaches:
1. North Texas
3. Texas-San Antonio
4. Louisiana Tech
5. Southern Mississippi
2. Middle Tennessee
3. Florida Atlantic
4. Western Kentucky
5. Old Dominion
7. Florida International
Preseason All-Conference USA team
The following is the preseason All-Conference USA team that was selected by the league’s 13 head coaches:
Offensive Player of the Year — Rakeem Cato, Sr., QB, Marshall
Defensive Player of the Year — James Rouse, Sr., DL, Marshall
Special Teams Player of the Year — Hunter Mullins, Sr., P, UAB
Offense — QB Rakeem Cato, Sr., Marshall; RB Kenneth Dixon, Jr., Louisiana Tech; RB Aaron Jones, So., UTEP; OL Scott Inskeep, Sr., Texas-San Antonio; OL Chris Jasperse, Sr., Marshall; OL Cyril Lemon, Sr., North Texas; OL Clint Van Horn, Jr., Marshall; OL Mason Y’Barbo, Sr., North Texas; WR Jamarcus Nelson, Sr., UAB; WR Tommy Shuler, Sr., Marshall; WR Jordan Taylor., Sr., Rice; TE Eric Tomlinson, Sr., UTEP
Defense — DL Vernon Butler, Jr., Louisiana Tech; DL Christian Covington, Jr., Rice; DL Ra'Shawde Myers, Sr., Marshall; DL James Rouse, Sr., Marshall; LB T.T. Barber, Sr., Middle Tennessee; LB Evan McKelvey, Sr., Marshall; LB Andrae Kirk, Jr., Florida Atlantic; DB Kevin Byard, Jr., Middle Tennessee; DB Bryce Callahan, Sr., Rice; DB D’Joun Smith, Sr., Florida Atlantic; DB Triston Wade, Sr., UTSA
Special Teams — K Sean Ianno, Sr., UTSA; P Hunter Mullins, Sr., UAB; KR Autrey Golden, Jr., UTEP; PR Kenny Harrison, Sr., UTSA; LS Jesse Medrano, Sr., UTSA