North Texas has gotten off to a rough start in its first season under new coach Seth Littrell.
The good news for the Mean Green heading into their Conference USA opener against Rice on Saturday is they have plenty of company in the league this year.
UTSA couldn’t hang on to a second-half lead and fell to Arizona State 32-28. Texas plastered UTEP 41-7, while Akron hammered perennial C-USA power Marshall 65-38.
Those are just a few of the tough losses suffered by C-USA teams this season, when the hits have kept coming on a weekly basis. The league is a combined 4-23 against teams from other Football Bowl Subdivision Conferences so far.
UNT (1-2) certainly hasn’t been exempt, dropping a game against rival SMU before being plastered by Florida 32-0 last week.
The Mean Green’s loss to the 23rd-ranked Gators certainly wasn’t a surprise, but UNT managed just 53 yards of offense.
UNT’s hope is that C-USA will offer an opportunity to get back on track and break through for its first win of the season against an FBS opponent, beginning with its game against Rice (0-3). The Mean Green beat Bethune-Cookman 41-20 for their only victory of the year.
The Wildcats compete in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The landscape of C-USA certainly provides the Mean Green hope they can to add to their win total over the next few weeks and jump into the race for the C-USA West Division title.
“I always think we can be a factor,” first-year UNT coach Seth Littrell said.
“I have a lot of confidence in our young men with the way they have bought in during the transition. We have plenty of talent. It’s about going out, executing and making plays. We have to keep getting a week better.”
UNT was picked to finish last in C-USA’s West Division before the season began.
The Mean Green have showed signs they could exceed expectations. UNT’s defense played well at times in its loss to the Gators last week and made two fourth-down stops.
Quarterback Mason Fine has also shown flashes of potential. The freshman guided the Mean Green to its win against Bethune-Cookman.
UNT looks at its C-USA slate as a way to put the disappointments of nonconference play behind them.
“Everyone starts off 0-0 in conference play,” Fine said. “Every goal we set is still there for us to grab. We can still be successful.”
UNT will have to get its offense rolling if it is to reach that goal. The Mean Green hit bottom last week when they were shut out by Florida and also struggled in a season-opening loss to SMU.
The Mean Green fell to the Mustangs 34-21, but had only 14 points before Fine led a late scoring drive after the game was already decided.
“We have nowhere to go but up offensively,” UNT wide receiver Thaddeous Thompson said.
UNT will need to improve if it hopes to keep pace in a season when several C-USA teams have standout quarterbacks returning.
Nick Mullens returns for Southern Miss after throwing for 4,476 yards. Brent Stockstill is back at Middle Tennessee after throwing for 4,005 yards, while Marshall’s Chase Litton amassed 2,605 yards in 2015.
UNT will face all three of those quarterbacks this season, and all of them are off to good starts. Litton is averaging 361.0 yards per game, while Stockstill is averaging 335.3 and Mullens 245.7.
UNT also will face Louisiana Tech and its quarterback Ryan Higgins, who is averaging 360.0 passing yards per game.
“Conference USA will be tough this year, especially with the quarterbacks who are coming back,” UNT linebacker Fred Scott said. “It’s a great league with a lot of competition. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Littrell has similar feelings about the strength of C-USA, despite the league’s tough run through the first few weeks of the season and a series of challenging nonconference games.
“Conference USA is a solid league,” Littrell said. “There are a lot of great coaches, great teams, great players. This year there will be a lot of parity.”
UNT heads into the conference season off a tough loss to Florida, but that setback hasn’t affected the confidence of the Mean Green’s players.
“We can compete with anyone in the league,” Scott said. “We just have to prepare, go out there and execute. We feel like we can win every game on our schedule.”
BRETT VITO can be reached can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.