Guarantees, Gators & growth
Wren Baker is sorting through a host of challenges in his new role as North Texas’ athletic director.
Football scheduling is near the top of that list as UNT prepares for its game at No. 23 Florida on Saturday.
The Mean Green and coach Seth Littrell will have a chance to pull off an upset — a goal that has seemed like an impossible dream for UNT through the years.
The Mean Green have played teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 a total of 47 times and have only one win to show for it. Legendary coach Hayden Fry led UNT to a 14-9 victory against 20th-ranked San Diego State in 1974.
UNT has lost 37 straight against Top 25 teams since.
Baker would like to end that drought sooner rather than later while improving UNT’s football schedule.
“We have to establish a schedule that allows us to be successful and build this program,” Baker said. “Coach Littrell and I need to sit down and talk about a schedule that will maximize our potential.”
UNT has followed a consistent formula in recent years. UNT plays one game for which it receives a large guaranteed payout and one game against an opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision or another game the Mean Green appear likely to win.
UNT added a yearly series with SMU in 2014 and has filled out the rest of its schedule with additional short-term series. The Mean Green have faced Indiana, Houston, Ball State and Ohio in home-and-home series in the past decade.
UNT will receive a $1 million payout for playing Florida.
Baker said that money can be beneficial, but he would prefer to eliminate those paycheck games while fulfilling his three main scheduling objectives.
“You want to make sure you have at least six home games,” Baker said. “You also want to make sure that you schedule games that are meaningful for fans, and you want to put together a schedule that allows you to be successful.”
Baker left open the possibility of exploring a number of options to make those goals a reality, including signing new home-and-home agreements, two-for-one contracts, deals including neutral-site games and moving games currently on a UNT schedule that is booked solid for the next few years.
One series UNT would like to continue is its annual showdown with Dallas-Fort Worth rival SMU.
“Personally, I like the SMU game,” Baker said. “We are always going to recruit inside the Metroplex first. That is a game with two DFW-area teams. The fans I talked to liked the game. In talking to [SMU athletic director] Rick Hart, SMU likes that game. Both teams have interest in extending it. The crowds are good.”
UNT drew a crowd of 24,718 for its season-opening loss to SMU, the seventh-largest home crowd in Mean Green history.
Baker said he plans to sit down with Littrell to discuss a scheduling strategy in the next few days.
Littrell didn’t offer an opinion this week on the direction UNT should go in terms of scheduling. He vowed to put his trust in Baker to create a schedule that will help bring in large crowds and rebuild a program that has enjoyed only one winning season in 11 years.
“They make the schedule and I play it,” Littrell said. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. We are going to prepare. We feel like going into every game we have a chance to be successful.”
Getting their shot
Senior linebacker Fred Scott has played in some of college football’s great venues and faced ranked teams during his UNT career.
Several of those games have turned into tough losses, including a 38-7 setback at No. 24 Texas in 2014 and a 45-21 loss at No. 9 Georgia in 2013. UNT gave the Bulldogs fits early and had the game tied at 21 early in the third quarter before Georgia pulled away.
Scott and several UNT players said although those games often don’t turn out well for the Mean Green, they enjoyed the opportunity to play nationally ranked teams.
“We get to show the world what we can do,” Scott said. “It’s a great opportunity and a great challenge. Everyone on the team loves a challenge.”
Mason Fine is among UNT’s players who look forward to facing Florida. UNT’s freshman quarterback will face perhaps the biggest challenge among Mean Green players on Saturday. Fine is expected to start his second straight game when UNT takes on the Gators.
Fine made his starting debut against Bethune-Cookman last week and played in UNT’s opener against SMU.
“Florida is a big program,” Fine said. “I’m excited for the opportunity. We have to go out there, play our game and execute. We are going in there with confidence and the mindset that we will win.”
That is the attitude Littrell has tried to instill in his players.
“We are never going to fear anybody,” Littrell said. “We are going to go out and compete, play the game the way it should be played, and at the end of the day we will see how we stack up.”
Shooting for the moon
J.T. Smith has a unique perspective when it comes to what a win against a team like Florida would mean for the Mean Green.
Smith was a star UNT defensive back when the Mean Green beat San Diego State in 1974 at Fouts Field. The Aztecs were No. 20 in the AP poll at the time.
San Diego State went on to finish 8-2-1 and win the Pacific Coast Athletic Association title.
“We had a pretty good team with a good coaching staff that had us prepared,” Smith said. “That is what North Texas will have to do this year. The coaching staff will have to have the guys prepared.”
UNT trailed in the first half against San Diego State before rallying behind quarterback Ken Washington.
“We said we are better than this,” Smith said. “The defense got it going and then Kenny got the offense going. We built momentum.”
UNT didn’t win any of its last three games after knocking off San Diego State and finished 2-7-2. A win against the Aztecs seemed to change the course of UNT football history anyway.
The Mean Green came back to finish 7-4 and knock off Tennessee the next year.
UNT finished 10-1 in one of the best seasons in its history in 1977, three years after the Mean Green’s last win against a ranked team helped spark the program’s rise.
UNT will enter its game at Florida looking for its first win against a ranked team in nearly 42 years. The game will take place at a time when UNT is examining the way it schedules games.
Baker wants to give the Mean Green their best chance to be successful and upset a ranked team, just like Smith and his teammates did so long ago.
Littrell will have a say in UNT’s scheduling as well, but he is focused on his first opportunity against a ranked team.
UNT is a 36 1/2-point underdog for its game against the Gators, not that it matters to Littrell.
“Being an underdog doesn’t mean anything to me,” Littrell said. “It really doesn’t matter. Every single week, underdogs win.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
UNT'S FUTURE SCHEDULE
The following is a look at North Texas’ nonconference opponents through the 2021 season:
Home — Lamar, Army
Away — SMU, Iowa
Home — SMU, Incarnate Word
Away — Army, Arkansas
Home — Abilene Christian, Army
Away — SMU, Wisconsin
Home — SMU, Houston Baptist
Away — Army, Texas A&M
Home — Army, Rhode Island
Away — SMU, Missouri