UNT in mix with West Division favorites off to slow start
North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson went home to Glen Rose, while linebacker Zach Orr sat in front of a big screen with teammates and friends watching some of the top-ranked teams go at it, including LSU and Georgia.
Head coach Dan McCarney — as always — was locked in studying the Mean Green’s next opponent, which in this case was Tulane.
Keeping track of what was transpiring across the landscape of Conference USA wasn’t anyone’s priority at UNT during the Mean Green’s bye last weekend.
And yet, just about everyone at UNT readily admitted this week that they kept tabs on what was going on and couldn’t help but be encouraged.
Rice barely snuck by Florida Atlantic, while Tulsa fell to Iowa State. The two teams that were supposed to be the big boys in C-USA’s West Division suddenly don’t look quite so intimidating, not with a 2-2 record in the case of Rice and the 1-3 at Tulsa.
“It’s pretty obvious that this league is wide open,” McCarney said. “Some people might not have believed it before the season and thought that there were dominant, elite teams that were out in front of everyone else. I don’t know if that is the case right now. It just seems like through the first month of football that it is wide, wide open. That’s exciting for us.”
That’s especially true considering the vast improvement UNT has made since the end of last year.
The Mean Green hammered Idaho in its season opener 40-6 and rallied from 18 points down to for a 34-27 win over Ball State, which is now 4-1.
Even UNT’s losses have been impressive. The Mean Green had a chance to drive for a game-winning score late in a 27-21 loss to Ohio (3-1).
Two weeks ago, UNT was locked in a 21-all tie in the third quarter with ninth-ranked Georgia before the Bulldogs pulled away for a 45-21 win.
UNT’s players and coaches have developed confidence throughout nonconference play, which they say could make a difference in C-USA, where the Mean Green was an afterthought in the preseason. UNT was picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches poll.
“If we execute and do what we need to do, we will have a shot,” UNT running back Brandin Byrd said of the conference title chase. “We are confident.”
Evidence of improvement evident for Mean Green
One glance at the way UNT has produced when compared with last year’s team shows why the Mean Green heads into C-USA play feeling like it has a load of momentum.
UNT suffered from myriad issues last season while finishing 4-8, perhaps none more pressing than an offense that was stuck in neutral for most of the year.
The Mean Green averaged just 20.9 points per game. UNT hasn’t lit up the scoreboard this year but has shown signs of improvement. Offensive coordinator Mike Canales has the Mean Green playing at a faster pace and Thompson playing arguably the best football of his career, helping UNT put up 29.0 points a game.
Thompson has connected on 67.6 percent of his passes through the first four games of the season and is throwing for an average of 255.0 yards per game. Both totals are dramatic improvements over a year ago, when Thompson completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 220.8 yards a game.
UNT’s special teams play also has improved dramatically.
Wide receiver Brelan Chancellor returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and cornerback Zac Whitfield recovered a punt that safety Marcus Trice blocked for another touchdown in UNT’s loss to Georgia.
UNT’s special teams were a weakness until new coordinator Tommy Perry took over and helped the Mean Green improve dramatically this season.
UNT heads into conference play averaging 23.4 yards per punt return after managing just 17 total yards on eight returns last year. UNT’s kickoff return average has jumped to 26.0 yards an attempt from 19.2 yards a return last year.
“The guys needed to see some success, some hope and buy into the idea that ‘special teams can help our team win or that special teams can help get me a job in the NFL or get me a spot on the bus,’” Perry said. “Those things are starting to sink in.”
C-USA preseason favorites struggling early on
While UNT seemingly has moved into position to exceed expectations thanks to the improvements it has made since the end of last season, some of the teams that were expected to roll through C-USA have yet to live up to their preseason billing.
Tulsa was a unanimous pick to win the West Division title, while Rice and Louisiana Tech were slated second and third, respectively, in the coaches poll. The trio of teams generally was considered the class of the division.
The Golden Hurricane has yet to play a conference game and is certainly capable of turning its season around, but has lost three games by at least 17 points and barely snuck by Colorado State, 30-27. The Rams are 2-3 with one of those wins coming against Cal Poly, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.
Rice returned 19 starters from a team that won six of its last seven games, including a win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, but the Owls have yet to find their form. Had it not been for two late turnovers by FAU last week, Rice might not have rallied for an 18-14 win.
“We’ve got to do a better job coaching these young men where we’re not making these mistakes,” Rice coach David Bailiff told the Houston Chronicle following a loss to rival Houston this season.
That’s not to say that UNT doesn’t have issues of its own.
While UNT has played better on the road this season than in the past, the Mean Green still enters this week’s game at Tulane riding a six-game road losing streak and is just 2-13 away from Apogee Stadium under McCarney.
UNT’s offense has improved but still has fallen flat at times. The Mean Green managed just one offensive touchdown against Georgia.
The Mean Green has its warts just like every other team in the West Division. What has changed is that the other teams in the division seem to have just as many flaws — ones that were not apparent at the beginning of the season.
Back then, it appeared as if UNT was a notch below Tulsa, Rice and Louisiana Tech.
Now it looks like the Mean Green might have just as good a chance as any team in the league to contend for the conference title as it heads New Orleans to open C-USA play at Tulane.
“The goal is to win the championship,” Thompson said. “Why not? There is not a team that has blown everyone away or is in the Top 25. It’s there for the taking.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
C-USA West Division
The following is a look at the teams in Conference USA’s West Division in the order they were picked to finish in the preseason coaches poll:
1. Tulsa (1-3, 0-0 C-USA) — The Golden Hurricane was a unanimous pick to win the West Division title and will look to repeat as division champion after a tough 1-3 showing in nonconference play.
2. Rice (2-2, 1-0) — The Owls returned 19 starters from a team that won six of its last seven games, including a win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl, but struggled to beat Florida Atlantic in its C-USA opener last week.
3. Louisiana Tech (1-4, 0-1) — Louisiana Tech has lost three straight, switched quarterbacks and looks nothing like a team that finished 9-3 a year ago in its first season under Skip Holtz after Sonny Dykes left to coach California.
4. UTEP (1-3, 0-1) — The Miners rank 112th nationally in scoring defense with an average of 38.5 points per game allowed under first-year head coach Sean Kugler.
5. North Texas (2-2, 0-0) — UNT heads into C-USA play with confidence after beating Idaho and Ball State and hanging with national power Georgia into the third quarter of its last game.
6. Tulane (3-2, 1-0) — Perhaps the biggest surprise thus far in C-USA after beating in-state rivals Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe.
7. Texas-San Antonio (2-3, 1-0) — UTSA picked up a 32-13 win over UTEP and has performed better than expected in its first season in C-USA.