Dan McCarney talked to his players about the USA Today coaches poll in the days leading up to the Mean Green’s game tonight against Southern Mississippi.
North Texas’ head coach is a voter and pays attention to all the ups and downs when it comes to the top-ranked teams in college football.
He spent a lot of time discussing the downs — the upsets and critical losses — this week as a cautionary tale with his players who are suddenly riding high.
UNT (4-3, 2-1 Conference USA) has won consecutive games for the first time since 2004 and is just two wins short of becoming bowl-eligible, with a host of what look like winnable games left on the schedule. A game against Southern Miss (0-6, 0-2) seems like arguably the most winnable of all, which is exactly what McCarney warned his players about.
UNT doesn’t want to start overlooking opponents and stumble down the stretch against a team like Southern Miss, which has lost 18 straight games dating to the beginning of last season.
“I know how tough this game is going to be and how excited they are going to be to play us,” McCarney said. “We are a homecoming opponent again, and they are having a blackout game. You don’t do those kinds of things and circle those games unless you feel like you have a chance to win.”
Southern Miss has had opportunities to win this year, especially at home, only to see them slip away. The Golden Eagles lost to Florida International 24-23 and lost a 22-15 game to Texas State.
Today’s game will be the Eagles’ third at home this season.
UNT’s players know that Southern Miss has nothing to lose and likely will throw everything into beating the Mean Green in the hope that it can get something going in the second half of its first season under former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
“It’s their homecoming and their blackout game,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said. “They are going to do everything they can to pack the stadium and make it really hard on us.”
Southern Miss made one key move this week to try to inject some life into its team, elevating lightly recruited freshman quarterback Nick Mullens into the starting lineup in place of senior Allan Bridgford.
Mullens came on last week in a 55-14 loss to East Carolina and threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes after Southern Miss had fallen behind 55-0.
“What Nick showed us Saturday was his ability to create when things break down,” Monken said. “The bottom line is we need a spark.”
UNT’s defense has provided a lift for the Mean Green during its recent surge. UNT beat Middle Tennessee 34-7 two weeks ago, then came back to beat Louisiana Tech 28-13.
The Mean Green’s defense has given up only one touchdown in each of its last three games and appears to be adapting to playing under coordinator John Skladany, who is in his second year at UNT.
“Our defense is becoming more confident,” UNT linebacker Derek Akunne said. “We know the scheme pretty well now.”
Monken said he can sense that UNT is improving after looking at the Mean Green this week.
“They’re really good,” Monken said. “We’ve played some really good teams and they are as good as any of them, not in any one particular thing other than their effort. What they do, they do well.”
UNT hasn’t been as consistent offensively but has made progress. Brandin Byrd became the first UNT running back to clear the 100-yard mark this season two weeks ago when he posted 139 yards in the Mean Green’s win over MTSU, while Thompson threw for 221 yards while completing 16 of 24 pass attempts last week in UNT’s win over Louisiana Tech.
The Mean Green will look to build on that win today and extend its winning streak against the team that ended its last run. UNT rolled into the 2004 New Orleans Bowl on a seven-game winning streak, only to fall to Southern Miss.
The circumstances surrounding today’s game will be much different. UNT is expected to roll, but that doesn’t mean the Mean Green won’t heed McCarney’s warning about the potential for an upset.
“They are a good team that is just having some problems,” Akunne said. “They could be a dangerous team. We know they are going to play hard.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.
UNT at SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI
When: 6 p.m.
Where: M.M. Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg, Miss.
Records: UNT 4-3, 2-1 Conference USA; Southern Miss 0-6, 0-2 C-USA
Last meeting: Southern Miss 31, UNT 10 (2004 New Orleans Bowl)
Last week: UNT 28, Louisiana Tech 13; East Carolina 55, Southern Miss 14
Series: Southern Miss leads 4-3
TV: Fox College Sports
Radio: KHYI-FM 95.3, KNTU-FM 88.1