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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: North Texas

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about North Texas...
2006 Record
3-9 (2-5 Sun Belt, Seventh)
Past Five Years
29-32 (24-10 Sun Belt)
Returning Starters, Roughly
14 (6 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
Safety Aaron Weathers was the Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year for finishing second in the league in tackles in 2005, his first year out of junior college, but he was only honorable mention all-SBC last year. Still led the team in tackles and is gunning for a third straight Joe Greene defensive MVP award.
Bizarre Tradition
Learn a great deal about North Texas traditions, such as inflatable helmets, chanting, delicious-looking hamburgers and longing for the halcyon days of the New Orleans Bowl, in this video (Real Player required), which sums up the UNT experience with the thrilling endorsement, "It’s not like high school." You may also notice UNT partisans seem to suffer in alarming numbers from arthritis, a result of the school hand sign, the Eagle Claw, as demonstrated above by a devoted hatchling.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
UNT won the most underrated game of 2006, a seven-overtime epic over Florida International that featured kickers Denis Hopovac and Dustin Rivest combining to go 3 of 11 on overtime field goals. The pair had strings of four consecutive and later three consecutive misses – none blocked – before Hopovac hit a 34-yarder to win, only four and a half hours after kickoff. In the kickers’ defense, only three of the eight misses would have been game-winners, and they didn’t get much help from the offenses, which only generated five first downs between them and never more than one on any of the 14 extra possessions.
I'm either going to have to pick up the pace of these previews or abandon completely my goal of chronicling every team in excruciating fashion by August - I only made it through ten absurd forecasts in the entire month of April, less than half the required rate. I vow increased consistency, to the extent it doesn't cut into my busy social life/poring over old clips of The Wire on YouTube.

What's Changed: North Texas was the model of conference dominance for the first half of the decade, losing its first ever Sun Belt game in 2001 before proceeding to rip off 25 in a row over the next four years. Uh, not no more: since losing to Troy early in 2005, the Mean Green is 3-10 in the league it completely owned and is breaking in a longtime high school coach to replace the one-time winner it fired last season - a month after he suffered a heart attack, no less - in the wake of a regression to pre-SBC ineptitude and more egregious embarrassments (like sneaking generic black uniforms onto players to "piss off" your athletic director, for example, or having pep talks interrupted by fistfighting assistants). At least Darrell Dickey had enough friends in Denton's high places to get the stadium named after him.

Anyway, Todd Dodge steps up to the campus level with this to work with:

UNT Passing in Sun Belt Games, 2006
Comp. % Yds. Per Att. TD INT Rating
MTSU 43.7 63 3.9 0 2 51.8
FIU 59.4 161 5.1 1 3 93.2
Ark. State 68.8 103 6.4 1 1 130.9
Troy 44 147 5.9 0 0 93.4
UL-Laf. 56.3 128 8.0 2 1 152.2
Fla. Atl. 61.1 84 4.7 0 3 67.0
UL-Monroe 52.4 63 3.0 0 2 58.5
Average 55.9 107 5.2 4 12 91.1

That rating and yards per attempt would be the worst in the nation if they carried over to UNT's overall numbers, which are padded by its lone competent-looking effort, against the 119th-ranked defense of Louisiana Tech. As it is, the overall numbers place the Mean Green 117th in passing and total offense and 115th in pass efficiency. The interception totals form a palindrome.

What is the new boss' answer to such aerial ineptitude? The spread, of course. Dodge's Carroll Dragons won 79 of 80 games and 48 in a row en route to four Texas 5-A championships in five years by adhering to his very Mahlzanian set, an up-tempo, multi-receiver look known as "Dodge Ball" that produced prolific Missouri starter Chase Daniel. It's a departure from the run-based, low-octane philosophy the Mean Green maintained under Dickey, and from the similar stodginess Dodge ran as coordinator for  then-I-AA  UNT in the early nineties. One Carroll playoff game last December drew five times the crowd (46,000) of an average North Texas audience over all of 2006.

Jamario Thomas tires of this unpleasantness
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What's the Same: The Mean Green offense is built to run, though, having not only found itself with a chronically pick-tossing Moe, Larry and Curly of a quarterback trio but also without its only remotely notable receiver, four-year starter and school record-holder Johnny Quinn, and a running back who once led the nation in total rushing as a freshman. Jamario Thomas, though, hasn't come close in the last two years combined to rivaling his 1,800-yard debut and has ended both with diminished carries and entire games missed due to injury. UNT's per carry continued to slide, all the way to 3.2 and below a yard and a half in four games against winning teams.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter: None of UNT's three quarterbacks attempted more than 100 passes last year, and none finished with better than 528 yards, so the spring game arrived with a sense of urgency answered by Daniel Meager, who's taken most of the snaps the last two years. He threw for 233 yards in a big win for the offense, almost twice as much as he's accounted for in any actual game to date in his career, most to diminutive Casey Fitzgerald, who obliterated his official career numbers with a 166-yard, two-touchdown afternoon. If Meager can just play well enough to be the full-time starter, for a change, it's a great leap forward, and it's his job to lose in the fall.

Also: more uniform changes?

North Texas on YouTube: For some idea of the gameday atmosphere in Denton, let these genial freshmen take you through an afternoon "gating on tails," as they say, during last September's Family Weekend clash with Middle Tennessee State:

Here is some extended game footage from MTSU, set to what sounds like a muzak version of generic Euro trance. Sorry for the memories, Mean Green fans.

See Also:  UNT's Green Brigade band does its own version of the wave ... Maybe the most impressive one of more than a dozen videos featuring the talents of ex-Mean Green star Brandon "Booger" Kennedy posted by user JohnDenver02 ... And though the comedy on campus might be raw, unapologetic and 100 percent derivative (Allen Konigsberg? Please, man...), College Nights Uncensored gives you reliably hormonal drunk people in various states of inebriation and undress at Denton's Rockin' Rodeo. Uh, Tony Romo?

Easier said than done, coach, and easier done in high school.
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Best-Case: Sun Belt schedules are usually filled with lucrative, masochistic dates against bigger schools looking for delicious, stat-padding, bowl-ensuring September appetizers, but UNT's only ventures into this class are at Oklahoma and Arkansas, which leaves an opening for taking out either SMU (which the Mean Green shut down in an 18-point win last year) or visiting Navy. My standing policy re: projecting Sun Belt games is to assume any team can beat any other team on any Saturday by four touchdowns, which has been the norm outside of UNT's defunct run of dominance, but having already judged what I gauge as league favorites Troy and UL-Monroe, I'm only willing to give the Mean Green a chance at beating one of them, most likely Monroe. It may challenge for the SBC title again, but won't win it. If the coach/spread transplant takes, UNT could be back in the seven-win range and challenge for one of the obscure mid-December bowls.

Worst-Case: Before upsetting SMU last September, North Texas hadn't won a non-conference game since early 2003 over Baylor, which means a very likely 1-4 record outside of the Sun Belt (I'll give them a win over I-AA Western Kentucky, transitioning into SBC membership in 2008) and little margin for error within if a bowl is the goal. UNT has only won two conference games each of the last two seasons and had to outlast the worst team in the Bowl Subdivision in seven overtimes to get one of those last year, so it's capable of losing to anyone at any time and finishing in the range of 2-10 again.

Non-Binding Forecast: I'm not sure Dodge deserves the benefit of the doubt coming into a horrible situation with possibly unsalvageable prospects at quarterback. Even if he doubles UNT's Sun Belt win total over the last two years, which would be significant improvement, it probably won't be enough to finish any better than 5-7. That might be a tad optimistic.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia