USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
One could base North Texas' preseason expectations on the Mean Green's returning talent, or the lack thereof: UNT brings back only nine starters, the fewest in Conference USA and the second-fewest in the Football Bowl Subdivision, ahead of only Utah State.
This is an issue, one would say, though it's largely tempered by the way this program has grasped Dan McCarney's system – a process that led the Mean Green from a combined nine wins from 2011-12 to a nine-win finish last fall, UNT's top single-season total since 2003.
But let's project UNT's coming season in the easiest way possible, one that touches slightly on the returning personnel while centering on the elephant in the room: this schedule.
The Mean Green will play 12 teams during the regular season, like everyone else; the Mean Green will play only two reigning bowl teams, however, which is … well, not like everyone else.
It's Texas to start and Rice on Oct. 25, with the latter joining a date with burgeoning monster Texas-San Antonio on Nov. 29 in determining UNT's final spot in the West Division's pecking order. The rest won't pack the seats nor ratchet up the ratings, but that's fine for McCarney and friends: UNT couldn't ask for an easier road.
Yet the smooth schedule does raise three potential negatives. For one, it's on UNT to take advantage – and do so with a changing cast of characters. Secondly, the scheduled doesn't provide many opportunities for national noise, which might be its biggest drawback. Finally, anything less than six wins would lead to a simple statement: UNT would be a major disappointment.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
What seems likely is that UNT starts slow, losing three games in non-conference play and suffering a few road losses to open Conference USA action before finding some success in November. What's the final number? As always, somewhere between three and five wins. There's not enough here to safely predict any sort of breakthrough.
In a nutshell: This was no ordinary breakthrough: UNT was really, really good. Good enough to beat Ball State, for example; good enough to put the fear of the almighty into Georgia before the Bulldogs pulled away in the final 25 minutes; good enough to beat Middle Tennessee State, Rice and UNLV; good enough to be viewed as one of the great surprises in college football. Let's give some love to McCarney and his cohorts along the sideline, a crew that stuck to the script during two uneventful seasons and saw its blueprint storm to fruition a year ago. As we look forward to 2014, it's this sense of a realized process – a scheme and style that has taken full hold – that should propel UNT forward behind a largely altered two-deep of personnel.
High point: Those notable wins, beginning with Rice, followed by Ball State, followed by Middle Tennessee, followed by UNLV. A highly impressive slate of victories coming out of Conference USA.
Low point: A loss to UTSA in the finale cost North Texas the West Division crown. The lone blemish on an otherwise sterling campaign.
Tidbit: No statistic underlines the Mean Green's success than the running game: UNT gained 2,099 yards and scored 29 touchdowns on 4.79 yards per carry in its nine wins, but gained only 250 yards and scored just twice on 2.50 yards per carry in the four defeats.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Texas Rangers' batters, first name starts M-
1. Michael Young
2. Mark Teixeira
3. Mike Hargrove
4. Mark McLemore
5. Mike Napoli
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: This running game, so vital to UNT's success – doubly so with a new starter under center – shouldn't miss a beat even without Brandin Byrd, a 1,000-yard rusher as a senior. That's due to the depth at the position: UNT will have a healthy senior Reggie Pegram (338 yards) by fall camp, which is huge, and returns junior Antoinne Jimmerson (446 yards), a major cog during the second half of last season. Though this pair will lead – and I see somewhere around 1,200 yards from the pair – the staff is also extremely high on sophomore Rex Rollins, a former defensive back who chipped in nicely in a speed-burst role before suffering a season-ending injury in October. Better yet, redshirt freshman Erick Evans flashed the sort of broken-tackles running style that should fit wonderfully into this rotation. The backfield is a strength.
And so is this line, by the way, which returns four of five starters and should set the tone for the entire offense – and the entire team, in my mind. The lone hole comes at right tackle, where UNT must replace LaChris Anyiam. But it shouldn't be hard: Cyril Lemon will move outside from right guard, and I have no doubt that he'll again earn first-team all-conference honors despite the position change. UNT will simply promote senior Shawn McKinney into Lemon's old spot at right guard, and he'll do well, while standing pat elsewhere: Antonio Johnson at left tackle, all-conference senior Mason Y'Barbo at right guard and sophomore Kaydon Kirby at center. The only major change could find sophomore Ryan Renfro vaulting ahead of Johnson, but I think UNT keeps Renfro in a swing-reserve role for one more season.
The receiver corps is young, however, making the entire passing game – due to the change at quarterback – a bit of a preseason concern. The lone sure thing is junior Carlos Harris (47 receptions for 553 yards), who must take another step forward to help UNT replace Brelan Chancellor and Darnell Smith. But Harris can't do it alone, obviously: UNT needs help from former Texas transfer Darius Terrell, who has lost some weight, as well as sophomore Darvin Kidsy (16 for 151), redshirt freshman Turner Smiley, former Iowa transfer John Chelf and as many as four incoming freshmen. It's going to take time for this rotation to round into form. At tight end, UNT will replace a very valuable option in Drew Miller with the combination of Tanner Smith and Marcus Smith. Production across the board takes a troubling hit.
Defense: UNT's push for increased depth in last year's line rotation will pay some dividends in 2014, as McCarney, defensive coordinator John Skladany and new position coach Kevin Patrick look to replace all four starters. Unfortunately, it's going to be extremely difficult for the Mean Green to duplicate last year's numbers in the pass rush; that task grew even harder with senior Quenton Brown's offseason ACL injury. Without Brown in the fold, UNT will look to build some edge pressure with the combination of senior Daryl Mason, junior Chad Polk (19 tackles) – a potential difference-maker on clear passing downs – and sophomores Malik Dilonga and Jarrian Roberts. UNT could also use redshirt freshman Sid Moore at end, but it seems more likely that he spends time with senior Alexander Lincoln (16 tackles), junior Austin Orr and sophomores Dutton Watson and Sir Calvin Wallace along the interior. The line is not up to last year's standard.
And a similar void must be filled at middle linebacker, where Zach Orr's production – on the field and off – will be wildly difficult to replace. His spot on the inside should go to sophomore Fred Scott, though two transfers – Blake Bean from Buffalo, Anthony Wallace from Oregon – could conceivably make a push during fall camp. The new leader on the second level is senior outside linebacker Derek Akunne (90 tackles), a clear all-conference contender tasked with ramping up his disruptiveness in the backfield. At the second outside spot, UNT seems to be leaning toward sophomore Sed Ellis, a 190-pound missile with the athleticism to succeed in space. If UNT wants to get bigger, it could replace Ellis with one of junior Jamal Marshall (17 tackles) and JUCO transfer A.J. Smith.
The secondary has enough talent to excel even if the defense struggles at times in the pass rush – which does seem like a strong possibility. The cornerback duo is strong: Kenny Buyers (78 tackles, 3 interceptions) and James Jones (67 tackles) grabbed hold of starting roles last offseason and never let go, developing confidence and momentum heading into 2014. The Mean Green can also tout a very capable producer at nickel back in junior Zach Whitfield (20 tackles, 3 interceptions), not to mention an up-and-coming future starter in sophomore Chad Davis. The back end takes a slight hit with the loss of Marcus Trice, though UNT hopes the competition between Freddie Warner and Sheldon Wade brings the most out of the two potential starters. There's no concerns at strong safety, where senior Lairamie Lee (74 tackles, 3 interceptions) is one of Conference USA's best.
Special teams: Expecting UNT to block another eight kicks and score another five special-teams touchdown seems silly, but not as silly as expecting the Mean Green to suddenly lose that ability to dictate the tempo in coverage, protection and the return game. The latter might be a slight concern, actually: Chancellor might have been the best in program history, so Kidsy – among others – will be under some pressure to deliver. The kicking game is steady behind kicker Zach Paul and punter Blake Macek.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: The safe bet was – and may still be – on junior Andrew McNulty, the Mean Green's primary backup in each of the last two seasons. He's also the only returning quarterback with any meaningful game experience, having played in 13 games during the last two years, starting once as a true freshman in 2011. But JUCO transfer Josh Greer showed enough during the spring to make his name in the competition, extending UNT's look at both potential starters until fall camp. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been redshirt freshman Dajon Williams, a flashes-of-talent underclassmen who enters the fall fourth on the two-deep, behind McNulty, Greer and true freshman Connor Means, the latter an early enrollee. If he sticks with the program, Williams could eventually develop into a starting-quality contributor. For now, however, the competition focuses on McNulty and Greer; I'd gamble on McNulty getting the nod, but he won't secure the job without a strong fall camp. He'd replace a multiple-year starter in Derek Thompson, but let's be honest: Thompson was experienced, but UNT could use an upgrade under center.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Rice: North Texas might be the least experienced of the three, but the Mean Green are still very much alongside Rice and UTSA atop the West Division. The division simply comes down to how well UNT can fare in these games, both on the road; since Rice comes first – on Oct. 25, with UTSA again the finale – let's call a matchup with the Owls the season's biggest game.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: So this is not just a bowl team – that's obvious – but also a team that could match last year's win total, thanks to one of the easiest schedules in college football. No game is a clear-cut loss; yes, that even includes Texas, which will still be in the grind of a learning curve under Charlie Strong and the Longhorns' first-year staff. That's still a likely loss, obviously, and Rice and UTSA bring enough to the table to project the Mean Green for third place in the West Division. But this team is going to make hay against this slate, winning at least seven and perhaps eight games during the regular season and returning to bowl play.
There just won't be many wins to write home about – the drawback of the schedule, as noted in the opening. All UNT can do is take care of business, staying focused on the divisional crown while remaining aware that anything less than six wins against this slate would be viewed as a major disappointment. Again, it's the kind of schedule that can help this team overcome five issues: one, the general lack of experience; two, the new starter at quarterback; three, the mixed bag along the defensive line; four, the loss of key leaders on defense; and five, the projected decline in the pass rush. McCarney and his staff have some work to do.
But there are also strengths here, with none bigger than UNT's potential dominance of the line of scrimmage on offense. The Mean Green win by running the football; this team will run the ball with forceful dominance against the majority of this schedule. In addition, UNT is strong in the secondary, deep in the backfield and led by a crackerjack coaching staff – so yeah, this team is taking six-plus before the postseason. As many as nine is possible, as is a West title, but I say either 7-5 or 8-4 with a third-place slot in the division.
Dream season: Coaching and on-field steadiness leads UNT to a 9-3 regular season and the West Division title.
Nightmare season: The lack of experience hurts UNT, which notches just five wins against this smooth-as-silk schedule.
Who's No. 64? This program is a combined 32-57 in years preceded by seasons with nine or more losses.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014